Make America work again

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Something vital is missing in the presidential debate so far: Neither candidate has a vision on how to make government work better.

Americans are a practical people. But political debate offers no practical path to deal with social challenges. Most understand, for example, that “defund the police” goes too far. Who else will protect us against criminals? Tolerating abusive police, on the other hand, is clearly unacceptable. Restoring trust and respect to police requires changing the way they are trained and supervised. Americans need a practical vision of how to fix what’s broken. Instead, extremists on both sides have taken over political debate: Are you for the police, or against them?

Republicans say they’ll “drain the swamp” by de-regulating. Democrats have a full agenda of programs to expand government: universal health care, racial justice, climate change, income stagnation, LGBT rights … Nowhere in either platform is there any plan to fix broken bureaucracies. Our choice is this: Are you for government, or against it?

Having no vision to address Americans’ frustrations with government is especially dangerous to Democrats, because alienated voters have nowhere to look except Republicans. Voter trust in government is near all-time lows. There was a time, in the early 1960s, when government enjoyed the trust of 75 percent of Americans. Today, it ranks 25th out of 25 in approval ratings of American organizations and industries.

The Manichean approach to government reform almost entirely misses the cause of voter alienation. Americans aren’t angry because government aims too high — most Americans want Medicare, clean air, and protection against pandemics. What drives Americans nuts is the clumsy way government does things, forcing Americans to act against their best judgment. Nothing much works sensibly. The botched response to COVID-19 earlier in the year was caused not only by bad leadership, but by bureaucratic hurdles that delayed testing. Burning “firebreaks” to contain wildfires in California was not possible in most areas because of mandated environmental reviews.

On practically a daily basis Americans are frustrated by the inability of anyone to use common sense. Health care providers are bogged down in so much red tape that a third of the health care dollar goes to administration (about $1 trillion annually) and doctors spend two hours on desk work for every hour with patients. Getting a permit to fix a broken bridge can take upwards of a decade. The main reason police are unmanageable are rigid union work rules and impregnable protections against accountability. Ditto for teachers and civil servants. These are all flaws caused by a calcified public operating system, not by public goals.

Public paralysis is not a new phenomenon. Ruling structures become inbred and take a life of their own. The difference in America is that there’s no tyrant to depose, no Caesar or Ceausescu, and no obvious villain, such as factory bosses defending “laissez-faire” government. The villain is a bureaucratic blob, constantly fed, inadvertently, by each of us — by public unions claiming to defend the rights of public employees, by senior citizen groups indifferent to the financial burdens imposed on grandchildren, by environmental groups who stymie good projects by retaining power to block bad ones, and by party bosses who gerrymander safe seats rather than competing for the common good.

The overall effect is similar to a tyranny: Democracy has been rendered inert and unresponsive to the society it supposedly serves. Except for the occasional crisis, government goes where it went yesterday. The job of interest groups is to keep it that way. The inability of government to respond to societal needs leads to growing frustration, which leads to extremist demands, which leads to a downward spiral of polarization. Politicians compete not by action but by pointing fingers.

The cure to public paralysis is to replace the bureaucratic blob with simpler framework, more like the Constitution, that reempowers officials and citizens alike to get things done. The Framers intended to create a republic where officials would act on their best judgment, not an inhuman machine where public decisions are preset in millions of words of rigid dictates and one-size-fits-all.

Governing doesn’t have to be this hard: Thick rulebooks can become thin pamphlets in a framework that gives people responsibility and holds them accountable. An excellent new book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, “The Wake-Up Call,”

is the latest serious analysis that concludes that modern government must be rebooted to make America work again.

Rebooting government’s operating system will require an overwhelming public mandate because most insiders will oppose it. But it will be popular: A 2019 survey found that two-thirds of Americans think “major structural changes are needed to the US system of government.”

America is at a crossroads. This feels like a moment where, as in Russia in 1917, anything could happen. But our choice shouldn’t be limited to getting rid of government or dramatically expanding inept government. How about making government work?

Philip K. Howard is an attorney and author of “Try Common Sense.” He is founder of Campaign for Common Good.


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