Close window  |  View original article

Progressives' Union Dilemma 1

It's hard to build faith in government when it's failing at everything.

By Will Offensicht  |  June 10, 2014

Starting around the late 1800's, a group of political activists who called themselves "progressives" decided that ordinary people weren't smart enough to run their own lives. They were convinced that people sholuld follow instructions from their betters.  Feudal lords had the same attitude towards their serfs back in the Middle Ages..

Most Americans were independent-minded enough not to appreciate being told what to do; progressives knew that they needed the force of law and the threat of fines or imprisonment to compel people to do what was good for them.  In order to get that power, they needed first to persuade people that their motives were pure and modern, and that they would bring about scientific efficiency and good government for the benefit of all.

The reality is quite different, as we see a century and more into the progressive era.

We see a perfect illustration of progressivism in Vice President Joe Biden's assertion that all great ideas for the past century came from government.  President Obama's speeches show that he believes that the government is the preferred source of all good for all people, whether citizens or not.

Liberal politicians blithely assume that if they write enough 1,000-page laws, the bureaucracy will carry out their good intentions perfectly, all for the greater good.  Lawmakers expect to benefit, of course, because grateful citizens will re-elect them.

Over the last 20 years or so, however, it's becoming more and more obvious that our government can't do anything well, not even deploy a web site or get the Pentagon and VA hospital computer systems to communicate.  Repeated, expensive, deadly failure makes it hard for liberals to claim that their programs will benefit anyone other than more government employees and assorted lobbyists.


The report "A Nation at Risk," which pointed out grave flaws in our public education system, was published in 1983, more than 30 years ago.

Since then, innumerable new programs have been started and real education spending per pupil has more than doubled.  In spite of all the sound, fury, and spending, educational outcomes have gotten worse.  Entrenched interests have screamed about an imaginary lack of funds for so long that it's become a joke, yet wherever any truly revolutionary experiments like vouchers are tried, they're shot down with maximum prejudice.

Health Care

During the Obamacare debates, the New York Times repeatedly cited the Veterans Administration as an example of how superbly government would run our health care system once those obstructionist Republicans were bulldozed out of the way.  They were wrong.  We now know that VA bureaucrats falsified wait time records to receive performance bonuses.  As many as 40 veterans seem to have died while waiting for treatment that they could have received at nearby private hospitals if only the VA had admitted that they'd waited too long.

These problems go back decades.  There have been 19 official reports on substandard VA performance since 2005.  Before he ran for president, Senator Obama criticized Mr. Bush for mismanaging VA health care.  He promised that, when he became president, he'd do something about it.

And he did: not only did he increase the health care budget by 76% while the number of veterans went up 18%, Mr. Obama also ordered the VA to cut wait times.  Unfortunately, it was simpler for the bureaucrats to falsify records to collect bonuses than to actually reduce wait times, just as teachers found it was easier to collect bonuses via false student test scores than to actually teach the material.  Bureaucracies do what you inspect, not what you expect, and they'll dummy up what they think you'll inspect if they can figure out a way to get away with it.  End result: more money spent, less achieved.

Infrastructure Maintenance

Expensive failure is not unique to the federal government.

The Boston Herald reported that the state of Massachusetts has allowed so many bridges to fall behind on maintenance that they need billions of extra dollars to catch up.  The Herald documented their story with a photo of a bridge which badly needs maintenance.

The bridge is failing because the metal is rusting away.  Why is the metal rusting?  Because it hasn't been painted.

Keeping a list of all the bridges in the state and knowing roughly how fast the paint falls off each one is the sort of task in which a bureaucracy should excel.  Indeed, the Herald was given a precise count of all the highway bridges in the state.

Although the Massachusetts bureaucracy can count bridges, it can't paint them on a timely basis.  This isn't rocket science.  A century ago, a painting crew started painting the Brooklyn Bridge.  By the time they finished, it was time to start over at the beginning.  Painting the Brooklyn Bridge is a constant job, another thing bureaucracies both excel at and love to create.

Highway bridges are slightly different in that, while you may have a permanent crew of painters, you have to know when and where to send the crew to paint each one.  If the Massachusetts transportation workers are anything like Chicago sanitation engineers, they put in 4 to 6 hours per day instead of working the 8 hours they're paid for.

Instead of reorganizing the department, contracting out the maintenance, or buying a giant bridge warranty and maintenance plan from a major construction firm, the Massachusetts legislature decided to pour more money into their demonstrably incompetent bureaucracy by raising the gasoline tax.  In the meantime, the bridges are still rusting away, and it wouldn't be surprising if one of them fell down.  Instead of admitting fault, the bureaucracy would scream about inadequate funding, just as they did when 3 kids in state care were raped or killed.

We've seen a few brief examples which show that our modern government can't do simple things which our government was perfectly well able to do 50 or 100 years ago.  None of these will be particularly new or surprising to regular readers of Scragged, so why did we bother?  You'll find out in the next article in this series, where we explore the common elements of these problems and why we can't expect workable solutions in the current political climate.