The Levers of Power

Do our elected leaders actually control our government?

For many years, American voters and media have talked about the "levers of power."  The concept is a shorthand analogy which communicates the idea that an election determines who pulls on the levers of power, and that manipulating the levers determines what the government does.

Before we talk about levers of power, it's helpful to define precisely what we mean by "power" both in the personal and the political sense.  To be realistic, people want power because they want other people to do what they tell them to do.  A sufficiently persuasive person can achieve compliance without having a lot of power, but persuasion isn't as effective and often takes much longer than power-oriented people prefer.

In terms of getting cooperation, power comes in two forms known as "carrots" and "sticks."  We use carrots to reward people for doing as we desire and sticks to punish them for not doing what we want or doing something else instead.

All of us have the ability to use carrots: we all have money, which is a very effective means of persuasion.  We can make people do what we want by paying them to do it; that's called hiring them.  We can also make people give us things we want by giving them money for them; that's called buying stuff.

There isn't a whole lot of confusion about paying people to do what you want; the question is, how can you punish people for doing what you don't want?

Suppose someone cuts you off in traffic.  As a mere peasant, you don't have the power to do anything about it - but a policeman can turn on his lights and give the offender a ticket.  A powerful enough politician can phone a policeman, give the license number, and the offender will suffer even if the officer has no proof that any wrong was committed.

Your Money Can't Always Save You

Being a billionaire doesn't always mean that your money will get you what you want.  California law recognizes private property, but also defines all beaches as public property.

A California billionaire built an expensive house on a cove with a beautiful beach.  He has tried to keep the unwashed masses from putting unsightly footprints on what he considers to be his beach and blocking his view by walking in front of him.  The masses have been beating him in court because California law not only says clearly that the beach is public property up to the high-water mark, but that he must also freely allow access to the sacred sand across his property if there's no other way to reach it.

Then there's the story of Mr. Trump expanding his casino in Atlantic City.  He needed a woman's house to complete his parking lot.  She wouldn't sell, so he tried to take it through eminent domain - and couldn't.  Not only that, her lawsuits delayed the project so long that the full project was never funded and today Mr. Trump is no longer active in Atlantic City.  In what sense did the billionaire "win" his dispute with the widow?

On the other hand, Peter Thiel, the first billionaire to support Mr. Trump's run for the presidency, helped sue a website named Gawker into oblivion.  Gawker had published a videotape which embarrassed Hulk Hogan of World Wrestling fame.  Mr. Thiel gave him the money to sue Gawker; the jury found against Gawker which put the website out of business.

This made news because it's so rare.  Although someone suing you privately can cost you a lot of money and aggravation, it is not all that easy for a private citizen to destroy you even if they're insanely rich.

The Power to Destroy

It's been known for centuries that government's power to tax gives government the power to destroy, but it's also child's play for government officials, even petty, low-level officials, to cause you great harm.  Joe the Plumber asked a question which embarrassed Candidate Obama in 2010.  He lost his job when state employees who resented his awkward question of their favored candidate released private information about him.  Their illegal leak wasn't punished, of course, and nobody seemed to expect that it ever would be.

We've shown how child protection workers were able to order a father to leave his home after a ball park concession worker accidentally gave his son alcoholic lemonade.  The article showed how heedless bureaucracy is also found in private businesses, but victims of private businesses have ways to get relief.

The City of Milwaukee seized a $245,000 house from an emotionally-challenged owner whose parents had just died to pay a $50 fine for parking an unregistered car in his own driveway.

Also in Milwaukee, Mr. Khan followed all the rules and sold his wife's jewelry to open a restaurant, yet an alderman got the city to retract his food service license just as he was about to open his store because he simply did not care for the type of food he sold.  As George Washington put it, "Government, like fire, is an untrustworthy servant and a fearful master."

Don't Forget the Carrots

Government not only wields sticks, it dispenses carrots to friends of politicians. We discussed three projects in Massachusetts; in just one, the state lost $10 million on Evergreen Solar while well-connected real estate barons made $18 million buying the state-funded Evergreen factory out of bankruptcy and flipping it.

The Gothamist reported that the "Insanely Expensive" Phase 1 of the Second Avenue subway line in New York City cost $2.4 billion per mile, a world's record.  That's about $300,000 per foot tunneled.  Where did all the money go?  Are our city governments unusually corrupt?  It would be most interesting to find out how much was donated to which politicians by the contractors who did the work.

These are only a sampling of the many anecdotes which show that our government has awesome powers both to reward and to punish.

While it was against the law for government employees to release Joe the Plumber's protected information, for the IRS to harass Mr. Obama's political opponents, for our "Justice" department to wiretap journalists and political opponents, or for people to leak classified information about Mr. Trump's activities, nobody is punished for these felonies.  Thus, a great deal of power falls to low-level government employees who can be fairly sure they won't be punished for illegal acts so long as higher-ups seem to benefit.

For our purposes, then, the levers of government power means: the ability for elected officials or government employees to arbitrarily damage or reward individual citizens with essentially no recourse.  The Boston Herald reported Gov. Deval's financial shenanigans in detail, but Massachusetts taxpayers didn't seem to mind.  Mr. Obama's abuses of power are well known, but only right-wing media criticize him for this.

The question of the hour is, now that President Trump has seized the levers of power, whom will he destroy and whom will he reward?  And even more pertinently: can he?

Levers?  Strings?  Or Wet Noodles?

We tend to think of the government's "levers of power" as working like the accelerator in an old fashioned car.  Pushing the pedal moved a cable which moved a plate in the carburetor to make the engine go faster or slower.

Modern pedals look the same, but they're not.  Today's electronic computer-controlled engines regard what you do with the pedals as merely one of many inputs to decide what the engine should do - which is why it is now possible to remotely hack and take over someone else's car from across the country.  You're no more connected to your engine than the captain of the Titanic was connected to his.

As you may remember from the movie, when the lookout yelled "Iceberg ahead," the captain ordered "All astern full."  Someone on the bridge moved the engine room telegraph lever from Full Ahead to Full Astern, but this didn't affect the engine.  It simply rang a bell which told the engineers to look and see what the captain had ordered, and then they adjusted the controls - after some delay, which turned out to be critical.

President Trump isn't going to arrest anyone himself, nor is he going to write government checks to his friends.  To do anything at all, he has to work through a vast bureaucracy, most of whose employees have no intention of letting him drain the swamp as he promised the voters.

This problem was described decades ago.  When contemplating General Eisenhower winning the Presidential election, former President Truman said, "He'll sit here, and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' and nothing will happen.  Poor Ike - it won't be a bit like the Army.  He'll find it very frustrating."

President Truman realized that giving commands in the government is not at all like giving orders in the army.  The firing squad is available to sanction a soldier who disobeys an order in time of war, but a disobedient government employee can't readily be fired - as Mr. Bush found when the CIA undermined his foreign policy by falsely claiming that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons.  Mr. Trump is experiencing the same phenomenon, as hardly a day goes by without more media-trumpeted accusations from "unnamed sources" who are invariably high-level officials and bureaucrats who hate everything Trump.

For example, the Wall Street Journal showed how just one bureaucrat, the EPA's "Science Integrity Official", is working hard to undermine President Trump's agenda.

[She invited a] select group of 45 people to a June meeting in Washington. They were almost exclusively representatives of liberal activist groups. The invitation explained they were invited to develop "future plans for scientific integrity" at the Environmental Protection Agency.

These activists are totally convinced of the value of the climate change idea as a source of their future income and power.  They have no intention of letting President Trump derail their gravy train.  They have no interest in what ordinary people think of as "scientific integrity" or in finding facts.  Instead, they're using government money to hatch schemes to stifle debate on climate change or on any other liberal environmental priority.

This isn't surprising.  Back in 2012, Republican Presidential candidate Romney said that 47% of the voting population got more money from the Federal government than they paid in taxes and thus would invariably vote for more spending.  We're not sure of his 47% figure overall, but we'd estimate that at least 95% of non-uniformed government employees are so enamored of current overspending that they'll lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise break the law to keep the money flowing.

The impulse to block Mr. Trump no matter what he does extends to the judiciary.  Various judges have blocked Mr. Trump's orders restricting entry to the US by citizens of countries which the Obama administration had declared were sponsors of terrorism.  They claimed that Mr. Trump's campaign speeches against letting Muslims enter the country amounted to religious bias which is not permitted under the Constitution - completely ignoring the fact that non-citizens can't have civil rights, and since they have no civil rights at all, they can't have Constitutional protections from bias or anything else.

What's more, the ACLU lawyers arguing against Mr. Trump's ban said that although his executive order was unconstitutional, it would have been constitutional if any other President had issued it:

"We have a candidate who won the presidency, some candidate other than President Trump won the presidency and then chose to issue this particular order, with whatever counsel he took," Niemeyer said. "Do I understand that just in that circumstance, the executive order should be honored?"

"Yes, your honor, I think in that case, it could be constitutional," [ACLU Lawyer] Jadwat admitted.

This argument is plainfaced bias against Mr. Trump, of course, but that's OK in the liberal mind, just as it's OK for federal employees to violate the law to thwart him.

Educrats who're in thrall to teachers' unions are stirring up mobs to shout down Betsy DeVos whenever she tries to explain the advantages of charter schools.  Bureaucrats in the Department of Health and Human Services spuriously accuse Republicans of letting sick children die untreated.  The goal is to convince everyone that any benefit, once granted, can never be taken back, regardless of our economy's ability to sustain the cost.

All this obstruction is being done on the government payroll.  In many cases, they're on the payroll of Federal executive agencies that are supposed to be under the control of the Executive Branch, the head of which is the President just elected by the American voters who are, in turn, supposed to be the ultimate source of all governmental power.

How well are those levers of power working?  Are the desires of the voters being communicated to their elected official, the President?  It seems that they are, in that President Trump has apparently been trying to fulfill many of the campaign promises he made and for which people voted.

The question becomes, are the levers of power effective between the Oval Office and the bureaucrats who actually enforce things?  It looks like they aren't, not at all.  Mr. Trump hasn't managed even to get his own Attorney General to prosecute any of the felonious leakers in his own administration, despite enraged tweets and angry speeches.

The Ghost in the Machine

Looking back at history suggests that the levers of power haven't worked both ways since President Truman, the last President who actually shrank the federal government - and he was a Democrat.  Regardless of party, government grew steadily under Presidents Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and on through to Barack Obama.

President Reagan, best beloved of conservatives, talked a lot about government being the problem and starving the beast, but he didn't even manage to eliminate the Education Department or the National Endowment for the Arts.  Our liberal media always scream about "savage cuts" whenever government grows less than it grew the year before.  Although President Regan slowed government growth below its trend, spending grew nonetheless to a deafening chorus of complaints about "cuts."

Barack Obama essentially doubled federal spending and had the government borrow more money than all previous presidents put together.  Mr. Trump's initial budget doesn't cut back even to the level of the Bush years, yet the media are screaming and the bureaucracy is sabotaging him as never before.

We're coming to believe that the "levers of power" provided only for acceleration, never for braking - because, in reality, they haven't been connected to anything for a hundred years.  Although Democrats hold the illusion of power, they were able to introduce new programs only because the "deep state" doesn't particularly care where or how money is spent so long as there's more and more money to spend every year.

After all, if we can't even cut public spending on Big Bird, which is owned by a company that pays its boss a million per year, we can't cut anything through the political process.  So long as Democrat Presidents did what the deep state bureaucrats wanted done anyway - that is, grow the government - everything happened as the President "ordered."

But as soon as a President tries to do something else - all of a sudden, it's obvious that the levers of power aren't connected to anything.  President Reagan was able to pass tax cuts, and those actually happened because nobody is going to pay more taxes than they absolutely have to, but when it came to spending cuts, they were only a dream.  President Trump's attempts to wholesale reorient the government are being completely ignored, because as with Reagan, the bureaucracy simply won't do what he commands if they don't agree with it - and, unlike under Reagan, the Congresscritters are so deeply entrenched in their own personal troughs that they aren't inclined to work with President Trump either.

Power Flows from the Barrel of a Gun

As has been widely known for decades, our current path of gross overspending is unsustainable.

Back in 2007, which was long before Barack Obama's spending blowout, USA Today labored to add up all levels of government debt.  This is difficult to do because bureaucrats don't want us to know how much of our money they've promised to spend on their pensions after they retire.  Giving it their best shot, USA Today estimated that total government debt totaled a mere $9.14 trillion which amounted to $30,000 per person, and it's more than doubled since then.

There's no way that much can be paid off other than by hyperinflation.  As economist Herbert Stein put it, "Trends that can't continue, won't."  Spending will be cut someday, either the hard way through politics or the very hard way through collapse.

Confucius believed that government power flowed from the emperor down to the peasants.  He acknowledged that government could survive only by the consent of the governed, in that ordinary peasants would revolt when pressed too hard.  This led to a period of civil war which reset the bureaucracy, wiped out the budget, and started over.

Too much government spending is a self-correcting problem - the cancer kills the patient and they both die.  In Confucius' day, the peasants would eventually rebel even though they were strictly forbidden to "keep and bear arms" such as swords.  American peasants are better equipped to push back; they'd much prefer to do so via the ballot box, but they've just tried the most extreme voting measures in all of American history and it's accomplishing next to nothing.

Will our bureaucracy insist on re-learning Chairman Mao's observation that power flows from the barrel of a gun?  We'd all be much better off if the elected President more effectively wielded the gun on our behalf, along with with handcuffs and pink slips for those who abuse their offices and government salaries.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

This is outstanding! It is exactly what is wrong, but how do you correct the problem? The only way would be to replace the entire Congress which isn't going to happen. Then that would be a maybe!!

June 1, 2017 12:09 PM

Trump needs to appoint at least 2 and possibly 3 special prosecutors. There are 3 criminal areas to investigate: illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign, the Clinon email / Clinton Foundation mess and the IRS politcal targeting involving Lois Lehner and the cover-up involving John Koskinen. But the typical pattern should change. The effort should be aimed at the underlings, not the political figures.

Trump should grant Obama a blanket pardon for any and all crimes that he or his immediate family may have committed during his 2 terms. Hill and Bill should be offered immunity in return for truthful testimony that leads to at least one conviction of an underlining. This removes the race card and the "it's just political" argument.

The underlings should be aggressively prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The idea is to put as many in jail as possible. Grand juries should be announced. Immunity should be reserved for perpetrators who can implicate several other offenders.

To get rid of intelligence leaks, Trump needs to offer a reward for information leading to a conviction. Leaking is a felony. Offering a reward should scare some leakers into silence even before any convictions or indictments.

Convicting lots of underlings will encourage future underlings to keep it clean and lawful. It will end the feeling of impunity. It might even encourage some current federal government employees to clean up their acts. It might balance the news cycle, if the Pravda Press covered the convictions. They probably will describe the convictions as show trials, if they cover them at all.

June 1, 2017 12:59 PM

We need to hold a convention of states. That is the only way we can place term limits on congressmen and senators.

October 19, 2019 5:22 PM
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