If, as I argue in my book “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism”, the public sector in America is grossly and dangerously under-performing to its capabilities, we need to look in the first place at the federal government as the culprit. The separation of powers has divided that part of our government in three branches: Legislative, Executive and Judicial.
While the performance of the Judicial branch, culminating at the Supreme Court, is certainly worthy of a critical review, I put it aside for a separate commentary at a different time. It is not, in my opinion, where the main problem is. I bestow the title of “unholy trinity” on these three segments of the federal government: The White House, the Congress and the Bureaucracy. Each of these fail miserably in their mission and together they are responsible for the dysfunction inside the Beltway and for America’s incompetence to get its most significant problems solved.
This is not a specific indictment of the Obama White House, the 2014 Congress or the present bureaucracy (although they deserve plenty of blame) but rather an assertion that the existing system of governance is fatally flawed. Peter Drucker concluded that government “has outgrown the structure, the policies and the rules designed for it” with the result that it is “bankrupt, morally as well as financially” and I agree with him. So do some more erudite commentators on American governance, notably Philip K. Howard, Chairman of Common Good, in his recent book “The Rule of Nobody, Saving America from dead laws and broken government” and two senior editors of The Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their 2014 book “The Fourth Revolution, The Global Race to Reinvent the State.”
The White House is one pillar of the unholy trinity that dooms America, because it is hopelessly politicized. The office of the President of the United States should be above the fray, the eyes set firmly on the national interest. Its job is to set the agenda and lead the nation towards completion of its goals and objectives. Instead the White House is engaged in an endless tug of war with the legislative branch about turf wars.
The Congress is the second pillar of the unholy trinity, as it is polarized by a two party system in which the more extreme wings have nearly silenced the moderate center, and because its members are beholden to their campaign contributors rather than their constituents.
The Bureaucracy is the third pillar of the unholy trinity, because it has entrenched behind and keeps adding to an accumulation of rule-making and regulation that is substituting for governance. On one hand, the rule-making continues at full speed, necessitating the addition of ever more federal employees to enforce the rules, and on the other hand the authority of public servants to act with common sense for the common good gets dwindled down to the point of disappearance. Philip Howard in his book reminds us that while the rule-making continues from administration to administration (between 1969 and 1979 the Federal Register nearly quadrupled in length) nothing ever gets rescinded, to the effect that the labyrinth of rules and regulations gets larger and denser all the time and in the end nobody knows anymore what is in there. “The twenty-seven hundred page Affordable Care Act is now getting implemented with regulations that, so far, are 7 feet high, with more to come” writes Philip Howard in his book. And he continues: “American government is run by millions (he should have said trillions) of words of legal dictates, not by the leaders we elect or the officials who work for them.”
This picture is not very pretty. It is outright disturbing. Who is doing the People’s work? Well, I am afraid that right now the answer is “nobody”. And it shows. None of the important work gets done:
· The national debt keeps growing without any effort to put a stop to it
· Social Security and Medicare are largely unfunded for future generations
· We allow our infrastructure to crumble
· We let immigration happen rather than managing it in the best interest of the country
· We are not winning the war on poverty
· We are not winning the war on drugs
· We are not winning the war on terror
· We are powerless in the face of public waste, fraud and abuse
· We have no national strategic agenda
· Higher education is not uniformly affordably available
· Healthcare is not uniformly affordably available
· We cannot agree on a sensible gun control policy
· We cannot agree on a sensible defense strategy against the effects of climate change
· We cannot agree on a common sense tax simplification and reform
· We allow our mentally ill to roam the streets, homelessly, or hide them from sight in our jails
· We have allowed inequality to rise to levels from where social mobility has become nearly unattainable.
How does an unholy trinity get broken up? Only by a higher power and in America the only higher power resides in The People. That’s why Micklethwait & Wooldridge foresee (the need for) a Fourth Revolution without giving up on the principle of democracy. They write “The danger to democracy’s health today comes in three subtle forms. The first is that the state will keep expanding, gradually reducing liberty. The second is that the state will surrender ever more power to special interests. And the third danger is that the state will keep making promises it cannot fulfill.”
Philip Howard advocates a thorough house cleaning and the installation of a Counsel of Citizens to oversee government. He states that “Washington is a house of cards. Any popular movement that stands up to it with an accurate indictment and a credible plan can push it over…”
Accurate indictments come from all sides, including the books mentioned herein. Who is going to come up with the credible plan?