November 18, 2015

The issue killing the left

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2010

Rasmussen Reports has come out with a fascinating poll that goes a long way towards explaining why not only liberals are doing so badly, but the left in general, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Here’s what the poll found: 

  • Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.
  • Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.
  • Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.  
  •  And 25% aren't sure.
  • Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states, and another 26% say the balance is about right.

 This is a huge matter that Democrats and progressives don't even discuss, yet helps to create the sort of popular anger that has developed over the past year. Nearly two thirds of the voters think state and local governments are better than the federal version.

There are two ironies in this:

- The Democrats could do everything they should be doing - only far better - if they simply paid more attention to the level and manner it is done.

- Those expressing outrage at what the Democrats are doing think the level and manner is the same as its underlying virtue and thus end up opposing programs that would serve them well. And so they serve the interests of the very centralized authority they think they are opposing.

Neither side seems able to separate the question of what needs to be done from who should, and how to, do it. The liberals think it can only be done at the federal level which leads conservatives to conclude it shouldn't be done at all.

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution -- having government carried out at the lowest practical level -- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton's and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore's. Conservative columnist William Safire admitted that "in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for 'power sharing,' a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of 'bureaucracy' were often leveled at centralized authority." In other words, devolution used to be in the left's bag.

The modern liberals' embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results -- symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name.

Still stuck back in the states' rights controversy over integration, liberals fail to see how often states and localities move ahead of the federal government. Think, for example, of where gays would be if there were no local laws to help them.

As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drive towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.
Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining.

The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought close to the supposed beneficiaries, the citizens?  And how can government money go where it's supposed to go?

Because such questions are not asked often enough, we find huge disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs. For example, both Social Security and Medicare work well with little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a redistribution center for tax revenues.

On the other hand, an environmentalist who ran a weatherization program once told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.

A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family -- well above the poverty level.

How much saner it would be to recognize the desire of people to share not only in the benefits, but in the exercise, of power and adjust one's policies to reflect this.

The point here is not to argue any particular solution, but to say that the ever increasing centralization of decisions at the federal level - thanks to both major parties - is a fundamental cause of both our problems and the anger about them.

As I wrote some time back, "What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus -- efficiency of scale and mass production -- fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don't give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don't exist or don't matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don't work better than they do. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach pointed out, 'we are medium-sized animals who naturally live in small groups -- perhaps 20 or so -- as opposed to bees or antelopes who live in very large groups. When managers or generals or architects force us into large groups, we speedily try to break them down into sub-units of comfortable size.'"

It's time for liberals and progressives to bring their politics down to the 'hood. They'd be surprised at the friends they would make.


Anonymous said...

The big government that costs taxpayers, is the bipartisan military, which no one wants to cut. The big government that transgresses fourth amendment boundaries, but is itself secret, was not contemplated by the framers, rather was viewed as the globalized enemy. The major parties form an oligarchy that reaches down into local politics, such as in Wisconsin or Montana. Where the more secretive business and government institutions and the military reside, in the Northeast Corridor, Southern Rim and West Coast is where localities have been colonized, shown in Teachout's campaign for NY governor.

Anonymous said...

A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family -- well above the poverty level.

Someone doesn't understand the principle: the goal is not to provide help to the poor, it's to benefit the not-poor in the supply chain.

If there were a way to eliminate poverty overnight, an enormous number of people would oppose doing it because of the effect on their own incomes and lifestyles.