Fixing Government? Try This


Last week followers of this column met Fred, a career employee in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like most of his colleagues, Fred is a pretty dispirited character these days. He knows that most people think the government doesn’t do much of a job. What’s worse, he agrees with them.

Puzzle-SolvingNobody asks Fred about the dysfunction. Sometimes he wishes someone would ask, because he has some ideas. Here they are.

Story continues below.

First, it seems to Fred, the entire civilian discretionary budget has been nibbled to death by ducks, small cut after almost imperceptibly small cut. Nothing any longer works as it should, and Fred and his hardworking colleagues are taking the blame. Truth is, they don’t have the money to do their jobs. They can’t travel to perform their jobs, although their executive “leaders” can still write their own tickets for boondoggles to China. They can’t hire new people, they can’t buy the equipment they need and, when contracting for services like writing new web pages would be a good idea, they don’t have the money for that, either.

Why? Because most of the cuts, over the last 30 years, have been across the board. Cut 5 per cent, everybody. Cut 10 per cent. Everybody. This is the easiest way to cut things, because on its deceptive face, it’s fair. Problem is, it eventually cripples everything and cuts out nothing entirely. It is, in other words, a cop-out, an abdication of managerial responsibility.

Story continues below.

So Fred thinks maybe we should stop doing some things: cut entire programs and use the saving to adequately fund what’s left. If candidate programs are discretionary on the part of the agencies, then somebody needs to screw his courage to the sticking place and do it. Not likely. If the programs are mandated in legislation, then somebody in Congress needs to find some integrity. Dream on.

Still and all, it seems to Fred, summoning that much courage is more likely than mustering enough of it to raise taxes and fund all the programs – even though every one of them has a constituency that demanded it.

Fred thinks there are three kinds of programs that ought to be cut. In fact, the first two should go away even if Congress were inclined to pay its bills. The first is the kind of program that simply has outlasted its purpose — finished its job. The second never served anyone but an already self-sufficient political constituency to start with. The third is a program that used to work well and still serves a useful purpose, but will not likely again be funded at a level to operate effectively. Following is an example of each:

In his own department, Fred would take a hard look at the Agricultural Extension Service. It has worked in every county, in every state, for many decades. The county agent is a fixture in American life, but more a help in many cases, now, to the backyard gardener than to the vocational farmer. Conceived in the 19th century as a joint federal-state assistance program to family farmers, it has devolved into an assistance program for the chemical-farming mega-industry that is modern agriculture. It can go.

Story continues below.

LoggingAlso in USDA, Fred observes that the U. S. Forest Service has become the world’s largest road-building agency, all to help the timber industry help themselves to the cheapest products they can exploit – the trees in our national forests. He thinks they should cut the road building altogether. This would be by legislation, trying to halt the see-saw policies of administrations on the question. Only half the roads now being built would be built, and those at the cost of the industry, overseen by the USFS. The land beyond the reach of those roads would be relatively inaccessible. Half would be managed back, eventually, into wilderness. The other half would be open to bidding for small timber operators who are willing to harvest selectively and snake the logs out with mules. This would drive up the price of lumber, boosting the market for steel and composites in construction.

The national grasslands would undergo a similar treatment, reducing the overgrazing and nursing back the populations of prairie chickens, in some large patches even restoring natural prairie and wild bison herds.

Story continues below.

Fred is familiar, too, with the inter-mountain West, where the Bureau of Reclamation, in the Department of the Interior, manages water rights from its series of gigantic dams and reservoirs. It’s a nightmare, with competition for too little water coming from agriculture (using 85 per cent of the developed water resources) , cities, industry, recreation, tribes and – always last – indigenous-species preservation advocates.

He’d start to put the squeeze on agriculture, eventually letting water rise to its unadulterated market prices. The Cadillac Desert bloomed because engineers made it bloom, and now only the tiniest, saline trickle from the mighty Colorado River ever reaches the Pacific. But ours is not the first civilization to do such a thing, and there’s ample historical evidence that it always fails in the end, anyway.

Changing the policies would push farmers toward more efficient means of irrigation, such as drip irrigation instead of center-pivot machinery. It would also push agricultural production, to some extent, back to the East, where it belongs. In other words, the country would start to look more as it would if you’d been able to plan it: cities in the West, where the weather is sunny and the ores are plentiful, and farms in the East, where the soil is good and the rains come reliably.

Story continues below.

Fred knows he’s a dreamer, and that not all his ideas are realistic. He doesn’t think he’s a radical, though, because he believes he would do what most people would do – and, therefore, what Congress would do – if it weren’t for the poison of money in the political process.

Wryly, he thinks he could at least contribute to a rare, rare spirit of bipartisan cooperation. If he could somehow get his ideas in the form of legislation introduced in Congress, members from both major parties representing areas with large extraction-industry constituencies, would band together to crush the bills in an instant.

Story continues below.

Anyway, wouldn’t this kind of shakeup just dump a bunch of new people onto the already-swollen unemployment rolls? Not necessarily, Fred thinks. He’s open to an interview on the topic. Maybe next time.