The Decline of Government That Actually Does Stuff

This assessment of the fiscal cliff deal at The Economist should concern anyone who thinks government should be involved in anything more than the bare minimum of governance (boldface mine):

But Mr Chait goes on to make a different point: while it looks as though entitlement programmes are nearly impossible to cut, just about everything else the government does is much more vulnerable. Everything from food inspections to foreign aid to environmental regulation to legal defence for the indigent to scientific research to the national parks to education to road, rail and air infrastructure to…pretty much everything. These programmes are diverse and often have small constituencies. There is, basically, a lot of stuff that the government does. And when you ask the public, you find that they want the government to do these things. But public attention is a very limited commodity; it’s impossible to actually marshal public attention to each of the individual programmes that get cut when “government” gets cut. What’s happened over the past 30 years, and in an accelerated tempo over the past two years, is that everything the government does apart from wars and transferring money to old and poor people has gotten creamed. The savings are trivial in comparison with the overall long-term debt picture, which is almost entirely a function of Medicare and Medicaid spending. But the cuts have effectively curtailed the vision of liberals who want government to do things like invest in basic scientific research, improve infrastructure, kick-start green technology and support education. In that sense, it’s true, the ability of Republicans to block Democrats from expanding the tax base has been a conservative victory.

In the midst of the necessary fights to preserve the social safety net, the notion that government, despite decades of privatization and outsourcing, still does a lot of governance seems to have been lost. While there are those, especially on the right, who want people to forget this, the left–and one would think a true center–needs to remind people of this. Stuff has to work. But it’s not just the hidden stuff, like meat inspection. We are forgoing so many opportunities to concretely improve our lives through better infrastructure and better public goods (e.g., museums, libraries, parks, etc.) in the name of austerity. And these things cost very little in the grand scheme of things.

This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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