Fine print – August 2011
President Obama came to town a few weeks ago, and much levity ensued. But I might be the only person who found anything funny about the president’s visit to the Triangle, during which he toured a manufacturing plant and met with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council for a status report. (The job market is still code blue, by the way. But you don’t need a presidential council to explain that.) Meanwhile, Obama’s top economic adviser, also in town, affixed a concerned look on his face and nodded in sympathy as executives explained all the methods by which the administration could help business get back on track — by getting out of the way, for instance. And just a few miles away, Gov. Beverly Perdue and the legislature were at odds over the state budget, which the governor declared was insufficient in the way of taxes and would cause jobs to be lost if people weren’t compelled to put more money on the table to keep state workers employed. So why laugh, even if it was laughter born of irony and derision? Because the alternative is despair.
I’m not one of those who believe today’s politicians are uniquely craven and inept and that the system of governance is more dysfunctional than ever. My guess is that politicians have always caused people to gnash their teeth in frustration and that the system has always operated at near-maximum inefficiency. Two things are different these days, though.
First, government at all levels has metastasized into a lurking, intrusive presence in your daily existence. In the beginning, government existed solely to provide services — mail delivery, an orderly court system, defense of the nation — and build things such as roads, dams, schools, water systems and sewage-treatment plants. But elected officials, local, state and federal, kept assigning themselves more duties. Those additional responsibilities have ranged from the noble, such as looking after the poor, to the absurd: nagging citizens about their eating habits, licensing marriages, regulating nail salons and declaring jihad on the garbage disposals under your kitchen sink. (That last one actually happened in my city a couple of years ago. The disposals won.) The idea that government should perform a few important tasks well and efficiently, and otherwise leave us alone, is long gone. Politicians and bureaucrats are on an endless search for things to fix, regulate, control or tax. Worse yet, hardly any problem is ever solved. They’re just added to the ever-growing list of things politicians and bureaucrats are protecting us from.
The long-term effect of that governmental intrusiveness is the second of the things that are different nowadays: We have embraced the concept of the nanny state in a way previous generations never did. We’re happy to let government recommend what we should eat, make sure our cars are well-maintained, teach values to our children along with math and science, demand that we buckle up when we drive, etc. In short, we have acquiesced to our own servitude. We are required to please government. It does not bend to us nearly as much as we bend to it.
I suspect that’s why I’m the only person who was bemused, albeit sourly, by Obama’s jobs-creation summit and the governor’s claim that a lower state budget will result in fewer jobs. It’s the ultimate in nanny-state thinking: Whether by direct hiring or the formation of committees to ponder the problem of unemployment, government can make jobs appear. We can rest easy while politicians and bureaucrats fix unemployment.
To understand how far down the path of nanny-state thinking we have gone, consider this unacknowledged premise behind Perdue’s concern: that revenue should be adjusted around a certain staffing level, instead of the other way around. What this means, of course, is that you work for government. Government doesn’t work for you.
The jobs summit in Durham, no less revealing, carried its own unacknowledged concept. When policymakers from Washington parachute into town to ask business leaders for advice on how to get people to work, the relationship is that of lord and supplicant. The policymakers will hear the pleas of the beleaguered and then decide what appropriate acts of benevolence can be bestowed upon them. Again, this is exactly backward. What ought to happen is the public should demand, none too politely, that politicians and bureaucrats account for their tax and regulatory policies, labor-relations enforcement and everything else that hampers hiring, job creation and business expansion.
The best expression I’ve seen on the perverse relationship between government and its citizens came in a recent column by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter that appeared on the Bloomberg News website. In it, Carter described a plane trip in which he sat next to a business owner who explained why he had instituted a de facto hiring freeze. Government’s endless tinkering with policies, particularly regulation, make it impossible for owners to anticipate future costs, he said. Carter then asked him what role government should play in regards to business. The man’s answer should be etched in stone: “Government should act like my assistant, not my boss.”