A treatise on 21st century government

DJ Nordquist Contributor
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It seems to be in the nature of human beings to look to assign blame when something goes wrong in our lives. That blame game gets amplified when Washington get involved, often inciting a “gang-with-pitchforks” mentality to deflect from their own culpability. Political scapegoating is easy; it’s the fixes that are tough.

Take our recent recession, which has now been pinned on greedy Wall Street bastards. The bankers are, admittedly, pretty easy to hate, with their lack of contrition and sky-high salaries (which are often obscene, yes, but we do still live in a capitalist society where markets are capable of setting wages).

But have we already collectively forgotten that our nation’s current economic woes were mainly caused by asset bubbles whose center was the housing market, in which a lot of borrowers (i.e., regular citizens) bought houses they couldn’t afford, some with zero down, who didn’t take the time to understand their contracts, and many of whom outright lied about their incomes? Sure, there are other villains here—mortgage brokers who didn’t do due diligence, Wall Street types who bundled loans with bad fundamentals in complicated ways that nobody could understand, activists who pushed for low-income Americans to become homeowners even if “nonprofits” had to “gift” them a down payment, etc. But let’s also not forget the alphabet soup of federal regulators who didn’t bat an eyelash at any of this, and Congress’ pushing higher and higher affordable housing goals, ultimately giving Fannie and Freddie permission to run amok — with taxpayers left holding the bag.

Goldman Sachs has been the latest punching bag, perhaps because their financial results have been so spectacular while the rest of the country continues to hurt. So now our government is going after them. The problem is that it was the SEC that was asleep when Goldman was perpetrating its supposed crimes, just as they were snoozing during the Madoff and Stanford scams. Meanwhile, we have learned that SEC senior staffers have been browsing porn at work—a lot. Not the kind of stress relief for which our tax dollars are intended…

Now we have a massive oil spill in the Gulf Coast to which our government was not only slow to respond (with the relevant senior officials vacationing during a crisis), but in which it shares a lot of culpability for it happening in the first place. The Department of the Interior’s Mineral Management Service, which regulates the industry, actually gave the rig owner, Transocean, a safety award last year. That same agency also gave BP a pass on an environmental impact analysis because they thought the operation was safe. Meanwhile, the head of that agency, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, recently said his agency’s job “is to keep the boot on the neck of” BP to ensure it meets its obligations. But where were the boots before?

There’s been a lot of discussion about trust in government lately. Sure, it’s easy to vilify corporate America (or Britain). But they aren’t on my payroll (nor I on theirs). I can vote with my feet and not buy Goldman stock or not fill up at BP stations. But I am unable as a private citizen to regulate these firms, nor can I fire anyone at the SEC or MMS. And thanks to government personnel practices, it’s unlikely anyone in the chain of command in those agencies can, either. Anyone who can stay in a job for 30 years—public sector or private—may forget why they are there. Perhaps every government worker should be forced to take the oath of office once a year, to remind them what the public trust means.

There’s always a lot of talk about making government accountable, but the nature of large bureaucracies is that they never are.

There are many other laughable instances of government incompetence that erode our trust in it. One recent example: the government program to certify energy efficient products (Energy Star)—which often leads to a tax credit for the purchaser—gave the OK to nonexistent products, including a “gasoline-powered alarm clock.” One would think alarm bells should have gone off just reading the application.

Or the economic recovery package, where the federal government spent $1,047 in stimulus money to buy a rider mower that the Obama administration claimed helped save or create 50 jobs. What a deal!

Americans are a hopeful people. We want our government to do right by us. But failure after failure, or unintended consequences from public policy, leaves a bad taste in our collective mouths. Given what we spend on the government, when we discover it’s incompetent, we collectively sigh for lack of ability to do much more.

President Obama gave a commencement speech at the University of Michigan where he talked about the importance of government. Virtually everyone agrees that there are important functions unique to government. But the problem is that our current government is so big and unwieldy that there is a churn of waste, paralysis and a lack of common sense applied to important problems. As a result, it is not doing the things we need it to focus on—things that we cannot do for ourselves.

Nordquist was the head of public affairs at the Department of Education, FDIC, Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the George W. Bush Administration.