Giving the people what they want

I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenge for government in a world with higher expectations.  Cast your mind back to the years when the Founders signed off on the Declaration of Independence and created the Bill of Rights.  It was a very different world, with very different needs and expectations.

Let’s start with a simple one:  Back in those days, there were no anti-gun movements.  People had guns. The only question was whether the people or the government should control them.  The Founders said the people should. The fact that one of the first things Hitler did was to take away the people’s guns shows what a smart idea the Founders had.

Medical care in those days (indeed, for another 100 plus years after those days) was fairly simple too.  If you got sick and were poor, you either lived or died.  If you got sick and were rich, you either lived or died, but only after the doctor had bled you into severe anemia first (with the bleeding often being the actual cause of death).  The thought that the government should pay for treatment would have been ludicrous, because treatment was mostly palliative (and often dangerous) anyway.  The only cost of medicine was the doctor’s time — he didn’t charge for the leeches.

Infrastructure was also a minimal need in those days.  If you wanted running water, you went to the creek by your house.  Your sewage treatment plant was the hole in your back yard and, once that got gross, you dug a new one.  If you wanted a new road, you followed the ox paths or the paths the Native Americans had carved out of the landscape for hundreds of years.  Or you simply blazed your own trail.  Again, it was inconceivable that the government would concern itself with cleaning water, dragging away sewage or building major roadways.

As for the poor, attitudes were definitely different.  In many ways, they were much crueler, of course, with children working 24/7 in factories or living in unimaginable slums.  You only have to look at Jacob Riis’ pictures from the New York tenements at the turn of the last century to realize that Americans had a much more Darwinian approach to poverty than we do now.  But even the time of the tenements was different from the Founders’ world.  The Founders’ world was a rural, not an urban, world.  People weren’t piled up higgledy-piggledy in tenements.  Instead, they lived on farms and then, as now, everyone on a farm worked, regardless of age.

Another difference then, and one that still characterized thinking as late as the 1940s, was the notion that, if there was no work in one location, you moved.  Nowadays, we’re deeply rooted.  If there’s no work in our home town, we stay put, and expect the government to fund us until work returns to our town, assuming it ever does.  In the old days, when the work vanished, so did the people — a notion that archeology tells is is unique, not only to America, but to all of human kind since the dawn of time.

I could go on with the above list, but I’d only be pedantic and I’m pretty sure I’ve made my point:  in a more primitive world, there was little the government could do for people anyway.  It did provide security, which mostly involved trying to protect pioneers against the Native Americans who were outraged at the former’s encroachment on the latter’s land.  Even in those circumstances, though, the pioneers, who were armed, willingly protected themselves.  The Native Americans, of course, got the short end of the stick, being shot at by both pioneers and the US military, but that’s a different story.

The problem nowadays are that our expectations have changed in so many ways, some reasonable, given the modern era in which we live, and some unreasonable, resulting both from being spoiled and from being somewhat socialized.  In defining what government still needs to do, we need to define what expectations are appropriate and what are ridiculous.

I would argue that the rise in infrastructure expectations is appropriate.  Creeks and oxtracks and cess pools in the back yard should never be the basis of America’s infrastructure (although, funnily enough, I suspect the greenies, with their “one sheet of toilet paper” mentality, would love it if the other half lived this way).  Government should continue to provide clean water, good sewage, and safe roadways, although with all the other infrastructure fundamentals I’ve forgotten to mention here.  Most people I know agree, and one of their primary sources of anger about the spendulus bill is the fact that so little is involved with actual infrastracture repair and development and the fact that this small amount is part of the last spending to be done — presumably once the money has run out.

A more nuanced question is education.  California used to be the top state out of the 50 when it came to teaching the fundamentals:  reading, writing and arithmetic.  Now it ranks near the bottom.  The interesting thing is that, even adjusting for inflation, it’s spending more and has a much “richer” curriculum than it did in the 40s, 50s, 60s and early 70s.  What’s changed is the nature of that curriculum.  School is no longer about the three “Rs,” which are pretty easy to teach if you focus yourself.  Instead, they’re about everything. The question then becomes, which everythings are necessary, and which are political fads.

In my children’s affluent school district, all of the middle schoolers have computers.  As far as I can tell, the computers do not make the children learn better.  They’re heavy, the kids spend endless hours on line chatting with each other and getting into trouble, their handwriting is degrading, and the temptation to cheat is always there.  (We solved most of these problems by disconnecting my daughter’s computer from our home server.)  While it’s useful in today’s computer world to know how to operate them, the kids don’t need them 24/7.  A periodic computer lab would be just as useful — not to mention that most of them have access to computers in their own homes anyway.

Language programs?   I think they’re a good thing, since there is no doubt that the time to teach a child another language is when the child is young.  Wait too long and it’s a brute force effort.  Bilingualism is a useful and marketable skill.  My only problem is that both my children having been taking Spanish classes since they were 4, and they know nothing.  So the problem obviously isn’t the existence of the classes, it’s the quality.  Only now that my daughter is 11 is she finally in a program that’s making a difference.  This means that, for 6 years, I (and the other taxpayers) paid for nothing.

Sports programs?  That’s a tough one for me, because I live in a sports mad community.  Outside of school, all of the kids are involved in soccer (lots of soccer), baseball, basketball, swimming, martial arts, lacrosse, and just about any other sport you can name.  The school sports program is irrelevant to our children’s physical development.  In poorer communities, where kids can’t run on the streets (as my can), where their parents can’t afford extracurricular programs (which we can), and where the kids spend their time eating junk food and sacked out in front of the TV, there’s a virtue to publicly funded programs, if only to keep these kids from all becoming 15 year old diabetics.  Given how much kids loath school P.E., though, it might be more sensible to put the money into community sports programs, so that the kids who want to do sports can, and the kids who don’t can be fat and torporous.

I could go on and on (really, I could) parsing every aspect of modern education to try to distinguish wants from needs.  Then, I could go on to phase two, which would be examining needs that are being met with money, but (as with the language programs) are being handled so badly they may as well be jettisoned.  The bottom line would be the same:  at some point, people have to figure out what, if anything, they want that is more than must the three Rs.  And as to that, it really should be a community, not a federal government standard.  The more the feds get involved with education, the less communities have control over determining what’s important to them.

The same analysis — modern wants versus modern needs — plays out in other areas too.  With medicine, in a post leech age, do people deserve government funded MRIs?  The Founders never considered medicine as a basic right, since it really wasn’t a product that mattered much.  It matters now.  And shouldn’t we be asking how to drive costs down, rather than simply throwing government money at medicine, which only distorts the market and drives costs up?  One simple thing would be to allow insurance purchases to be conducted on a nationwide basis.  As it is, people in Texas pay 60% less for insurance than people in California do.  Reducing the 1,600 regulations controlling California insurance and healthcare providers might help too.

Welfare too deserves rethinking, not just more money.  Rather than paying people a regular sum to stay mired in poverty, about a giving the jobless a lump sum with a hint that they move to where the jobs are?  As it is, the meager stipends they get make it impossible for many of them to move, and simply trap them in dead economic zones.

I’m waffling now, and will stop, but I would love to hear your thoughts about (a) wants versus needs when it comes to government spending in the modern era, and (b) more efficient approaches to money that we’re going to spend no matter what.