Are we afraid to govern?

Is the ever downward spiral of American governance a consequence of political expediency over thoughtful leadership?  You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see the abject failure of government to get ahead of issues that were both foreseeable and fixable.

If these failures were few and far between, we might be able to forgive the occasional error.  But what we are witnessing today is an acceleration of a trend that has been building for a generation that sees our ability to use common sense and intellect failing over and over.

Let's examine four recent and differing monumental failures of government action/inaction:

  • The baby formula crisis.  Unless you have been living under a rock, you've heard about a massive undersupply of baby formula in the U.S.  Not so in Europe or in other countries.
  • The Afghanistan retreat.  Our government suffered a massive loss of face by committing an unforced error in undertaking an uncoordinated headlong retreat that cost lives and left thousands to the tender mercies of the Taliban.
  • COVID Policy.  We all know that with the benefit of hindsight, we should be able to identify our failures.  Eighty percent of COVID-19 deaths were for individuals over 65.  Yet the government continues to push costly and questionable policies that are broad-based and not targeted.
  • Inflation.  Inflation is great if you own a home with a fixed mortgage.  Buy with Dear Dollars and pay back with Inflated Dollars.  But for nearly everything else, inflation brings misery, poverty, and depression to American households, and it needn't have been so.

There are literally thousands of decisions that government functionaries and politicians make that fail the test of common sense and reason.  All of the above are connected by the same failures of leadership, responsibility, and accountability.  Everyone knows it, yet they ignore past negative results and do it all over again the next time.  Why?

We see two primary reasons:

  1. The government is structured to avoid accountability
  2. Rewards and promotions reflect a preference for organizational loyalty over performance

Could it be that simple?  That the answer is as simple as was the conclusion that the drunk master of the Exxon-Valdez was not culpable for one of the most avoidable oil spills in history due to his self-reporting the accident in a timely manner?  Have we lost our minds?  By letting regulations become more important than actions, we have eliminated culpability for results.  In a nutshell, almost every scandal, mistake, or policy that failed spectacularly has at its core decisions or actions that any sane and sober individual would immediately understand are going to fail.  But we keep doing it, over and over.

Remember the Peter Principle?  In a given organizational hierarchy, individuals are promoted until they reach a position where their incompetence becomes manifest, at which they remain.

Our federal government is the ultimate hierarchy.  What Laurence J. Peter either missed or ignored was one more thing: bureaucrats and politicians love conformity.  You see it in bloc-voting in the Senate, where there appears to be unanimity of action.  You see it in the IRS, where mindless automatons who used to be thinking individuals follow policies and rules that frequently don't make sense and harm taxpayers.  You see it in government regulations like an old OSHA one that didn't allow ice in thermoses at construction sites because of a fear of contamination from when ice was sourced from frozen rivers.  (I got cited in the '70s for this violation.)  European baby formula is denied importation because of labeling or other knit-picking issues.

The bottom line is that Americans die or are harmed needlessly each year through a focus on regulation and process versus common sense.  Beleaguered President Donald Trump notably failed in his desire to reform government regulations.  The system is just too entrenched for any one-term president to overcome.

This is what we should be debating — not the daily drumbeat of political partisanship so very much on display every day.

Image: NYPL Public Domain Collection.

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