Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It's Not Just the Money

The video of Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) explaining to a black policeman why he's going to have to pay for a third of his health care costs out of a 2 percent pay increase will become a classic.

It's a classic on many levels, including the demonstration of political skill. Christie walks out his ground, getting applause from the audience as he goes, building the case for spending cuts. He includes the case of municipal employees that got $900,000 on retirement from cashing in their unused sick leave. But still, the policeman didn't care. All he cared about was that he was looking at a big increase in his health care costs and he wasn't being made whole.

It's the basic problem of all government programs. Everyone signs up when there's free money going, and everyone acts outraged when the free money gets taken back.

But there's a bigger problem that I'm trying to understand. It is this. If you look at government operations, they are utter failures from top to bottom, starting with foreign policy. That's understandable, because foreign policy is always a fight between the good guys and the thug dictators. Wars usually start with the most appalling losses and retreats.

Then we get to ordinary government programs like education. There's a fuss right now about for-profit colleges. The Government Accountability Office has investigated 15 for-profit colleges for encouraging applicants to commit fraud when applying for federal aid. Investor Steve Eisman is also railing on the for-profit vocational college industry.

OK. Let's investigate fraud and prosecute it wherever it is found. But why just the for-profit colleges? What about government colleges? How well are they doing? And what about K-12 education? How well are the public schools doing in the inner cities? Where are the undercover investigations exposing the shoddy practices of the public sector education industry?

The discouraging truth is that it is almost impossible to criticize a government program until it breaks. That's because every government program is protected by a special interest lobby, and if you dare to criticize the program you will find yourself accused of slandering teachers or farmers, or policemen, or firefighters.

That's a shame. The truth is that all productive activity should be constantly adjusted and improved to deliver better service. You get that in the private for-profit sector, because if you don't you go out of business. But in government you get a slow death. A program may start out full of promise and hope but it descends inevitably into a producer protection racket. All that matters are the paychecks going to the government workers. And if the service isn't any good, that is just an argument for more funding.

In the end, we are going to have to pull all service-type activity out of the government. That's if we have any notion of getting health care, education, pensions, and welfare that works.

But it will take a revolution to get there.

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