The Federal Government is way too big, it doesn’t always work well, it impacts us far too much, and yet it continues to grow and to get worse.
Our Christian faith and our nation’s founding principles focus on individual freedoms and decisions—to choose Christ or not, to pursue a particular educational opportunity or not, to pursue a particular vocation or not, to succeed or to fail based on our own merits and decisions. But many federal laws, regulations, programs and taxes want to funnel us into one-size-fits all common behavior, actually destroying some otherwise possible outcomes, and equalizing others.
Because of this, families and local and state governments are hemmed in from programs and solutions which might fit them better than a solution crafted by political partisans in D.C., who are seemingly more focused on their own power than they are on innovation or on real problem solving.
And no matter how good some programs may be, they are bankrupting us in the process. The bureaucracy and programs just keep growing and growing, but we don’t want to pay for what we (or the politicians) demand to be done, so we load that burden onto our children and grandchildren. At $22 trillion of national debt, and at only 4% long term interest, that is almost $1 trillion of annual interest. Since only about half of us pay federal income taxes, if there are about 330 million Americans, that means simplistically that the half who pay taxes each owes $6,000 per year. If you live in a family of four, that’s an average of $2,000 per month you have to pay just to cover the interest on stuff we’ve already consumed, while others pay nothing. Could you do something better for your family with that money every month?
So, how to stop it?
We’ve imagined raising taxes to balance the deficit part of the problem, but it rarely happens, and this solution assumes that the spending is good, which I believe in many cases is not the case.
On the spending side, we’ve tried to cut back on specific programs, but all of them have sponsors and lobbyists and beneficiaries who won’t let them die. There’s a really interesting list of 121 options from the Congressional Budget Office on ways to reduce the deficit. Please take a look. Some are pretty creative. But then step back and imagine that someone proposed implementing one or more of these changes. The howls would overwhelm us. We’d relent, lick our wounds, and keep spending more than we take in, thereby increasing the bureaucracy, the dependence, and the debt.
That approach won’t work.
But I have three suggestions which might actually cut back on the spending side, and start the process of reducing the many burdens of our too-big government.
1. Let Managers manage. For those programs which don’t automatically grow by adding new people every year, like Social Security does, require every manager at every level in the federal government to run her or his program next year with 1% less than this year. Not 1% less than their usual growth, but truly 1% less than now. And 1% less again the next year. For five years. How they do it will be up to them—that’s why they’re managers. Don’t replace a retiree. Reduce some budgets a bit. Consolidate. Innovate. Get rid of unimportant offshoots that are not mission critical. Surely the bright people who run our departments can figure out how, in each specific case, to best accomplish this result, while still fulfilling the real mission.
As a current example, I applaud Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, where for 2019 “the Budget provides $63.2 billion in discretionary funding, a $3.6 billion or 5 percent decrease below the 2017 enacted level. The Budget eliminates, streamlines or reduces 39 discretionary programs that duplicate other programs, are ineffective; or are more appropriately supported with State, local, or private funds.”
Secretary DeVos states, “the budget reflects our commitment to spending taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently by consolidating and eliminating ineffective federal programs that are better handled at the state or local level. I look forward to working with Congress to pass a budget that puts students first and returns power in education to where it belongs: with states, districts and families.”
2. For those programs which can’t be reduced through managed streamlining because more and more people are added every year, like Social Security and Medicare, we’ve got to adjust the rules to slow down the rate of increase in the costs.
As almost everyone knows, we live in a different actuarial world from when these programs were started. The CATO Institute writes: The original justification for Social Security and Medicare was to help citizens who could no longer care for themselves. When Congress created Social Security in 1935, life expectancy was 63 and the age of eligibility was 65, so Social Security was insurance against “living too long.” Similarly, when Congress adopted Medicare in 1965, life expectancy was about 70 and the age of eligibility was again 65, so most beneficiaries expected only a few years of subsidized health care. Today’s average life expectancy, however, has reached nearly 79. Social Security’s age of “normal retirement” has increased by only two years since 1965, and Medicare’s is still 65. Unsurprisingly, the total number of Social Security beneficiaries has skyrocketed; 25 million Americans received Social Security benefits in 1970, compared with 60 million in 2015.
Smarter and more experienced people than me have several such proposals teed up, focused on Americans who are still decades from retirement, slightly increasing the age at which these entitlements kick in, or slightly raising the co-pays required. A small individual increase in these areas makes a huge difference in the total cost to the nation as a whole.
3. Be bold and get rid of whole departments and some big initiatives completely, not just individual programs which tend to have embedded protectors.
Back to the Department of Education, with an annual budget of about $65 billion. Somehow we survived as a nation and educated many generations of children without a federal department until 1979. Why do we need it? Isn’t most of what is required for education a local or state enterprise? Under the watch of the federal department we’ve had runaway costs, contradictory standards, criminal trials without due process on campuses, a crippling student debt program, and cheating scandals. Would you and yours really notice the loss if we did away with the federal Department of Education? Would anyone be less well educated?
And then there are big black holes, like the War on Drugs, which costs us at least $40 billion per year just in funding, and which quite certainly encourages MORE death, crime, incarceration and drug use than if we had no federal program at all. See my earlier posts. Let’s save the money, or at least rechannel the funds and the people to fighting real crimes.
I believe these three approaches can work, and with minimal disruption to the nation. Yes, those in departments and programs which are eliminated will have to find new jobs; but right now, in this period of low unemployment and many vacant positions, it’s the time to do it.
If we don’t starve the Federal Beast now, it will consume us.