Comments on: For government, it is not just size that matters Sun, 28 Jul 2013 14:34:09 +0000 hourly 1 By: hillhous Mon, 15 Oct 2012 14:34:48 +0000 I wanted to comment on your article in the NYT (I followed the link at the end of that article to this point). The strength of your article was its recognition of the dynamic unity of opposites (Venetian plutocrats taking measures to defend their wealth that ultimately undermined their wealth) and the object lesson for America’s 1%.

Venice is an interesting case because it was founded by people fleeing the barbarians pillaging the mainland of Northern Italy. They settled in previously uninhabitable mud islands and built a glorious empire based on pluck, ingenuity, and trade with the advanced cultures of the East. Their decline was not just the result of internal causes but more fundamentally due to the rise of Spain, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire.

Your reference to egalitarianism in early 19th Century America fails to mention the companion opposite: ante-bellum slavery. Jefferson himself (who you cite) wrestled with this for a lifetime. He was confronted with the very personal challenge of freeing his own children by Sally Hemmings (his deceased wife’s half-sister).

The land grab of the Mexican-American War (which was instigated by southern slave-owners in 1846-47) brought about an expansion of territory that made the Civil War and the end of slavery inevitable.

Lincoln vacillated and the North suffered from irresolute military leadership for the better part of two years before he adopted the clear-sighted strategic vision of the outcast John Brown – free and arm the slaves.

The man who arrested and oversaw the execution of John Brown, Robert E. Lee, saw his ancestral home, Arlington, turned into a national cemetery for those who lost their lives while marching to the tune of John Brown’s Body.

Be consistent in your recognition of the dialectic. I don’t think the solution lies in a return to a happy idyll which never existed in the first place.

Heidi Ewing documents the tragic decline of Detroit in her recent film, Detropia. Her call for a resurgence of entrepreneurs for a return to better days echoes a similar misplaced, Utopian sentiment.

As Karl Marx described it – revolution comes when the (private property) relations of production serve as an insurmountable fetter on the further development of the forces of production. Now that’s a more clear-sighted appraisal of the underlying contradictions… and it was first articulated in 1848.

By: keebo Wed, 10 Oct 2012 13:50:33 +0000 This discussion talks in circles. It actually is not the size of government as much as what do we get and how much does it cost. The bureaucrats feather their nest with expounded on regulations because they need to justify their existence – we allow it due to a perception that we benefit not necessarily that there is a benefit. Our military expands due to similar perceptions.

The entitlements are the largest part and become larger because we want them to. We either see the benefit directly or believe we will eventually.

This generosity is allowed because as a country we do not pay for it completely – the cost is hidden by an ever expanding debt. The hidden nature will change by demands from the lenders and when it does how big will we want our government to be and what will we want it to do now that the real costs are apparent. Better still what will our creditors allow – ask Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, Spain, et al.

By: jtfane Tue, 09 Oct 2012 21:40:33 +0000 An interesting piece, the main point of which I’ve been trying to impress on people for years. I’ve generally phrased it as “It’s not so important how much the government spends as it is what they spend it on.” Not nearly as eloquent as your double entendre title. I see several immediate issues with Ms. Farrell’s optimism. First the idea that the nearly infinitesimal minority of “smart pragmatists” can actually accomplish anything in the incredibly partisan political situation of today’s America I find somewhat akin to placing hope in the tooth fairy. I know quite a few people who I would consider to be rather intelligent, however, the ones I would consider “smart pragmatists” could be counted on fewer than half the fingers of one hand. Farrell actually compromises her own plan by suggesting that “Whether you believe government should be 20 percent or 80 percent of GDP is a political choice.” I would argue that pragmatism would be very useful in making this decision. And while many may agree in principle very few would use even the slightest bit of pragmatism in actually making the decision. This, I believe, is at the crux of the problem. Political ideology has supplanted religious dogma in commandeering the minds of those who are either incapable of or unwilling to do the hard work required to make rational decisions.

Mr. Fishkin’s suggestion of course suffers the same problem. The problem is that of assuming a rational actor. Farrell should be well aware of this issue as it’s received much attention in economics lately with the advent of the field of behavioral economics. It turns out that people don’t always act in their own best interests. It would seem that expecting them to act in the best interests of the community is a bit of a stretch, informed or not. Having read Fishkin’s piece in The Economist a few months back, I’m still not convinced that his proposal addresses this problem.

In my experience providing information about complicated problems to an ideologue is about as productive as reading philosophy to your dog. Recent research (I apologize for not remembering the source at the moment) seems to indicate that information contrary to one’s opinion can actually make people more steadfast in their position, the exact opposite of the intended purpose. If you doubt me just try using the mountains of data available to convince a die-hard conservative (or libertarian) that socialized medicine as practiced by many developed countries is both more efficient and effective than the market based system employed in the US, or try using data and reason to convince a die-hard liberal that the unintended consequences of taxing corporate profits lead to results that contradict their own principles. In the first case you’ll be condemned as a socialist, a liberal or a Europe lover (why don’t you move there if you like it so much? is the typical adolescent retort), the best you can hope for in return is a pathetic argument about the failure of Europe (neglecting the data, of course, that the 3 worst off out of the 5 PIIGS (Ireland, Spain and Greece) all had total public spending as a share of GDP at or below the OECD average for the years 2004-2007 and all five had spending lower than Finland, Austria, Denmark and Sweden, all of which appear to be doing quite well in light of the global situation), a failure which, in the mind of the ideologue has somehow been exacerbated by paying half as much for healthcare as the US. Of course you won’t fare much better trying to explain the dangers and general foolishness of taxing corporate profits to your liberal friend. You’ll likely be accused of being a corporate shill (even if you’re retired) or an ignorant patsy for evil big business. You’ll likely discover in both cases that, despite having quite obviously established a very strong opinion on the subject, your counterpart has essentially no knowledge of the topic whatsoever. It’s very similar to trying to explain evolution to a fundamentalist Christian, a chore that I gave up on long ago.

A few other points about the article. The comparison between Google and the USPS was just bad and the article would have been better off without it, shame on your editor. Though it’s not exactly an analogy it would benefit from one of the rules regarding them, that is where you see the similarities your readers see the differences. The differences in this case are so overwhelming that your point (whatever that was) was lost in the absurdity of it. And Wall Street didn’t fail because it had too many quants. Of all the entities to blame that one should be far, far down on the list, if it made the list at all. As catchy as the phrase may be, it’s just not true.

Thanks for pointing out the McKinsey collection, I look forward to reading it. It should be interesting to see how Mo Ibrahim “identifies a lack of good data as the biggest obstacle to improving governance in” Africa. I’m a big fan of data (if you hadn’t noticed) but the nations of Africa have far more fundamental issues than a lack of good data. I’m also interested in Acemoglu’s essay as I enjoyed his most recent book though I do have to say that I thought Francis Fukuyama’s “The Origins of Political Order” was significantly clearer and more compelling.

By: possibilianP Tue, 09 Oct 2012 19:11:52 +0000 Our government is very responsive! To big money – not its citizens, that is. Red and Blue, left and right, conservative and liberal had better get their act together and see the simple truth: All the devisiveness going on is a very simple divide-and-conquer strategy by the ultra-rich and large corporations. We are so dumb. I have lost hope in ordinary people. They all watch TV like it’s the truth or something dumb like that. Big corporations own TV programming.

By: OneOfTheSheep Tue, 09 Oct 2012 04:01:52 +0000 @LAN8,

Backwards or forward, you have to “have a plan”. Before our Constitution and all it’s amendments our founding fathers came up with out Declaration of Independence. Even they had such difficulty with pulling together the funds to “run” a relatively tiny country that their unit of printed currency became a joke in the expression “Not worth a Continental”.

NEW governing systems always arise out of substantive discussion. Only a substantially NEW and clearly defined set of “missions” (and appropriate tax funding of same) from a people again determined to take charge of their own future has a ghost of a chance of ending the present incessant squabbling between competing interests over a “national purse” full of IOUs.

If we split our government into the two most fundamentally different groups, you get the “workers” who pay all the taxes and the rest, generally along “blue” state and “red” state divisions. One, in essence, funds the whole country; and, therefore SHOULD have final say as to how it should be governed.

This relatively recent idea that everyone gets a “seat at the table” by accident of birth without having to go out and earn it in some form or fashion every day, like a good reputation, is as silly as it is proving unworkable. Even Congress cannot be trusted to give themselves raises!

By: dsandahl Tue, 09 Oct 2012 01:45:16 +0000 Government can’t really know how to do better unless it knows better what it should be doing in the first place.

For example, Medicare is actually very good at what it does, with administrative costs that compare quite well to its private sector brethren. But what it does is only partly right, as it has certainly contributed to the perpetuation of the fee for service business model in U.S. healthcare, which, in turn, according to the Institute of Medicine, results in wasting 30 cents of every dollar spent.

The current U.S. political system, influenced too heavily by campaign fund raising, is not really capable of thinking seriously about what Medicare should be doing differently. We might well get better care at a lower cost, but money-amplified voices shape the debate in their terms.

Perhaps McKinsey could give some thought to improving the U.S. system of voting, both to adopt modern methods like those used in other advanced countries and to do serious study of what discourages Americans from participating.

If Americans could believe that their voices were actually heard in the decisions about what government does, it would be much easier to address opportunities to improve the effectiveness of government.

By: Samrch Mon, 08 Oct 2012 16:50:31 +0000 Government will grow as more dangerous things there to regulate we need regulate things like building, highways, drugs, etc. But if it is for special interest it will not work only tax. An example is we pay more for education per pupil than almost all nations but our pupils score way down on tests. They run for the unions and patronage. No CEO goes to jail when nuclear safety tests falsified, in fact no executive did.

By: ponder Mon, 08 Oct 2012 01:51:37 +0000 So if the question is not size, but how effective government operates, who better to address that problem than Romney with real-world experience?

By: LAN8 Sun, 07 Oct 2012 08:47:31 +0000 @Oneofthesheep
I think you’re thinking about this in the wrong way (although some of your conclusions are still disturbingly true). For instance, when you say, “You can’t debate how big government should be unless there is consensus as to what government should do. You cannot debate what government should do until there is agreement as to the sustainable revenues available to do what must be done.”, I think you have it backwards. Governments didn’t exist because people had substantive discussions about them, they existed precisely to do something practical. They existed to put up the barn, put out that house on fire, arrest that guy who stole something, or go to war with the neighboring tribe, etc. Truly at some point (even up until Rome before the Emperors) it WAS, “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. It’s been hijacked by all sorts of agendas and groups, not the least of whom are lobbyists and politicians, but it IS “we the people”. The real problem is that there may be a substantive
limit on how many people can be governed (probably also dependent on factors such as racial makeup, social custom, tribe affiliation, etc.) and how egalitarian that government can be given the size of the population it has to govern. For instance totalitarian regimes can govern large numbers even with a fairly volatile social/tribal mix but only under fairly dire conditions. Improve the conditions and you see the volatility rise (China for instance). Our form of democracy may just have an absolute limit on who can be governed effectively. For instance both Britain and Switzerland have long had democratic governments but with low and homogenous populations, add in Scots, Irish, mid-easterners and Indians and you get volatility again. Perhaps the real solution is to break up the country into smaller groups of states, say the New England states, the Southern states, Texas could go to Mexico or remain independent, the Mid-Western states, the Western states and everything on the Pacific coast. We migth get better governance then simly because of fewer people and more people with the same social/tribal outlooks.

By: dennisr48 Sun, 07 Oct 2012 03:53:00 +0000 Regarding Google versus the USPS please recall that the Internet was developed by DARPA, which was funded by the government. Not to mention that so much of our modern tech world is a direct outgrowth of government support of research through agencies like NSF, NASA, DOE, DOD, and NIH.