Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Where Is the Good Government We Need?

You hear tons of complaints out there about the dysfunctional political dynamic between the two parties in Washington. Toxic politics are indeed a problem, but it seems to me that there’s a more serious issue around the lack of a moderate ground substantively and a lack of commitment to the actual business of government.

If you’ll indulge me in an overly broad generalization, we seem to have a Democratic party that thinks more spending is the answer to all our problems, regardless of how well it is spent or how big the deficit is. I’ve got news for them, financial doomsday approaches. And there seems to be much more interest in recycling tax dollars into the hands of favored interest groups rather than actual results.

On the other hand Republicans today seem all about just “cut, cut, cut.” The political beauty for them in saying that government is the problem and is inherently poor at whatever it does is that it relieves them of any actual responsibility for having to operate the ship. Why bother even trying when it’s hopeless? So too many of them don’t. In fact, some Republicans are actually invested in the failure of government, because if it succeeded at something that would undermine their whole argument.

Though again I exaggerate for effect, I think Americans have a right to be fed up.

I think there’s room for a broad range of policy choices that span the political spectrum. While national policy requires some level of national uniformity, no one approach is going to be right for everywhere. And so there’s plenty of room for different strategies at the state and local level. The more diversity of places we have, the better in my opinion.

But whatever your choice, what we desperately need to have is leadership in both taking political stands on tough choices, and also focusing on the blocking and tackling of actually delivering the public services. This goes beyond just spending money to actual execution. Government has to be more than just a fiscal machine where the only argument is over what setting it is on.

There are some great examples out there of people doing this. Gov. Mitch “The Blade” Daniels of Indiana has laid out a conservative vision for his state that involves fairly minimalistic government. And he’s focused on getting there, as he’s cut the number of state employees to the lowest levels since the 70’s. But he also believes government needs to do some things, and the things it does it needs to do well.

Building infrastructure is one of them. Daniels privatized the Indiana Toll Road and took the nearly $4 billion and pumped it right back into roads. What’s more, INDOT has really accelerated a lot of its normal schedules to try to get these projects done more quickly, and do a lot to reduce the cost of projects without compromising too much on quality. He also installed a new computer system at the BMV that reduced wait times dramatically and resulted in major customer satisfaction improvements. He’s also been relentless at looking for fat to cut, including even such mundane items as scrutinizing the vehicle fleet. Though it seems odd to others, one of his most daring moves was standing firm that Indiana should observe daylight saving time, something lots of governors took a run at but failed. He implemented an extremely ambitious property tax reform scheme that saw that state take over 100% of operational funding for education. So this was not only a good tax move for localities, it put Indiana on the forefront of progressivism on this issue. Daniels also undertook a bold privatization of the state’s welfare system that didn’t work out. But after giving it a try, he decided to pull the plug on it. While that didn’t work out, my philosophy is that if don’t fail at something, your agenda was probably nowhere near ambitious enough. These are only a sample of the things he’s done or is trying hard to do before he leaves office.

Meanwhile, over in New York, Mike Bloomberg has been taking his job similarly seriously. He was elected as a nominal Republican but is clearly a moderate Democrat at heart. He took heat in some quarters for saying New York was a “luxury city.” But this is simply a clear-eyed businessman taking a look at the strategic situation and figuring out what his city’s niche is in the marketplace. And he responded accordingly.

He hired Janette Sadik-Khan as transportation commissioner and gave her the political air cover she needed to implement America’s boldest urban transportation agenda. (See here, here, here, and here). He put in place the PlaNYC comprehensive plan aiming to make New York “the greatest, greenest city in the world.” He brought in former Indianapolis mayor and Harvard government school prof Steve Goldsmith as deputy mayor. Goldsmith is a moderate Republican that is a serious wonk on policy, but also similarly relentless in execution as he proved in his own stint as mayor. He’s already bringing tons of efficiency ideas to the table, such as his recent plan to jettison tons of excess city real estate. Bloomberg seized control of the public schools, significantly boosted funding, and has been strongly pushing reform. Again showing leadership, he went to bat for new schools chief to replace Joel Klein, but when that person didn’t work out, he wasn’t afraid to take the heat and change horses. He’s pushed to put needed policies in place like congestion tolling, despite an obstinate Albany. He implemented a local tax increase pro-actively before a fiscal maelstrom hit the city, which was unpopular at the time but has enabled New York to manage its budget in these tight times without draconian cuts. Again, the list goes on.

I’ll be very clear that for me I think all this has created a more inspiring urban environment, and one where the urbanist future is happening today. That’s a big part of why I personally am going to move there.

Daniels and Bloomberg are extremely different in their points of view. So this isn’t intended to endorse any particular policy. But it illustrates how when you make a serious policy choice not rooted in some reflexive partisan dogma, then focus on executing it through courageous leadership and hard work coupled with pragmatism, you can really move the needle and differentiate your state or city.

Both Indiana and New York City have done far, far better than their peers during this recession. And this type of quality leadership is a big reason why. I could cite many other examples from around the country. I don’t want to suggest these are the only people doing it, but unfortunately this model has proven the exception rather than the rule. If we really want to renew our cities and restore real prosperity to America, we need a lot more like it and soon.

Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Indianapolis, New York

14 Responses to “Where Is the Good Government We Need?”

  1. P.J. Hinton says:

    The notion of the states as places where diverse experiments could occur has a long history. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis articulated it in his opinion for New State Ice Co. V Liebman in 1932. I think you’re right in that it is just as relevant today.

  2. Joe says:

    I think you have been misguided about
    Daniel’s plans. He as much or more than anybody has made policy moves that clearly favor his donors and party members. His toll road lease would have been great if that investment went to improve existing infrastructure or into a project that would actually generate revenue, not be a drain. His decision to halt local taxes now puts local government in a position of being the bad guy because they can’t provide services and education has seen a direct result. You mentioned in a previous article that Indiana is a state that favors cheap taxes over anything else and it shows. While NYC is busy making strides to be a player in a global economy and progress to improve quality of life for residents, Indiana is busy paying Mitch’s budies and funding our future in unecessary projects. Our kids will have one of the worst education systems in the nation and Mitch can wipe his hands clean. Many of his “agenda” items will not show their true impact until he is long gone and that is the point when we will truly see the damage. I appreciate your view that he is making plans and sticking to them, but even Hitler had plans!

  3. Curt Ailes says:

    As an Indy resident, it has been frustrating to see the things that have happened under Daniels. At the same time, I agree that he has shown tremendous leadership. There is a lot of value in plotting a course and staying true to it, even when something does not go as planned. However, as it has been pointed out, Indiana has become a safe haven for road building. Aaron, you have plenty of exposure to how loud and tough a lot of people have attempted to get on issues like transit and livability only to see countless millions get dumped into highway after highway. Reform is trying to be enacted at the local level but again, conservative leadership holds it back. How do more liberal policies get a leg up in that sort of environment? Times are tough financially, but does that mean going back to an old status quo, whether its demonstrated by good leadership or not, is the right answer?

  4. Adam says:

    One major problem Daniels would face in a general… WOMEN.

    He just cut all state funding to Planned Parenthood, which spends ~95% of its funds on health-care services for women.

  5. JamesR says:

    This comes across as a bit of false equivocation here. We’re in a situation where the public sector has been forced to swallow the private sector’s debt – the root cause of our impending ‘financial doomsday’ – and we have one governing party whose functionaries have have shown themselves to be bad actors, fundamentally insincere, and wholly captive to private sector interests. You cannot run an effective government when one party sees every public good and capital asset as merchandise for a fire sale, and that is where we are at right now.

    Real world experience has shown that privatization schemes such as the one you mentioned for Indiana Toll Road usually do not end well are are a losing deal for the taxpayer. Think about what happened with the London Underground a few years ago and that’s your endgame here.

    I’m with you on Bloomberg and his willingness to make his administration the torch-bearer for progressive urban policy, though.

  6. Brett says:

    You are moving to NYC? What about your love affair with Indiana?

  7. Aaron M. Renn says:

    Look, different people have different prescriptions on policy. Daniels and Bloomberg clearly differ widely on this, which is one reason I chose those two. But I think both have shown quality leadership in their visions. And as for Daniels, I don’t agree with everything he’s done either, but clearly he found something that resonates well with his Hoosier constituents as he is wildly popular. And I’ll tell you Indiana has done much better than its regional peers.

    @Brett, I still love Indiana, I’m just moving to New York. Don’t be surprised if I’m back in Indiana again one day. I remain a believer.

  8. marko says:

    In the case of NYC, when your local economy is based on the wholesale dismantling and outsourcing of the other 49 states’ industries for consulting fees to it’s equity shops and zero interest Fed note printing prop up it’s casino on wall street, you can do whole lot nobody else can do in the realm of public planning. I find NYC to be a fantasy argument because the rules of economics and logic are suspended within it’s own economy.

  9. George Mattei says:

    Part of the problem is that people who govern are punished for failing. Take Gov. Daniels and his welfare privitization, which you said failed. Too many politicians are fearful of failure, because it’s so easy to say “Look this failed” and beat them. In an age when evey little aspect (see “death panels”) can be spun into a scancalous failure, or potentially one, politicians are afraid of taking any chances.

    Not that I am absolving them, but the public also needs to be smarter about what they are asking for. Do you want a “company” whose stock is boosted for the next quarter by short-term vision, or a long-term strategy that returns results?

  10. Andy says:

    The problem isn’t lack of moderates — it’s an electoral system that is captured from top to bottom by well-financed special interests, a Congress that is in love with itself, a poorly informed citizenry, and a news media that reduces policy discussion to the lowest common denominator. The USA has just too big and diverse to effectively govern itself through the democratic mechanisms it adopted in the 18th century, when all decisions were made by a small group of white male property owners. You could eliminate about 80% of the gridlock we’ve got used to at the federal level by simply abolishing the Senate. I’m starting to think we might save a lot of money, with no noticeable deterioration in the quality of decision-making, by assigning legislative seats randomly, the way we call people for jury duty.

  11. DRH says:

    I do not understand how Mitch Daniels continues to get praise heaped upon him as a financial visionary. He was responsible for the disastrous federal budgets in the first term of the Bush administration. Funny how this is ignored. This man is no genius and no moderate.

  12. DBR96A says:

    I’m a registered Republican, and I definitely see the truth in your generalization. This is why many Republicans seem to be on the bandwagon of infrastructure privatization, for example, even though it’s essentially selling out to multinational interests that probably don’t give a crap about the best interest of Americans. This is why I vehemently oppose any propositions to privatize infrastructure. The infrastructure should be ours and ours alone.

    Many of today’s Republicans treat the government the way Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap treated businesses: they’re only interested in cutting to the bone to impress people in the short term while not caring one iota about potential long-term damage. The moment Dunlap was actually forced to run one of the businesses he raided, he failed miserably, and today is a disgraced former CEO. And because contemporary Republicans seem to idolize people like Dunlap, it’s no wonder there’s such a leadership void in the Republican Party.

    As for the Democrats…you hit the ball all way out into the parking lot when you touched on their tendency to care more about greasing palms and kissing ass than they do about actual results. Not that Republicans aren’t guilty of it, but contemporary Democrats are flagrant and shameless about it. And the tornadoes in Alabama last month didn’t even spin as fast as a Democrat does the moment somebody blows a whistle on them.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    Not sure I agree with this. I don’t know much about Daniels, but Bloomberg seems to me to impress people in inverse proportion to how much they know him. I wanted to include the same anecdote about his rejecting a money-saving idea for the schools that conflicted with his preconceptions, but instead wrote an entire post about it.

    This sort of reformism is really just a more moderate version of Chainsaw Al: we’ll cut employees, but not in the way that’s most efficient, but we’ll make sure not to have disaster strike until after we leave. Chainsaw Al, too, looked good for a few years.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    People like Chainsaw Al were necessary in the corporate world of the 80’s. Companies (and government entities) tend to follow Parkinson’s Law; LBO types have long had a stable of “blades” whose job is whacking away all the unnecessary employees and expense (as well as some of the necessary). Dunlap was famous for that, but Jack Welch at GE started out the same way.

    Sometimes companies are so wounded that only a “battlefield amputation” will save them today. Then it’s necessary to bring in the ICU staff to nurse them back to health. Hacking bloated companies and running lean ones are two distinct management skill sets. Clearly Al lacked the second, but that doesn’t diminish his skill at the first. Welch possessed both skill sets, which is why people bought his books.

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