Joe’s Journal: On Torrid Romance and Government

“Rarely has there been a more torrid political love affair than that between government and the generations that reached adulthood between 1918 and 1960. Anything anyone felt needed doing during this period was to be turned over to government — and this, everyone seemed to believe, made sure that the job was already done.

But now our attitudes are in transition. We are rapidly moving to doubt and distrust of government. We still, if only out of habit, turn social tasks over to government. We still revise unsuccessful programs over and over again, and assert that nothing is wrong with them that a change in procedures will not cure. But we no longer believe these promises when we reform a bungled program for the third time. We no longer expect results from government. Who, for instance, believes anymore that changes in the foreign aid program of the United States (or of the United Nations) will really produce rapid worldwide development? What was a torrid romance between the people and government for so very long has now become a tired, middle-aged liaison that we do not know how to break off but that only becomes exacerbated by being dragged out.”

–Peter F. Drucker

This passage was written by Peter Drucker in 1969. We were then witnessing the unintended consequences of programs put in place as a part of “The Great Society” program. I wrote my dissertation during this period and tried, by using dynamic simulation modeling, to uncover the cumulative deterioration processes in urban areas in the Northeast. I was able to show how, for example, by building low-income housing in certain poor areas we actually made matters worse for those very people who we were trying to help. Low-income housing could only lead people out of poverty if there was a sufficient economic base to employ and develop these people. Otherwise, the housing projects simply deteriorated over time in a very predictable manner and were a waste of money.

We have once again slipped back into a torrid love affair with government because our private and social sectors haven’t been able to resolve certain problems such as healthcare. The current infrastructure is insufficient for the delivery of services to Americans who need healthcare insurance. We expanded Medicare to include prescription drug benefits in 2006 and before “swallowing” the enormous costs of doing this we passed the Affordable Healthcare Act in March 2010 making healthcare insurance available to at least 30 million more people. At this time there are lawsuits filed by numerous state attorneys general questioning the legality of certain aspects of the new healthcare bill, including the legality of individual mandates as well as provisions that would shift a number of the newly insured individuals into various state-sponsored programs for the poor.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts passed its own healthcare law that is showing certain undesirable effects. We should treat these state efforts as pilot projects and learn from them before going national with universal healthcare. Unintended consequences are always present in complex social legislation and we should follow Drucker’s advice and run pilot projects rather than trying to fix massive social programs once they have been rushed through the legislative process.

This not a question of being liberal or conservative; it’s a question of effective delivery and management of government services.

–Joe Maciariello