Government has never looked as foolish, wasteful, and destructive as it does in the new special John Stossel Goes to Washington. The show airs on ABC this Saturday, January 27 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 9:00 Central time.
ABC News reporter John Stossel began his career as a consumer-affairs correspondent. He uses this hour to scrutinize the state as carefully as he once examined private companies.
“Government runs trains, subways, schools, parks, public housing, welfare, Medicare, and the War on Drugs,” Stossel says. “It provides water, sewer systems, snow removal, trash collection, and ambulances.” By mimicking that old Eagles tune and doing everything all the time, the state rarely gets it right.
Stossel visits the U.S. Capitol Building, the Interior Department, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He finds Washington’s marble, limestone, and concrete palaces filled with active, concerned experts. Despite their often lustrous intentions, Stossel shows how they have created a veritable Smithsonian of public-sector dysfunction.
The Interior Department’s efforts to eradicate a weed in Lewiston, California’s open fields went tragically awry when officials set a controlled burn despite forecasts of high winds. Raging flames consumed the homes of two dozen people.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees America’s poorest county, in which members of the Lakota Sioux tribe endure 80 percent unemployment. “I’ve been under the supervision of the federal government for a long time,” says a puffy and evidently drunk resident of the South Dakota reservation. Meanwhile, $2.5 billion in mineral royalties that Uncle Sam has held in escrow for various Indian tribes since the mid-19th century simply vanished in recent years.
Far from the fruited plains, city dwellers suffer in government housing. Stossel tours a St. Louis project where elevators don’t work and a security alarm rings all day long with no one there to answer it. Holes in the walls go unfixed for two months. Bureaucrats, fatigued from all the love they’ve given since the Great Society began, literally have dynamited abandoned high-rises.
One Houston woman who helps poor people in her area received a government grant to manage a nutrition program. The regulations under which she labored could have been designed by Salvador Dali. She was required to offer milk to all the children she served, even those who hated it. Consequently, she threw about 60 to 70 milk cartons into the garbage daily. Frustrated, she finally ended the program.
Of course, all this government costs money. Lots of money. Stossel introduces us to Bill and Mary Thurston of St. Louis. Bill is a roofer who melts and spreads tar under 100 degree skies. What thanks do politicians give him for performing one of the most uncomfortable jobs in America? He has the privilege of sending one third of what he makes to the government to finance nonsense like the above — and more. From the tax on the electricity that fuels his alarm clock to the tax on the beer he enjoys at dinner, Bill Thurston and his wife pay 31 different local, state and federal levies and fees.
But Stossel does more than merely complain. He presents numerous examples of communities that have privatized public services or allowed civic groups to perform social work that government has failed to perform.
A tribe of Choctaw Indians in Mississippi defeated tuberculosis, high infant mortality, and other ills when they received federal permission to make their own management decisions rather than having to ask for the Interior Secretary’s blessing to go to the bathroom. After 20 years of relative autonomy, every Indian who wants a job has one. The tribe now runs factories making stereo speakers and plastic utensils for McDonald’s. Non-Indians even come onto the reservation to seek, and receive, gainful employment. Some 1,000 new homes on Indian lands would blend into any suburban cul de sac.
A private, mutual aid society in San Francisco called Delancey Street helps former criminals return to mainstream society. Each of its members, on average, has 18 felony convictions. Nonetheless, Delancy Street keeps them honest and busy running a moving service, a catering company, a book store, and even a gourmet restaurant. The brand-new triangle of apartments in which participants live looks as if it were airlifted from Florence. Some 13,000 people have benefited from Delancey Street’s compassion.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration still controls U.S. airspace with the help of vacuum tubes, Canada has privatized and modernized its air-traffic-control system. Having physically detonated Toronto’s antiquated airport-control tower, Canadian controllers now manage the skies with computer touch screens rather than the paper-and-pencil tracking technique America still employs. The result? Canada enjoys fewer flight delays, more passenger arrivals and $250 million in tax savings.
Even something as simple as water improves when it flows from government to private hands. After Jersey City mayor Brett Schundler put the city’s waterworks up for private bid, a company called United Water began replacing ancient pipes the government had trouble fixing. Taxpayers have saved at least $35 million. Quality has improved, too. “Our water is safer and cleaner than it’s ever been before,” Schundler says. And what if United Water dropped the ball? “If they blow it, I’m going to get someone else,” Schundler says.
Even Rep. Barney Frank (D, MA) would find this special easy on the eyes. Editors David Spungen and William Davis have done a masterful job of intercutting taped interviews with archival footage, viewer-friendly statistical charts and frequent comments from politicians. Watch carefully as both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush simultaneously declare that “government is too big and spends too much,” like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly singing a duet. Spungen and Davis even incorporate home movies of a New Rochelle, New York man who has spent 67 years in the same residence where his parents raised him. The city’s mayor now wants to tear down that dwelling and others to accommodate a new Ikea furniture store.
Too bad the suits at ABC relegated this broadcast to Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., for it is something every American should see. Be sure to tape this special. When your friends say the government should launch a new program, have them watch this show until the impulse passes. John Stossel, his sedulous research team and producers Deborah Colloton, Mark Golden, and Martin Phillips have marshaled their investigative talents, creative visual flair, and clear perspective into the precise definition of what television journalism ought to be.