2019: The Washington Uncertainty Principle

President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office, December 11, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Does the U.S. government do more harm than good?

Recapping the closing days of 2018 is worse than one of those “previously on . . .” television-program montages.

The stock market is recovering a bit after its worst Christmas on record. The president of the United States blames the recent volatility on the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and wants to fire him but is not sure whether he can. The president has just fired the secretary of defense, who was in the process of quitting because he thinks the president is unserious and irresponsible, and said as much, if diplomatically, in his resignation letter. The president also lacks a chief of staff, and there is no attorney general. (There are acting placeholders in those positions.) Fewer than half of the positions requiring Senate confirmation at Justice, EPA, Transportation, and Interior are filled; barely half of those positions are filled at State, Labor, Treasury, and HUD.

The federal government is, as of this writing, partially shut down, largely because Senator Schumer believes that he will benefit from denying the president a partial victory on immigration control, the president’s top issue but one that he managed to do approximately nothing about during a time when his party controlled both houses of Congress. The Russians are feeling frisky as the U.S. abandons its efforts in Syria. The secretary of the Treasury, who was the producer of The LEGO Batman Movie, has been panicking the nation’s bankers by calling around to check on their liquidity. Just in case, you know.

The federal government is a big, sprawling, messy thing. It is too big to get one’s head around, especially during the holidays, what with the champagne and jet lag and all. That’s too much. Let’s take the U.S. Postal Service pars pro toto. The USPS is a negative asset: Even setting aside what it costs the taxpayers (and don’t believe the fiction that the USPS is self-sustaining), the Postal Service — “service” begs the question — creates more hassle than it provides in service. This is true on a pound-for-pound basis: I have confirmed this by weighing a month’s worth of actual mail and the junk mail received during the same period. But it is true in other ways, too: The semi-official status of the USPS provides a facsimile of due diligence to agencies and firms that send obligatory paperwork to addresses that have not been current in years, and the agency is only too happy to cooperate with semi-fraudulent mail marketers who disguise loan applications and the like as checks, which sometimes fool elderly people and dim ones. Even for a writer such as myself, who gets checks in the mail fairly often, the USPS is much more trouble than it is worth. If I could opt out of postal service entirely and rely on private-sector alternatives, I would do so. But that is not an option.

This is true of much of what the federal government does. Not all of it, of course — there’s no need for that kind of ideological spoon-banging and fanaticism here. But: The American people would be collectively better off if the great torrents of capital that get shunted into moribund entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare were put to some productive use instead. Government support for basic scientific research is worth the expense, but there’s a lot of ridiculousness in that, too. The Small Business Administration, OPIC, the Export-Import Bank, and other institutions that exist primarily to camouflage corporate welfare of various kinds serve no pressing public interest. There was agriculture before there was a Department of. We aren’t going to balance the budget by cutting foreign aid, but if it were more generally understood that the “foreign” part of “foreign aid” is mostly a fiction to support another kind of corporate welfare — a great deal of “foreign aid” is contractually returned to U.S. military contractors and other U.S.-based firms — then we probably would think of that program as something closer to money laundering than philanthropy.

At the same time, the U.S. government apparently cannot perform its most basic functions: The border goes uncontrolled thanks in part to Senator Schumer’s malevolence but also in part to Republicans’ incompetence; our military objectives abroad go unsecured; a great deal of needful federal law enforcement at home goes undone because it is too much work for our splendidly financed police agencies; the federal government cannot even say to a certainty how many programs it operates or account accurately for all of its spending.

I am not here making the case for anarchism, even the right-wing anarchism of Albert Jay Nock, whose sensibility my friend Jonah Goldberg has done so much to revive in “The Remnant” and elsewhere. I am sympathetic to such views, but that is an argument for another day. What I want to consider here is a related but different argument: that, as it currently operates, the U.S. government does more harm than good.

Our political imagination is limited, and counterfactuals are by their nature of limited use. But the proper point of comparison is not between our world as it is minus this or that benefit provided by the federal government, but between our world as it is and our world as it would be if it had been enriched by the fruitful investment of that which government wastes, and if our entrepreneurs and creators were able to make more effective and intelligent long-term plans in an atmosphere of relative certainty and confidence about the basic things. There are millions of people working legally in the United States who do not know from year to year — or day to day, really — whether they will be permitted to do so on the same or similar terms in the near future. All of them pay taxes, and many of them own homes and businesses with employees who are exposed to the same uncertainty at one degree of separation. Millions of U.S.-based investors and firms do not know whether they will be able to continue their multinational operations the day after tomorrow or whether President Trump or Senator Warren — or some unholy combination of the two — is going to be standing in the way.

I am not among those who complain about the “financialization” of the U.S. economy, lamenting that we don’t make as many toasters as we used to. But it seems to me significant that one of the most profitable of all economic activities in these United States in 2018 is known straightforwardly enough as “hedging.” The Treasury secretary used to be in that business, too.

Part of what we are hedging against is the uncertainty created by the people who are supposed to be working for us.

The United States is a republic, not a monarchy or an empire or a blood-and-soil nation of the ancient kind. The American federal state is not the American people. The U.S. government exists at our sufferance, not the other way around. And if it is making more trouble for us than it is worth, then we should reconfigure it along more sensible and effective lines. What prevents that from happening is not what President Trump et al. like to call “the Swamp” or what Senator Sanders calls in his honking accent “allah-garky.” What prevents meaningful reform is our own narcissism, which is so deep and all-encompassing that we can no longer think about government in instrumental terms but instead can understand it only in totemic terms — i.e., in terms of what it says about us and how it makes us feel about ourselves. That kind of immaturity is how you lose a republic and get . . . whatever it is we’re getting.

If what is going on in Washington fills you with uncertainty and anxiety, there’s a reason for that. And there’s a solution for that, too.

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