Arthur Laffer is a reality-optional economist best known for convincing people who should know better that supply side fairy tales can come true. His most influential feat of magic bean counting is the have-cake-will-eat theory that cutting taxes increases government revenues. Governments attempting to harvest fiscal windfalls from enchanted Laffer legumes, as a general rule, have not fared well. Look at Kansas. It gulped down the Laffer Tax Cut Kool-Aid in 2012 and has been piddling red ink ever since.
While Laffer is best known for peddling economic moonbeams, his notoriety among political scientists—at least those who study bureaucracy and public policy—is tied to his somewhat tenuous grasp of the reality of government bureaucracy and the programs it runs. He is notorious in my crowd for a particular contribution to the bellicose breast beating that surrounded the Obamacare debate back in 2009. At the time, Laffer went onto a CNN wind fest to argue against Obamacare and did so by warning viewers that if they thought the Post Office was run poorly, “just wait ‘til you see Medicaid, Medicare … run by the government.”
Intended as a cutting dismissal of the Obamacare proposal, a pitch slap if you will, his remark sent coffee shooting out the noses of political scientists everywhere. Why? Well, Obamacare was never going to cause a government takeover of Medicaid and Medicare because—prepare for a shocker–the government already ran Medicaid and Medicare. Government always ran Medicaid and Medicare. They are, after all, government programs run by government bureaucracies. You’d think a Stanford Ph.D. would know this. Heck, we polisci types thought everyone knew this. How wrong we were. Protests against the Obamacare legislation were soon speckled with protesters carrying Laffer-approved slogans like “Keep Government Out of My Medicare” and “Don’t Steal from My Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.” It wasn’t any use pointing out that Medicare already was a government-run form of socialized healthcare. Believe me we tried, and spreading such facts around was not an activity for the faint of heart. People acted as if we’d strolled into Starbucks and started flicking boogers into their lattes.
Laffer’s dire warnings of the government taking over, um, the government was way more effective than many in my professional parish thought possible. Turns out that he was simply channeling a common belief that government bureaucracy and programs are bad. Period. And if something is popular and well-liked or at least useful it cannot, by definition, be a government program or come from a government bureaucracy. This, of course, is logically both flap and doodle and for the most part it doesn’t matter. The mumble and moonshine that partisan piffle mongers blow up the masses of the electorate rarely threaten the agencies and programs making important contributions to the common weal. Well, at least as long as the grownups actually running those things don’t buy in. If the grownups get told to take a powder and leave the get-the-government-out-of-government fact fiddlers in charge, though, it might be a problem. So, Houston, we definitely got us a problem.
We currently have a government that is, in effect, Laffer-like committed to governing against government. Of late this has been most prominently displayed by the alt-right hooey hurlers getting the vapors about a “deep state” thwarting Trumpian policy aims. This is the idea is that the Obama administration somehow stuffed loyal sleeper agents into the federal bureaucracy like blueberries into a muffin. These spawn of Machiavelli somehow still manage to run everything even though they are not actually in charge of anything. Apparently they take their marching orders from coded emojis beamed from Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server right into Kellyanne Conway’s microwave. Or something like that. Like everyone else, I’m kind of fuzzy on the details.
It doesn’t matter because it’s not the deep state that is going to do any serious damage to the ability of the federal government to carry out its policy and programmatic responsibilities. It’s the sleep state. Right now the Trump administration is anesthetizing a broad swath of the federal government’s capabilities. This is partially being accomplished by simply failing to staff federal bureaucracies with the political appointees that normally provide the policy and programmatic direction desired by the guy in the Oval Office. Right now there are literally hundreds of unfilled appointments in federal agencies. It’s bad enough when the top positions are manned by empty suits (a not uncommon occurrence), but we’re talking empty chairs.
Wikipedia keeps a running tally of Trump appointments. If you click on over there and drop down to the lists of federal agencies that do big important stuff what you’ll see is a lot of nuthin’. Forget appointments, right now there are no nominees for secretaries of the Army or Navy, Chief of the National Guard, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Commandant of the Coast Guard, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, no ambassador to a whole slew of big-ass important countries (Germany, France, India). Nobody is in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, there’s no Director of the U.S. Mint, there’s no commissioner of the Social Security Administration. I’m just hitting a few highlights. The deputies, assistants, and associate secretaries, directors and administrators—the political middle-management that actually does the work of carrying water for a president’s policy agenda—are mostly blanks. Right now the federal government is largely incapable of systematically and coherently implementing anybody’s political or policy agenda because there’s nobody there to do it.
Even more alarming than the narcosis induced by enforced absenteeism are the bold plans for outright euthanasia. We haven’t got full details on Trump’s budget, but from what we do know the White House is hoping to stuff the military with cash and tell everyone else to get stuffed. The Coast Guard, the EPA, and federal support for everything from rural airports to meals on wheels is on the chopping block. The pattern of anti-government government is made even clearer by some of the appointments Trump has made. An anti-public school billionaire (Betsy DeVos) is running the nation’s Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency is headed by a guy who thinks the fossil fuel industry knows what’s best for the environment (Scott Pruitt). The Department of Energy is in the capable hands of Rick Perry, someone who, (a) openly declared while running for president that he was committed to getting rid of the DOE, (b) kind of forgot point (a) even though he was still committed to doing it (don’t ask), and (c) when tapped to run the agency he wanted to eliminate but forgot he wanted to get rid of, it became painfully obvious that he was only vaguely aware of what that agency actually did. Somebody should have told him it was in charge of regulating Red Bull consumption.
Now a lot of people are in full-throated support of this open assault on federal agencies. Trump says a lot of the appointments aren’t needed because it’s just a heap of useless, redundant bureaucrats. And lots of Americans think there’s too much federal bureaucracy and want to see less of it. And I’m here to tell ya that a lot of those attitudes are backed by not much more than Laffer-logic fairy dust. Sure, government agencies do some dumb things, and yeah, we probably can organize things to be a little leaner and meaner.
But don’t kid yourself. Those agencies also do a lot of stuff we like and it’s going to sting if that’s taken away. It’s great to get a good rant on about wasteful government, but when a hurricane hits it sure as hell ain’t Goldman Sachs flying into the storm to rescue sailors in peril. If rural farmers want better foreign markets for their crops it helps to have savvy appointees in the Department of Commerce fighting in their corner at international trade conferences. If foreign governments seeking alliances see how dark it is over at the State Department, you can bet your bippy China and Russia still have the lights on. What’s going on right now is not a rational attempt to run a tighter federal ship, it’s just pointing the boat at an iceberg and setting the engines to all ahead full. While some might smile at the thought of the feds going smash, denuding the government of the United States of America of its basic functional competence is, make no mistake, going to hurt. Everybody.
So if you agree with Laffer and think the prospect of government taking over government programs is scary, just wait until you see what happens when they don’t.