What has government ever done for us?

The New York Times decided to have a bit of fun with the upcoming Brexit vote. Noting that a lot of Britons can be heard saying, “What has Europe ever done for us?,” the NYT’s editors harked back to the classic Monty Python bit in which a group of first-century Palestinian revolutionaries indignantly ask the same about the Romans.

Only to come up with a LONG list of examples, causing their leader, played by John Cleese, to rephrase his question:

But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Good stuff.

But of course, whenever I see the clip, I hear the voices of all the people who insist that government is the problem, not the solution.

Unfortunately, after years of being governed by folks like that — or at least, folks who walk in fear of the Grover Norquists of the world — many of the blessings of a civilized government are falling apart. Thereby putting us in a situation in which government actually is doing less of what it should do for us, or at least doing it less well. Which convinces more people that government is no damn’ good, which causes more such people to be elected, and so forth…

Anyway, that’s sort of what my friends over at The State are on about with their new series, “How SC’s leaders have failed South Carolinians.”

And they have failed us. Because if our elected officials can’t manage to keep the basic functions of government up and running properly, what indeed have the Romans ever done for us?


7 thoughts on “What has government ever done for us?

  1. Assistant

    Apart from some of the characters we vote into office, the Palmetto State suffers from its legislature-oriented structure. Among its symptoms is the wealth of special-purpose districts (SPDs) that run autonomously and are usually headed by an individual appointed by a board that is in turn appointed by legislators. The most outrageous locally is the Richland County Recreation Commission (RCRC), headed by the self-described “most powerful man in South Carolina.” (I thought that was Hugh Leatherman!) It’s funded by the Richland County Council, but the council has no say in its machinations and spending. As for transparency, zilch.

    WHAT! I just used a search engine on the InterTubes this:

    Currently over 500 South Carolina SPD’s provide a variety of services including water, wastewater treatment, fire, gas, power, recreation, hospitals, and zoos. These organizations, which are governed by a board or commission, are funded by ad velorum taxes, user fees, or a combination of taxes and fees. In addition many SPD’s float general obligation bonds to pay for capital improvements projects. Attempts have been made to consolidate or eliminate special purpose districts. The services currently provided by SPD’s would then fall under county control. Consolidation would prevent local people from providing their own local services efficiently and effectively.

    500? I had no idea…

    I need to lie down for a bit before I can continue.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      I’ve been railing against SPDs now for a quarter-century, and the RCRC fiasco gave me opportunity recently to do so again… to no avail.

      At least Joel Lourie, Beth Bernstein and James Smith PROPOSED turning the commissions powers over to the county, but you’ll notice that it has not happened.

      One of the many shocking things about SPDs is that we don’t know HOW many there are. The SPD Association says there are more than 500, and other experts back when I was first writing about them said the same. But Ron Aiken said he tried to count them recently and came up with only 220 or so. But who knows?

      Oh, and don’t miss John Oliver’s rant on the subject. It opened my eyes to the NATIONAL problem. Before that, I thought of SPDs primarily as an expression of the Legislative State, and therefore a specifically South Carolina problem…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Whether there are 500 or 220, most of them should not exist. Since we have county governments now (which we didn’t when most of them were created, on an ad hoc basis), it’s important that we do away with them, for the sake of transparency and accountability.

      Notice that I say “most of them.” There are a few that make sense — I believe both the Columbia airport and Riverbanks Zoo are governed by SPDs. Because they serve multiple jurisdictions. That doesn’t mean they always do right; they still need to be help accountable. It just means there is SOME logic to their existence.

      I appreciate that The Nerve is going after SPDs. Unfortunately, they’re doing it within the context of their “all government is bad” slant. No, all government is NOT bad; government is essential to the existence of civilization.

      But there are SOME governments — such as SPDs, or multiple school districts within a county — that should not exist.

      That’s an important distinction that must be drawn, so as not to do violence to civilization…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, I just went and checked, and the zoo is an SPD. Here is their commission. Looks like a pretty good group — I know most of them.

        And on the whole, the zoo appears to be pretty well run.

        Of course, I haven’t had occasion to dig into how much they spend on meetings and travel, which is what The Nerve embarrassed the airport group with…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      Here’s my summary about SPDs, from the Power Failure series in 1991. This was what I called a “thread.” It was a short summary of that week’s installment, for people who didn’t find the time to wade through the multiple pages of material that made up each installment (it was a HUGE enterprise, which is why I spent a year doing it). It was called a “thread” because part of its purpose, aside from summing up the installment, was to tie it to all the other 16 installments in the series:

      Published on: 10/20/1991
      Section: IMPACT
      Edition: FINAL
      Page: 1D
      By Brad Warthen
      Memo: POWER FAILURE: The Government That Answers to No One Thirteenth in a series

      Do we really need this much government?
      Apart from the mess at the state level — such as an executive branch split into 133 completely independent entities — South Carolina has 46 counties, 271 towns and 91 school districts.
      And about 500 special-purpose districts.
      Maybe we do need this much government. But do we need this many governments, separate and frequently competing?
      Now before we go further, let’s get one thing straight: There are no bad guys here. Or rather, there might be a few bad guys here and there, but they’re not the problem.
      There’s nothing sinister about special-purpose districts per se. They were all established with good intentions. They were set up to provide essential services to people who otherwise would have had to do without. Generally, they continue to perform those services.
      The problem is that many — although not all — of them have outlived their usefulness, and their very existence means that government on the local level is more fragmented and less accountable than necessary.
      These districts are part of the legacy of the Legislative State, and point to some key characteristics of that odd system:

      • Legislative dominance. Until “Home Rule” was passed in 1975, only legislators had the power to solve local problems, such as providing services to unincorporated areas. Rather than empower local governments, legislators did what they always did — set up separate entities that drew their power from the lawmakers, not from voters.
      • Our rural past. Once, most people lived in the country. Now, most people live in or around towns. In many areas, more conventional elected local governments can provide the services SPDs provide — if allowed to. Special- purpose districts deny the urban present and affirm the rural past, as does legislative government itself.
      • That “personal” touch. Government by personal political connection is a hallmark of the Legislative State, and it finds expression here. Individual legislators protect and support special-purpose districts, and those interested in preserving the districts support the legislators.

      The bottom line is that, on the local level as well as on the state, policymaking and service delivery are fragmented, and we’re paying for more administration than we need. No one is in charge.
      Only the Legislature can solve this problem. It can start by setting up a procedure for dissolving SPDs, when and where warranted.
      Then, if it can stop listening to the interests who profit from fragmentation, it can do what voters said 19 years they wanted it to do — allow local government to be consolidated and simplified.
      According to the main lobbyist for the SPDs, “It appears that proponents of consolidation just want power.” He’s right; they do. And so do the opponents.
      And so do the people, who have waited for it long enough.

  2. Assistant

    That was a nice lie-down…

    What I was going to continue with is that voters need accountability, something the legislature-dominated SC state government lacks. The governor should be the executive of all the departments, even Transportation and Education, so that voters have a single focal point for accountability.

    I add that one might hope that legislators would have some modesty, especially in offices / committee memberships within the legislature, but in the Leatherman Era, they don’t (not that they ever really did). The man is even a minority owner of a minority company (majority-owned by his wife) concrete bidness that other companies get special credit for using. No shame whatsoever.

    But I digress.

    I know that the proprietor of this blog is a fan of single-payer, perhaps he’s never been in the military, taken a close look at the VA, doesn’t know about the Canucks who really like the Surgery Center of Oklahoma and it’s no-haggle pricing, or even read about Switzerland’s private-sector universal coverage. That’s fine. My main point is that expecting accountability from government for any project / program that lasts a decade or more is foolish. Politicians generally don’t stay in place long enough for the public to exact retribution.

    Take pension programs, a really great idea until they are not. One can get a group of actuaries together to design a plan for an organization, no muss, no fuss. Until a bit of time passes, reality overcomes assumptions, more promises are made, and some sort of refinancing is called for.

    A private organization can bite the bullet and make necessary financing changes, or not. But public pensions are usually overseen by a political board that may over-promise a bit or choose to invest only in “proper” businesses, certainly not those connected with oil or any carbon-intensive business, etc., and pretty soon realistic projections show that future — in the worst cases current — retirees won’t get what was promised. If it’s too easy for companies to dump their pension obligations, it’s even easier for public bodies to do so. And they do. Illinois’ collection of private pensions are in the tank, many of those in California are too. The public boards too are often run by semi-retired hacks who, in the rare cases when the investments exceed the 8% or whatever target may be, pay the excess out in an end-of-year bonus to current retirees because they don’t understand the concept of “average return”!

    I spend too much time up in the DC-metro area where the fabulous Metro drama is playing out. The gleaming, modern, efficient Metro has been run by a well-remunerated board that likes to wow the public but had little understanding of the notion of depreciation and maintenance. They devoted little money to that with the result that after 40 years of operation, the brand-spanking new Metro overseer closed the dang thang for 24 hours for emergency checks along all routes. Further emergency closings are planned to repair track, cables, escalators, elevators, and all the stuff that’s been overlooked over the years. Meanwhile those responsible for the neglect are dead or on their double / triple pension (civil service and Metro retirees), so no one’s accountable. Pitchforks, torches, tar, and feathers sit, like many Metro cars and buses, unused.

    Read up on Walter Russell Mead and his thesis on the failure of the Blue Model. It’s sobering, but I think I’ll forego any hint of sober for the rest of the evening…

  3. Assistant

    Prerequisites to accountability are transparency on the part of governmental units and the knowledge on the part of the public of how things are supposed to work. The media have a vital role in both facets, and the folks in that role in this state do a fair job. But our governmental units are notoriously opaque and seem to make every effort to remain so. Too many elected officials and senior civil service employees seem to take great pleasure in seeking every loophole or blatantly ignoring state FOIA and open-meeting laws. Since these critters have proven time and again that they are not worthy of their offices and our trust, why would we entrust them with anything that’s really serious like healthcare, pensions, and the like?

    Exhibit 2,375 is the dispute between Richland County and the state Department of Revenue over the penny tax. When the program was passed and started up, the county violated state procurement law and the provisions of the solicitation right off the bat in selecting the program management team to run it. Is anyone surprised that some of boosters of the tax in the run-up to the election ended up being subcontractors to the PM team? And we just found out that the joint venture improperly (Illegally) selected to run the program never bothered to get a business license. Sheesh! Where are Moe and Larry when you need them?

    Or take the City of Columbia’s water billing practices, where users are charged more than what it takes to operate the water department with the surplus going to the City’s general fund. Has the state Supreme Court ruled on that yet?

    Okay, we’re a small, southern state where this sort of stuff is expected. We can and should trust that as we proceed up through each level of government, things will get better. Right?

    No, they get bigger. Today I learned that the Department of Health and Human Services is illegally diverting billions of dollars from the Treasury to insurance companies in Obamacare’s exchanges; this is according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service which opines that this “would appear to be in conflict with a plain reading of” the law. Whether one likes Obamacare in theory or in practice should be beside the point: one should not condone violating the law.

    Okay, stuff happens. Yesterday I learned that my bank, Bank of Vespucciland, “settled” a Justice Department suit for whatever on the cheap by directing payments to DoJ-identified community groups, getting a $2 credit for each $1 so diverted. While I have my doubts that the case against the bank was indeed warranted, the taxpayer was cheated at the expense of loyal Democrat supporters. Does that mean that in the future it’s okay to direct fines to the Heritage Foundation or Cato when a Republican is in office?

    Last week I learned that while Obama was berating the Congress for not appropriating the full $1.1B emergency request to combat the Zika virus, congressional leaders were at first puzzled because they’d already appropriated $500M that the president could legally use for that purpose. What they soon learned was that Obama had already given the money to the UN for the climate change program.

    When dealing with government, citizens should bear in mind Otter’s words of wisdom to Flounder.


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