21 January 2016


The Great Moscow Circus on Vernadsky Prospect. 
Up until this past weekend, I'd never been to the circus in Russia, to the horror of some of our friends. On Saturday I corrected this deficiency. I still have some nagging questions about circuses in general, but it was very impressed by the art and spectacle here.
In the world of business, "rightsizing" is sometimes a euphemism for the unpleasant prospect of "downsizing" -- for reducing the workforce. But in the context of American politics, maybe "rightsizing" could be exactly the concept that could unite both conservatives and progressives as a goal for government reform.

When I was in university in Canada, zero-based budgeting was just coming into vogue as an important principle in Canadian public administration. But the "zero" doesn't mean reducing the government to zero in accordance with some ideological talking point, it means that every line item must justify itself rather than coast from year to year. It means that the resources allocated to the government must be sufficient to pay for the tasks assigned to the government by the people through the legislative process -- no less, no more.

In practice, even with the help of computers, starting each budget cycle at zero for each of the thousands (millions) of federal government budget lines is impractical, but every program and office can sooner or later take its turn to face something like the following grilling:
  • Is this program doing what it should? How do we know? Does it need to continue?
  • Is this program leaking money or resources? Is it trustworthy or does it resist examination?
  • Can its functions be integrated with another program, another department, a public-private collaboration, without sacrificing accountability? How do we preserve the expertise it has built up while not just letting it coast?
No doubt many such questions are already asked, but how do citizens find the answers? Most taxpayers don't begrudge taxes well spent, but debates that polarize around "tax and spend liberals" and "drowning government in a bathtub" avoid tackling this central question: slogans aside, how exactly do we gain and keep the taxpayer's trust?

Let's remind ourselves why we have a government at all. In the words of the U.S. Constitution, the institutions it sets up are intended "... to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...." These are not inconsequential goals. Even if they can be met in part simply by maintaining a right division of labor with the constituent states and the people themselves, there is still plenty for the federal government to do on behalf of the whole country. But how do we keep trust and proportionality in the process?

Here are some of the ways I'd love to see this theme influence our debates on government:

Am I just a total idealist, or can we in fact use budgetary discipline to build bridges between conservatives and progressives? Where are our pilot projects? How can we creatively harness the skepticism each group has about the other, and the ways we can correct each other's blind spots, so that neither cynicism nor complacency wins the day?

Can we take a more inclusive and systemic approach to "the general Welfare"? For example, let's take health care financing and health insurance. Disease and trauma hit every single person at some point, so why should medical care not be classified as a social benefit just as fire and police departments, schools, and public libraries meet similarly near-universal human needs? Somehow we have defined fire departments and public libraries as suitable for public support, but the far more expensive institutions of health care have been defined as mostly reserved for private markets. Only public health  (screening, contagion, and some mental health and addiction concerns) and health insurance for retirees are recognized as requiring at least some fire-department-like attention. I really don't understand why we should trust the enormous bureaucracies of private insurance companies, given their financial incentives, to be more honest and caring than a well-run government. And if a government isn't well-run, if it doesn't serve us well, then that is the problem we need to sort out.

Critics of single-payer health care financing correctly say that taxes would have to increase to cover a centralized system, and defenders say that the savings from eliminating the huge private bureaucracies and cost-calculating systems now in place would more than cover the cost. But do these critics and advocates actually confer with each other rather than shouting at external audiences? If they do, please help me find the conversations, because this is a major issue in the current presidential campaign, and I hear almost nothing now but one-upsmanship.

What is the proper role of government in regulating our "militias" well, including guns held in private hands? In most of the world, for better or for worse, it is long-settled practice that the government has a monopoly on lethal violence. People are of course allowed to hunt, but not each other. Our Constitution protects gun ownership, but how we buy and sell guns, and of what type, and where we carry them, is of immediate and understandable interest to law enforcement -- those whom we expect to maintain that lethal monopoly. How do we have a thoughtful conversation about our expectations of government to regulate a better balance between gun-owners' rights and the protection of the general public?

There's a lot of dishonest rhetoric around these functions of government. For example, we already have a fair amount of gun control in place at various levels of government: rules about buying guns, carrying them on public transport, prohibiting many kinds of weapons altogether, and similar common-sense "infringements"; but because civility on this subject has broken down so thoroughly, we can't even begin systematic improvements to this patchwork approach. As a result, there is nothing "well regulated" about our government's function of keeping us safe from guns. Can we ever establish an arena to compare our different understandings?

I have the sense that many militant gun-rights advocates feel the government is not trustworthy in this area any more than it is in budgeting and taxation. But again, sort that out separately; your private gun collection, or your off-balance neighbor's, is more likely to cause local mayhem than a renaissance of good national government. And please be honest: no politician on the national scene today wants to take anyone's legally-acquired and safely-stored weapon away from them.

Finally, can our country's worldwide imperial pretensions be rightsized? As a Christian pacifist, I have some predictable prejudices in this area, but even setting that dimension aside for a moment, I want to know when and where we can ask (for example) questions about the $65 billion we've spent on Afghanistan's military forces and $25 billion on Iraq's, neither of which seem ready for prime time. These are not Golden Fleece-sized scandals -- these sorts of unaccountable expenditures dwarf most of the welfare programs that seem so dispensable to many politicians. As with health care financing reform, incremental approaches to our worldwide military expenditures probably won't work. We need to figure out how we fit into the world community generally and how to pay for the space we take up in that world system. In the meantime, it seems to me that there's still an important place for war tax resistance. One Christian family's taxes pays for only a few moments of this permanent war, but if a significant proportion of the evangelical community decided it had enough....

Nicaea II ... will it happen?

All Christians are refugees.

Richard Ostling and Terry Mattingly and the same old question: do journalists (and does anyone) understand who evangelicals are?

Today the ruble sank well below the 80-per-dollar mark. In the meantime, Russians face economic uncertainty with, among other things, a national treasure of a different kind: humor.

My previous gun control proposal -- free guns!

Jean-Rene Ella performs a Skip James song ...

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