As Congress debated another Covid-19 stimulus package, Senator McConnell shared his skepticism about government aid, suggesting that we should allow states (especially those with distressed pension funds) to go bankrupt. Looking past its dubious legality (states cannot declare bankruptcy under federal law), unintended irony (Kentucky has a dismal pension funding ratio) and breathtaking cynicism, the remark may deserve more serious examination.
Federal bankruptcy law, when it works, provides a practical recovery path for corporations willing (and able) to make tough decisions. Theoretically, if states could make similar decisions, their leaders might explore transformational—and once unthinkable—changes. Faced with the prospects of fiscal insolvency and organizational paralysis, which this crisis portends, many states might be open to mergers, multi-state contracts and other ideas that were once politically unfeasible or even lethal.
When we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, our government will be severely, if not irrevocably, weakened at all levels. Many of the public institutions that have served us since the earliest days of the Republic—states, counties and cities—will be exposed as relics, facing insolvency and extermination. Many will not survive without permanent structural change. Even if they survive, they will lack the wherewithal for the challenges ahead. We can talk wistfully about being in this together, but we won’t get out of this together without better government.
The Lessons of the Covid-19 Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many of our nation’s most acute systemic vulnerabilities (e.g., socio-economic inequities, public health system flaws and quaint government structures). Some weaknesses may have accelerated the pandemic’s spread, others may have inhibited our ability to manage the pandemic and some may have done both. Here are just some of those vulnerabilities:
- Economic – narrow corporate duties (and indifference toward long-term consequences), curtailed manufacturing capabilities, under-capitalized small businesses, struggling (and increasingly voiceless) workers, glaring wealth inequities, declining mobility and fading opportunity
- Education – wealth-based school funding, unequal K-12 public schools, persistent educational achievement gaps and an increasingly unaffordable and disconnected higher education system
- Community – indifferent voters, aloof politicians, a frayed social safety net, a corroded justice system, disintegrating families, a growing homelessness problem and fragile communities
- Health – growing wealth, racial and health inequalities, distressing infant mortality rates, disheartening life spans (compared to other nations), daunting environmental challenges, tattered public health programs, detrimental lifestyles, unreliable health care access and costly, convoluted health care systems
- Infrastructure – deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate capital investments, escalating repair costs and profound rural-urban and poor-wealthy infrastructure divides (e.g., broadband)
We can debate the relative significance of these factors, but we also should focus on the defects of our federal, state and local governments. Some public officials, including governors and mayors of both parties, have shown admirable leadership during this crisis. But, even the best leaders have been forced to work around the inherent obstacles of our governmental systems. Our President’s performance has confused and endangered, but it has also laid bare the defects of our mishmash of 50 states and 90,000 local governments. Our system is too slow and divided to respond to today’s challenges. More importantly, it lacks the agility and capacity to manage, let alone prevent, future crises.
Preparing for the Next Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic will not be the last existential crisis we face. The world is fraught with risk, some looming just around the corner, like extreme weather events, and some more distant, like climate change. Francis Fukuyama recently wrote that those nations best navigating the coronavirus pandemic, like Germany, are those with governments with broad public trust. In that vein, to prepare for the next crisis, the US will need a federal, state and local government system far more effective and reliable than what we have today.
In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis wrote that the paramount responsibility of the federal government and, more specifically, the Presidency, is to protect Americans from future risk or to help them recover. Many risks are foreseeable, such as natural disasters, nuclear accidents, energy grid failures, computer viruses and pandemics. Others are unimaginable. Lewis estimates that 70 percent of federal duties involve keeping the American people safe. Watching the federal government’s response to this pandemic has left many of us shaken, with serious doubts about its ability to manage future risks.
As it turns out, our misgivings may be merited. During the last three years, according to Lewis and other credible sources, the Trump administration has systematically weakened our federal risk management capabilities. It eliminated offices like the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. It terminated funding for initiatives like Predict, a United States Agency for International Development program for studying viruses and preventing pandemics. And, perhaps even more vexing, it filled many federal risk management jobs with political loyalists possessing dubious qualifications.
During this crisis, the President has talked, yet refused to lead. Instead of verifiable facts, he has offered reckless gossip. Instead of accepting responsibility, he has blamed others. Instead of proposing fact-based strategies for protecting our health and restoring our economy, he has been a veritable spigot of half-baked theories and impulsive tweets. While many governors and mayors have tried to fill the void, the President’s failures have painfully revealed the structural weaknesses of Federalism and the inherent inertia of our disjointed system of state and local government.
History offers hope. Our nation has faced dark times—the Civic War, Great Depression and World War II. Our nation emerged from those crises better prepared for the future, not by merely surviving, but by being far-sighted and opportunistic. From the Civic War, came laws that opened the West, spawned state colleges and financed the transcontinental railroad. From the Great Depression, came enduring economic reforms like stock market controls, federal deposit insurance and Social Security. From World War II, came the GI Bill, Marshall Plan and United Nations. This crisis can be our opportunity to build anew.
Imperatives for Governmental Renewal
There are, and will likely be, many well-intentioned proposals concerning where we go from here. Some will urge economic reforms to address inequities that leave too many vulnerable and corporate policies that value short-term profits at the expense of future, social and labor issues. Some will advocate educational investments and reforms (e.g., childcare, K-12, workforce development and higher education). Others will call for rebuilding our communities through voting process, judicial system and social safety net changes. And the loudest pleas may be for rebuilding our public health system and making health care more accessible and affordable.
All of these issues demand attention, but our Republic will not survive—let alone return to greatness—without agile, vigorous and trustworthy government. However, given the imminent financial tidal wave threatening our states and localities, good government will be elusive without fundamental change. Our government cannot survive as is, let alone be there for us when the next crisis comes. And this pandemic must be seen for what it is, a cruel dress rehearsal for the next crisis, such as a second Covid-19 wave, another pandemic, an economic collapse or some other cataclysmic disaster.
Fortunately, there is much that we can do to reform our federal, state and local governments for the daunting challenges that lie ahead. First, we must replace weak, ineffectual and cynical elected officials wherever we can, starting this year. But, electing functioning adults as public executives will not, in and of itself, be enough. We also must reimagine our government. In the coming weeks, we will offer a series of big, specific ideas for restoring public confidence in government—federal, state and local—along the following broad themes:
- Redesign – modernize structures for managing risk, facing future challenges around metro regions and empowering local governments to join forces and do more with less
- Inspire – attract the next generation of talent to public service, build a full-bodied, energetic government workforce and dramatically expand national, state and local volunteer service programs
- Innovate – expand government planning capabilities, adopt modern management practices and upgrade antiquated public sector technologies and security controls
- Rebuild – reorganize public debt and asset management mechanisms and expand investments in critical infrastructure (e.g., energy, water, transportation and broadband)
- Restore – galvanize citizen engagement (g., streamline voter registration and increase voting convenience) and strengthen government stewardship and accountability
Government alone, no matter how responsive, cannot solve every social ill, but reformed government, working closely with the private, nonprofit and academic sectors can dramatically improve our prospects for success. And this tragedy has made real change possible. As Milton Friedman once wrote, “Only a crisis produces real change” because that is when “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
For years, many small government advocates invoked Ronald Reagan’s quip, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But, during this crisis, we should take note of what we aren’t hearing. We have heard any politician say, “This is a global crisis and you’re on your own.” We also should remember what Ronald Reagan really meant. In his first inaugural address, he promised, “It’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” That challenge remains.
The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience working with governmental agencies across the US.