Rebuilding the Government Jenga Tower

The last moments of a Jenga round are the most suspenseful. As each player removes one block at a time, the tower becomes even shakier. It’s your turn, and the only option is a block on the bottom row. Do you dare take it? You’re forced to make your move, and the result is a tumbling shower of Jenga pieces scattered across the table.

Government is similar to a Jenga tower, with each block representing a different federal function. To keep the game going, the bottom rows have to remain intact, thus creating a very sturdy foundation. And some pieces must be relocated to create better structural support in weaker areas.  Government is ready for a renovation, and certain government functions need improvement.

Chris Dorobek of the DorobekINSIDER program spoke with Peter Schuck, Professor of Law at Yale University, about the professor’s new book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better, as well as where and how government can be renovated.

According to Schuck, recent polling statistics reveal the public’s increasing disappointment with the government. And most of this has to do with performance. For larger social program, such as Social Security, high performance often depends on ease of implementation. The easier a program is to administer, the better is functions and performs. But many government programs have low-functioning performance due to complicated structural and implementation challenges.

Part of these low performance issues are a result of the extreme polarization that characterizes today’s U.S. government. Polarization has been a part of this country’s structure since the feuding between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians. But despite the historically polarized nature of the U.S., both Republicans and Democrats are disappointed with the government’s failings.

“Although they’re not as disaffected as Republicans tend to be, [Democrats] are disaffected in large numbers,” said Schuck. “It’s pretty much a universal phenomenon.”

Despite its overwhelming presence in Congress, this polarization is not the main reason for low government performance. Schuck cites the changing role of government as one of the major reasons for any areas of government that may have weak performance. Topics of public concern change throughout time, and as new issues arise, government responsibility expands. Today, the federal government has extremely varied responsibilities, including enforcing public health protocol, protecting the rights of minorities, and implementing environmental legislation. Due to the varied nature of these duties and the limited funding dedicated to performance investing, it is not surprising that the federal government has low performance is some areas.

Another hindrance to government performance is its inability to keep up with the high-speed nature of technological innovation and its risk aversion. Schuck discussed the challenges of creating an environment that fosters government risk-taking.

“It’s very hard because all the incentives point the other way,” said Schuck. “One of the ways that could be improved is to improve the quality of our civil service, try to attract people who are attuned to the demands of innovation and the techniques for producing it.”

“The pay scales at the upper end of the federal bureaucracy are much too low, and at the bottom of the federal bureaucracy are probably too high,” he continued. “We have studies comparing the credentials of people at those levels, and it’s very clear there is a very serious compression at the top which is very bad. And a lot of waste at the bottom.”

So what are some of the major changes Schuck suggests?

The first is a reformation of the tax code. The current tax policies are overly complicated, and many people can’t afford to hire accountants required to navigate the system.

“Tax simplification I think [tax simplification] would be an enormous boom to the economy and would help to salve people’s wounds from their interactions with the tax system,” Schuck said.

The second major suggestion is to focus on the wants of U.S. citizens. There are many civil and social services that the public expects from the federal government.

“Some of our programs like Social Security, and Medicare, not to mention Obamacare, just simply have to be redesigned because they’re not going to be solvent unless we do so,” Schuck explained.  “In the case of Social Security, the ways to do that are fairly straight forward and need not involve a great pain on the part of people during the transition period.  But Medicare’s going to be much, much harder to reform.  But it has to be done, or the program’s going to go down substantially.”

To learn more about how to overcome low performance in the federal government, read Peter Schuck’s book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better.


Featured Image Attribution: Ashley MacKinnon MacKinnon

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