While on vacation, I find myself musing about the challenge before Alaska’s Legislature and Governor as they seek a solution to the annual $3.5B deficit and rapid spending down of the State’s savings accounts.
A core question in the debate will be, “What should be the role of government or the nature of the contract between government and its citizens”? It is a question I have pondered without final resolution since the early ‘80’s when my liberal beliefs were shaken as I witnessed increasing dependence and sense of entitlement among residents of rural Alaska. Charlie Curtis, at the time President of NANA Regional Corporation and a leader I much admired, expressed his dismay with liberalism when be bemoaned schools that refused to flunk students that were not performing and a State government that was “paying our children to make babies”. He saw these well meaning efforts as eroding the strength of his people rendering them unable to be self-sufficient.
Considering the other end of the spectrum, I cannot bring myself to condone a Darwinian survival of the fittest philosophy. Those who come into this world without a chance of becoming self-sufficient on their own should be afforded that chance by their fellow citizens. The FAS child, crack-baby, handicapped or very poor should not denied the opportunity to excel because they cannot afford school or needed services. They should be not be left to die or remain a burden on society because they cannot afford medical treatment or needed services.
The question is, where to draw the line? I have not been able to clearly define for myself the boundary line between the role government should play out of fairness and the point at which government support becomes enabling of unnecessary dependence and abuse of the system. The fact that not insignificant numbers of individuals abuse the system does not justify government taking away services from the large number who need it. We just need to improve our oversight of abuse.
I recall the story of the efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to introduce general assistance to the tribal council in Galena in the middle of the last century. In its wisdom, the Council rejected the BIA’s offer knowing it would weaken their tribal members. The final resolution included Galena accepting the assistance but only on the grounds that the Council would administer the funds and recipients would have to cut, haul and split wood for elders in order to qualify. Help with dignity. The same wisdom was behind the shift in Federal policy from public assistance to “welfare to work” some twenty years ago. Wise public policy that limits dependence and abuse is possible.
At its core, defining the role of government pivots on how we prescribe our collective responsibility for the welfare of our fellow citizens. If we believe that it is humane to have a “safety net”, of what should it consist? What are we willing to pay for in order to benefit those unable to pay?
It is interesting to me that we have no great quibble with this question when the assistance is administered by churches, the United Way, etc. but take umbrage when mandated to pay for it through taxes or spending down of government reserves.
Alaska’s State government will have to redefine its contract with its citizens including possible elimination of services and revision of service standards. Some of the questions to be addressed will be:
- What should be the response time for a State Trooper to respond to an emergency?
- What should be the required school population to qualify to maintain a school?
- What should be the class size in our schools?
- What medical services shall be afforded those unable to pay for services?
- What should be the response time for snow removal from our roads and highways?
- What are we willing to invest to protect and manage our fisheries?
- What forms of abuse/maltreatment should the State be protecting its citizens from? Licensure issues, food handling, insurance practices, workmen’s compensation, etc.
- How deep should the ruts and potholes get on our roads before we replace them?
- What should be the role of government in manpower development?
There are those who seek to simplify these complex questions by painting government as the enemy of free enterprise, freedom and prosperity. Such views ignore the role government plays in building infrastructure that is vital to our economy. A role that cannot be fulfilled by private industry but must be done through a collective that is financed by us all. Infrastructure that includes roads, airports, ports, a system of higher education. We can’t cut our way to prosperity. We need to define how much and by what method we will afford what is needed to sustain our future.
It is true that government, like all organizations, can do more to become efficient. It is also true that public-private partnerships offer potential for fulfilling the social contract more efficiently. W. Edwards Deming famously said he never found an organization that did not have at least 20% waste (def. as a cost or effort that did not add value to the final product/service). It has been our experience that the percentage is closer to 50% than 20%. Certainly, much can be done to root out such waste. But, inefficiency is not a justifiable cause for dismissing the role government should play. And, much of the inefficiency is sourced in regulatory requirements which the Legislature and Governor must take responsibility for and address.
Lastly, as citizens of the State, we need to be actively engaged in this debate. My view is that the path to getting there must involve citizens taking some financial responsibility for the services that benefit us all. Once actively engaged financially, we can, over time, find our way to the proper role and service standards the majority of us will support.
I am interested in your thoughts. Email me to start a conversation.