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How Public Policy Forgot the Basics

Technical fixes do more to help people than popular partisanship.

Some years ago, the late Elliot Richardson, who served in multiple cabinet offices before becoming a major contributor to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, wrote of the utility in politics of “end runs.” By these he meant proposals which, while seemingly technical, might in the end run prove more significant than “pop issues.” The pop issues of his period, as defined by Spiro Agnew, were “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” The first and third of these are assuredly still with us, though the popular drugs are different.

Richardson’s career, though in many ways unexciting, affords one example of a spectacular end run. Under his regime at HUD, the federal government began requiring the creation of residential community associations with property-assessment powers as a condition of federal mortgage insurance for new developments. Today, about 30 percent of the U.S. population lives under the jurisdiction of RCAs and condominium associations—essentially a sub-local level of government. It is hard to recall that condominium developments were unknown in the United States until 1961. It is certain that absent these outlets for political energies, there would be far more dissatisfaction with suburban life and politics.

What are some end runs that today might be considered in place of the endless debates over health insurance, student loans, low-income housing, and infrastructure? Here are some suggestions.

Health

Several students of federal health programs have pointed out that they have done little to enhance longevity or even to reduce pain. This is true even of the Medicaid program. They are essentially consumer programs, designed to assist people’s wallets, not their bodily functions. Some, such as the until recently uncontrolled federal payments for opioids, have actually injured public health.

A public health scholar has observed that if leading authorities on public health were assembled and asked how the extra $100 billion to $200 billion a year spent for Obamacare might most usefully have been spent, none would have suggested anything like Obamacare. The major increases in life expectancy over the last 50 years have predominantly come from such things as the prohibitions of leaded gasoline and lead paint, improved air quality and industrial safety standards, and taxes, regulations, and propaganda to discourage smoking.

It is generally agreed that lead paint ingestion is a major cause of mental retardation among children, particularly in inner cities. The response has been limited to new laws imposing liabilities on landlords where a lead paint sufferer is shown to have lived in one of their dwelling units. These laws have done more to foster abandonment of properties or concealment of their ownership than health. There are said to be 20 to 30 million dwelling units with lead paint. The cost of encapsulation—not removal—of lead paint per unit is about $2000. Some $60 billion is a large price tag, but spread over five or 10 years it is minuscule compared to the annual cost of Obamacare, or other grandiose schemes floated by Democrats.

The same is true of the cost of contact tracing of persons suffering from venereal disease, forestalled by the AIDS lobby when the disease was assumed to be deadly for fear of the violence it might provoke, but certainly warranted now, when the chief consequence of AIDS is not death but the infliction of huge drug costs on the government.

National health programs have done little, even by way of propaganda, to combat obesity or diabetes. By contrast, Britain, France, and Mexico have taxed soft drinks based on their sugar content, and other jurisdictions have done far more to promote better diets and enhance outdoor recreation in cities and suburbs.

At the behest of the ACLU, drug testing in schools has been forsworn, though most parents would appreciate early warnings about involvement with the drug culture. The response of the last two administrations to opioid abuse has been scandalous. Although the legalization of marijuana is obviously imminent, there has been no effort to install quality control and regulatory measures, to educate the public about its perils for the very young, or even to provide financial mechanisms to separate the new industry from its underworld connections and the habit of tax evasion.

Education

As with health, so with education. At the higher education level, there have been no proposals to reduce regulations and the consequent bloat in tuition charges and the number of administrators. Outside the profit-making sector, there has been no effort to de-fund or convert to another purpose the nation’s dropout academies. On the contrary, there have been promises of more funds for failing HBCUs, the inadequacies of which were vividly described by the sociologist David Riesman in his book The Academic Revolution sixty years ago. Residential one- and two-year colleges or polytechnics with vocational programs, the original conception behind the creation of Hampton Institute and Tuskegee institute are today unknown; youth must be either ersatz academics or permanent members of an unemployed under-class.

As for K-12 education, one hears nothing about the pay needed to attract qualified science teachers, banished from most high schools by the union uniform pay schedules; there is no discussion of the revival of the National Defense Education Act of the Eisenhower era to promote teaching of science and critical languages. Unlike the position in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, there are no building-level community boards for schools, which in the U.S. have no control over their own budgets, even to the extent necessary to promptly repair their heating systems. Proposals for school reform seek to enhance, rather than reduce, the involvement of aspirant teachers with education courses, barring qualified scientists, career-changers, housewives and retirees from the teaching force. Nothing has changed from a hundred years ago, when the private school headmaster Horace Taft described normal schools (teacher training colleges) as places where “sub-normal students are taught by ab-normal teachers.”

Housing

There is no dearth of schemes to create new subsidized low-income housing, usually of dubious durability and involving great expense. Measures to promote more efficient use of the existing housing stock, much of which was built for families larger than those now prevalent, have been forsworn. Yet Japan, Germany, and Finland provide tax credits for the creation of accessory apartments in owner-occupied housing, usually involving a tenth the cost of new construction, and the U.K. excludes room rentals received by owner-occupiers from income tax.

Transportation

The nation’s road system is permitted to deteriorate while congressmen fruitlessly strive to devise new infrastructure subsidy schemes. Yet a gradually increasing federal gasoline tax, with the new revenues passed through to the states via a credit for state gasoline taxes, would permanently remove some pork-barrel struggles from the Capitol building. Likewise, the interstate highway legislation should no longer bar the states from instituting road-pricing and congestion-charging schemes.

One hears nothing about such end runs from presidents or candidates of either party. There is before us only the prospect of endless partisan trench warfare.

George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of numerous works on law and history, most recently Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks At Four Failed Administrations (Amazon: 2021) and America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury: 2019).

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