Ronald Reagan famously said that government is the problem, not the solution. And in the last several decades the United States has been on a deregulatory binge while slashing government services. Has that been beneficial to most of us? Anyone who has used government bureaucracy would attest that dealing with government is not easy. I am not advocating socialism where government runs and/or makes decisions on entire sectors of the economy. But I do believe a government should be competent. And a government should ensure a fair playing field where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. We must find an appropriate balance between the free market and fairness. I have five core responsibilities of a government.
- Mitigation Strategies and Disaster Planning
- Social Safety Net
- Equal Opportunity
Humans are a social species. We formed societies, and a nation is a form of society, so we can work together for our safety and advancement. There are many times I feel like a libertarian where I do not want anyone telling me what to do, but I also know I will not survive long without a society. Therefore, whether government is a problem or a solution truly depends on how we define the roles of a government.
I believe the primary function of a government is the safety of its citizens. And that does not mean spending hundreds of billions to keep us safe from other human beings. I am not naïve to think that all humans mean well. Our species’ history is proof enough of an argument against that sentiment. But in the 21st century, we face more dangers than just marauding tribes. Infectious diseases kill more humans than wars and homicides combined. Yet we minimize the threats posed by microbes, a concept that is brand new in our species’ history, while our evolutionary memory maximizes the threats posed by the “others”. I hope there is a future where there is no military spending. That future is not here yet. But that does not mean we outspend the next ten nations combined for military spending when infectious agents, obesity, and cancer is killing millions of Americans annually.
To have a competent government we must hire competent government employees. Public service must be made sexy again. Government must attract the brightest in our society. We are having an exodus of talent from the government in this current administration. An efficient government needs competent professionals, not unqualified political appointees.
And that leads me to – qualifications matter. Not everyone should be a surgeon, not everyone should be a pilot, nor should everyone be a politician. If I have learned one thing with age, political skills are important. I am not a purist nor am I calling for a progressive utopia. But we need politicians with the skills to negotiate, to compromise, to give and take, and who have the power of persuasion. We need politicians who have basic qualifications in management or business or the sciences. Yes, the beauty of America is that anyone can become the President, but that does not mean anyone should become the President. We need competency in the executive department, not ideology. Let’s leave ideology to the legislative branch. Humans will always be ideological, but competency should be non-negotiable in government.
Social Safety Net
In a rich country like the United States, we should strive for the government to provide a comprehensive social safety net. Education must be free and accessible to everyone. It doesn’t mean anyone who wants should be able to get into a medical school or a PhD program in the sciences. Admissions in specific specialized programs should be merit-based. But in the 21st century, education through an undergraduate degree or a technical school should be free. Education is the best investment a society can make in its citizens.
We should strive for a society where no one has the fear of going hungry or being homeless. I want a nation of risk-takers, of entrepreneurs. I believe if we have a strong safety net, more people can take risks and come up with ideas and inventions to help society. Government should not be doing everything, but it should be providing the resources so that we can be the best version of ourselves. Healthcare should be guaranteed. Clean air and water should be guaranteed. Instead of seeing social safety nets as handouts, they should be as seen as investment in citizens. I am willing to bet that it is more economically viable to have a healthy, well fed, well educated populace than one where everyone fends for themselves.
Mitigation Strategies and Disaster Planning
The Covid-19 crisis was a stark example of how a government isn’t ready for a tragedy that was easily foreseen. We could not have medicines or vaccines ready, but we should have been ready for a pandemic. We should have had plans in place for lockdowns and social distancing. We should have had disaster management plans in place for food shortage, wastage, healthcare, and homelessness. This is the time where we need social safety net to work. This is where foresight should have helped us to be ready – having masks, PPE, business continuity plans. This is what I mean as core competency of a society and government. By being ready, we could have mitigated all this suffering a bit. This is also the time for us to prepare for future disasters – other pandemics, climate change, and other natural disasters. A competent government is one that is ready in the background.
Regulations are a double-edged sword. I am from India where the regulatory tape destroyed the economy. But I have also seen what a laissez-faire economy did to the United States in the late 19th century or in the last few decades. We need regulations to ensure a fair field, and to protect the safety of our citizens. That means environmental regulations and safety regulations. If a business cannot protect its employees, its customers, or the environment, then its business model is flawed. We cannot have airline executives having a revolving door with the FAA or pharmaceutical executives having a revolving role with the FDA. There must be interactions and discussions. Government agencies should not make rules by diktat. But regulatory agencies must have the power and authority to prevent industry excess or abuse. We must have regulations in place to prevent insider trading, or stock buybacks in times on plenty, and asking for bailouts when disaster strikes. Regulations exist because of past tragedies. We must have proactive and preventive regulations, not reactive regulations that try to fix a problem after disaster has struct. A government must function with foresight, not hindsight.
A competent government ensures an even economic playing field. It is not about taking from the makers and giving to the moochers. Income inequality, rise of populism on both sides, wariness of experts and public officials are many of the ills that arise when a few own everything and make their own rules. A government should allow healthy competition, not mergers and consolidations. I am not against billionaires or those who have made it. I am happy for them. But either through taxes or wages, we must come to a compromise about what to do when working people live paycheck to paycheck. We must consider whether the high salaries in certain industries should not be taxed to provide safety net when required. Instead of spending those taxes, maybe keep it in a rainy-day fund for situations like pandemics and other disasters. There will be those who will take advantage of the situation and they should be punished. But both rich and poor take advantage of it, unions and employers take advantage of it. Human nature is both good and bad, regardless of ideology. We must have safeguards to prevent abuse. But the government must provide a strong safety net for all citizens, regardless of wealth or ideology.
A democratic government must ensure every eligible citizen is registered to vote and can vote. In a democracy, the most important right of a citizen is the right to vote. Instead of making voting harder, a government must do everything in its power to make voting easier. Election day must be a federal holiday. The United States has the resources to ensure its citizens can vote. It chooses not to. Politicians should not be choosing their constituents. Voting districts should be drawn by non-partisan bodies, not Democrats or Republicans. A legislative body should be representative of its electorate. If Republicans win 55% of the vote, their voting share in a legislature should be closer to 55% than 45% or 65%. This will ensure everyone’s voice matters. And that leads me to the Electoral College. New Jersey is a state that votes 40-45% Republican, yet it is a solid Blue state. Democrats have won six of the last seven Presidential election popular vote, while losing three of those seven elections in the Electoral College. A government must reflect its citizens. We must consider ranked voting. We must reconsider first-past-the-post results. If a Libertarian Party or Green Party wins 5% of the popular vote in a legislative election, they must get 5% representation in that legislature. I believe all these changes will increase compromise, so politicians are not beholden to the intransigent purists and hyper-partisans of their political parties. Citizens will have a greater voice in a more representative government.
Ultimately, a government is its electorate. The United States does have free and fair elections. Two proofs that voters have more power than the establishment – Eric Cantor lost in a primary and the entire Republican establishment lost to a failed businessman turned reality TV star. For a government to work, its citizens must be civic-minded and engaged. The citizens are the shareholders of the corporation called government. If the shareholders are apathetic, it will reflect in the leadership and performance of the corporation. We, the people, are the government. And we, the people, must demand and vote for a competent government.