The Idea That Just Won't Die: The Right Federal Program Can Solve Any Human Problem

Let’s face it, our world is full of major human problems. Even very wealthy modern America has its share of these major human problems: poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, unaffordable health care, unaffordable housing, unaffordable education, and you could go on and on.

Now, how to address these problems? You could try this: Take a some of our very brightest thinkers. Send them to some top Ivy League or equivalent schools to get the very best educations. Then turn them loose into the policy arena, full of moral righteousness and energy and a burning passion to fix the world. And what will emerge? Remarkably, in every case you can find, what will emerge will be the exact same thing: a proposal for some new government “program” and spending that supposedly will fix whatever problem the particular guru may focus on at the moment.

The government in question will always be the federal government. Why not state governments (even all state governments) or local governments? My friend, have you no moral compass? Brilliant and righteous policy gurus do not go to Yale or Harvard or Princeton to think small. Fixing the world is going to require billions, and even trillions, and right now. Do not expect these experts to spend a decade or two in the wilderness in Nebraska trying go get some puny experimental program involving mere millions off the ground. These urgent problems must be fixed immediately, and all at once, and with whatever money it takes.

As you’ve been reading this introduction, likely the examples that have run through your mind include current progressive icons like free healthcare for all, free college for all, and so forth. And those are indeed excellent examples. But to illustrate the proposition of a new federal program as the solution to literally everything, let me take you on a tour through some op-eds and reviews that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal just over the past few days.

On November 20, we had William Galston (of the Brookings Institution) writing a column headlined “Work: The New Political Breakthrough.” The issue is not healthcare or free college, but rather how to increase workforce participation among the populace. Obviously, the government must get involved. Excerpt:

The bipartisan case for action goes something like this: For most people, work is an important source of structure and meaning. . . . Policy makers should view the problem from the starting point of today, and resolve to take action on every front. America must restore the norm of gainful employment for all who are mentally and physically able and are not working in the home. The private and public sectors must share responsibility for equipping every American, college-bound or not, with marketable 21st-century skills. 

“Policy makers” must “equip every American . . . with marketable 21st-century skills.” It’s federal job training programs! Oh, wait a minute — aren’t there a few of those already? My post of February 5, 2014 linked to a 2011 GAO study that identified some 47 (!) then-existing federal job training programs, known for their excessive cost, redundancy, and abject failure. The occasion for my February 2014 post was the big announcement by President Obama the previous month that then-VP Joe Biden was going to be tasked with straightening out and streamlining this mess to come up with something that would actually work, if only a little. Here was my prediction:

[T]here will be a big announcement of some consolidation and rationalization.  The number of programs will be reduced somewhat, maybe by half or so.  But the number of federal employees working on this and the level of funding will remain at least the same or grow.  Nobody will get fired.  And the bureaucrats will continue to make 100 percent sure that there are no data collected sufficient to show the complete ineffectiveness of their efforts.

Which only proves that even the Manhattan Contrarian has way to much faith in the good faith and efficacy of the government. Here’s what actually happened: There was no consolidation and no rationalization. Rather, in April 2014, Biden and Obama announced that they were just going to throw yet a little more money at the problem. From Politico, April 16, 2014, “Obama, VP to tout job training cash”:

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will travel Wednesday to the Pittsburgh area to tout $600 million in federal job training investments — the latest White House effort to show it’s addressing middle class economic issues despite a gridlocked Congress. . . . The president will announce a new $100 million apprenticeship grant program aimed at fast-growing fields. He will also promote his recent move to refocus $500 million from the Trade Adjustment Assistance and Community College and Career Training grant program so that it rewards programs that apply the best practices identified by Biden’s task force.

So how did that great reform work out? On November 8, 2016 (election day!) the Labor Department issued a report (that it had been sitting on for some six months) on the efficacy of federal job training programs. The Hill had a report on same on March 14, 2017:

Last Nov. 8, while millions of Americans flocked to the polls, the U.S. Labor Department slyly released an embarrassing report. The “Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Gold Standard Evaluation,” completed six months earlier, concluded that all of the federal government’s primary job-training programs don’t really work. Specifically, the study found that the programs are largely ineffective at raising participant’s earnings and are offering services that don’t meet the needs of job seekers or employers. . . . The training programs did little to raise the earnings of job seekers. The Labor Department is also supposed to offer training in high-demand occupations, and they failed there as well. Despite this mandate, the vocational services provided, according to job-training participants, are unlikely to lead to the intended occupations.

But all of this has long since slipped from your consciousness, if indeed it had ever registered there at all. So when Galston calls for yet more of same, it still seems plausible — at least if you start with the perspective that the federal government can fix any problem as long as it spends enough money.

Next up, there is the November 19 book review by W. Bradford Wilcox (Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia) of two new books, one (“The Once and Future Worker”) by Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, and the other (“The Forgotten Americans”) by Isabell Sawhill, again of the Brookings Institution. Both Cass and Sawhill address a similar problem to the one addressed by Galston, namely the disaffection of some portion of the American working-age population.

Mr. Cass and Ms. Sawhill introduce a range of worthy ideas to advance their pro-work agenda, but two stand out: strengthening vocational education and introducing a federal wage subsidy. . . . Ms. Sawhill advocates a new “GI Bill for America’s Workers” that would rectify this imbalance by boosting spending on vocational learning as well as on job training and apprenticeships, especially programs working hand-in-glove with local businesses. . . . To more fully reward work, and to make low-wage workers more appealing to employers, Mr. Cass recommends a federal wage subsidy that would boost hourly wages in the direction of a target wage—set at about $15 per hour today. Workers would receive half the difference between their market wage and the target wage, with the federal government depositing the subsidy directly into their paychecks.

It’s a “range of worthy ideas” — but somehow all “worthy ideas” always come down to one or another federal expenditure. But this time, the new expenditure will be designed by a much cleverer person than the dolts who designed the previous 47 federal job training programs that all failed. I particularly like this piece of total naiveté from Ms. Sawhill, explaining why her proposed “GI Bill for America’s Workers” will actually work: “To prevent fraud and failure, she adds, these programs would be rigorously evaluated, with their funding made ‘conditional on the proportion of graduates who secure good jobs.’” Yes, Isabel, you are the first one to come up with the idea that “rigorous evaluation” can make government “programs” work. Meanwhile, the government did subject the prior 47 job training programs to “rigorous evaluation” (see above), and determined that they had failed, and yet sure enough, all of them continue merrily along receiving their annual funding from the government. and employing their cadres of bureaucrats in lifetime sinecures.

And finally, just to show that not all of the current round of calls for new federal spending programs relate to job training, we have a piece on November 20 by NYU Economist Paul Romer, headlined “Government Can Do More to Support Science and Innovation.” This time the call is for government money for science. However, in the great tradition of policy gurus with the exact same idea as all other policy gurus, Romer resorts to the common game of never saying “give us more money,” and instead draws on a few from the infinite list of euphemisms for the same thing:

[G]overnment needs to take a more active role in creating scientific infrastructure. The U.S. has done it in the past, showing that investments in science today can result in critical economic infrastructure tomorrow.

According to Romer, it will be just like the internet, which supposedly never would have existed without a kick-start from the government. Are you sure that that’s right? I’m not. But I am sure that the climate hoax would never have gotten nearly as far as it has without billions and billions in annual funding from the government.

What is it about the brain of the policy guru that it can only think of solving human problems in the form of an expenditure of government (taxpayer) money on some cleverly-designed “program”?