Can Anybody Around Here Admit Out Loud That The Federal Government Cannot Fix Every Human Problem With Another New Program?

When you get right down to it, the fundamental fallacy of the progressive movement is the idea that the central government can fix every human problem by just creating some new programs and spending some new money. And the most important theme of this blog is showing by a thousand examples how that effort always fails.

That’s why one of my favorite recent posts is the one of the past November 23, titled “The Idea That Just Won’t Die: The Right Federal Program Can Solve Any Human Problem.” Key quote:

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.

That particular post focused on federal job training programs. Federal job training programs are perhaps the very best illustration of the fallacy that some new federal program and spending could possibly be the solution to a human problem at hand, since by now there are around 50 of them, all of which continue to fail utterly. Yet despite that incredible track record, every time a government official or policy wonk looks at an issue of job lay-offs or high unemployment, the proposed solution is always another federal job training program. The failure of the previous 50 or so of them is never mentioned. That would just be too impolite. Nor does anyone ever suggest cutting back, much less eliminating any of the 50 failures. That’s just not how this game is played. Instead, one more program is added, and this one is really, really going to work this time.

And thus, two plus years into the Obama administration in February 2011, GAO came out with a big report on the 47 then-existing federal job training programs with an annual cost then running about $18 billion, concluding essentially that there were no data that could establish that any of them accomplished anything positive at all (“little is known about the effectiveness of most [of these] programs”). In January 2014 President Obama, now half way into his second term, acknowledged that the existing job training programs were not succeeding ("We've got a lot of programs, but not all of them are doing what they should be doing to get people (trained) for jobs that exist right now. . . .”), and then announced in the State of the Union address that he was naming none other than VP Joe Biden to do an “across the board” review “to reform federal training programs to help make them more job-driven.” Biden got right to work, and by April 2014 had announced his proposed solution. Yes, the answer was another new program plus some new spending. From Politico, April 16, 2014:

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 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.

And how did the new “investments” in job training devised and touted by VP Biden work out? In 2015-16 the government conducted another big study of the efficacy of federal job training programs, called the “Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Gold Standard Evaluation.” The study was finished by May 2016, but publication of its results was delayed until November 8, 2016 (election day! — what does that tell you?). The Hill summarized the conclusions on March 17, 2017, headline “So far federal job training programs have been outright failures.” Excerpt:

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.

Yes, this is the same Joe Biden who is currently leading among Democrats in the race for nomination for President. Will anyone be so impolite as to question him about his record as federal job training czar?

Anyway, I return to this subject today because Peggy Noonan had a weekly column that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday and the New York Post on Sunday, with the headline (in the Journal) “Republicans in a Nation Needing Repair.” The piece begins from the premise that the U.S. as a nation is currently in a state of, alternatively, “crisis” or “cultural catastrophe.” Therefore, if Republicans want to successfully oppose the suite of progressive proposals thrown out by the Democrats, what they need is to propose their own “conservative path [that] would address the immediate crises Americans on the ground see all around them.” And what exactly would that path consist of? Of course, it’s federal programs, programs, and yet more programs. Except that it’s our programs instead of their programs. Because, I guess, everybody knows that what the federal government does is programs, and somehow it must follow that the only possible strategy for any politician is to propose more and more and yet more of them.

So what kind of new programs does Peggy have in mind? Excerpts:

  • Whatever might help families form and grow. 

  • Teaching the lost boys of the working and middle classes, black and white, how to live. . . . [A] national mentorship program in which men teach boys how to do something constructive. . . . 

  • Resolving the mental-health crisis. We need a vast overhaul of services so families can get the help they need. . . .

  • Helping immigrants become Americans. . . .

  • Help revitalize small towns. Whatever will help, do it. . . .

All from the federal government, of course. The funny thing is that we’re about as far from “crisis” as a country as we have ever been in my lifetime, at least if we’re talking about a “crisis” within the responsibilities of the federal government. In my youth we had just gotten through World War II and the Korean War, and were then faced with an aggressive nuclear-armed prison state with a population larger than ours and an economy that seemed to be almost as large as ours and rapidly catching up; and they had as their close ally the country with the largest population in the world by far. These guys were regularly issuing statements like “We will bury you” and were openly hostile to our way of life. Now that was a real crisis, and squarely for the federal government to deal with.

Today there’s nothing remotely comparable. The basket cases — like North Korea, Cuba or Venezuela? Russia is a small fraction of the threat it was back then, and continuing to decline. China is gearing up to be a geo-political rival, but totally dependent on exports to the West for its wealth, and making every kind of the mistakes (authoritarianism, population decline) that bode very poorly for its future. So now the federal government should get into programs to “help families form and grow” or to “teach the lost boys . . . how to live”?

Can’t anybody say that the people need to step up and take responsibility for their lives? That’s what America is about!