Making Government Work Worser

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(HOST) Today commentator Philip Baruth takes a no-holds-barred look at the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as at President Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security. In short, he doesn’t like what he sees.

(BARUTH) Twenty-first-century southern conservatives hold two key articles of faith: first, that goverment does too much; and, second, that the most unnecessary function of government is to create Democrats. The conservative push for “school choice”, for instance, was fueled in part by the idea that liberal Democrats have created a system of education that leans radically to the left, the second function of this system being not to produce upstanding citizens but to produce more liberals.

Think about George W. Bush’s first domestic initiative, No Child Left Behind. Once the standards and penalties were in place, the President and the Republican majorities in Congress significantly underfunded it. Now, you’d think that, since it was a showcase for their own ideas, Republican lawmakers would have overfunded the program – in order to get artificially good results. Setting high standards and then underfunding is almost guaranteed to produce artificially bad results.

But go back to the second article of faith. If public schools are machines for turning out liberals, then the idea was never simply to make the machines function more efficiently. The idea was also to make the machines look bad, so that they could be replaced by other machines – more private schools where more conservative ideologies could take earlier root. As any school superintendent will tell you, over the next few years No Child Left Behind is going to certify thousands of otherwise healthy schools as “failing”, triggering a whole series of indirect financial penalties.

Now we come to the first major initiative of this administration’s second term: diverting payroll taxes from Social Security into private accounts. The signs that this is not serious fiscal policy are everywhere. Medicare is in far worse shape, but the administration feels no urgency. And the President himself admits that private accounts will do nothing to deal with the program’s solvency issues.

So why seek to dismantle, even partially, the government’s single most popular program? Because it is the government’s single most popular program. If government works well – protects the weak, aids the ambitious – then it justifies its own size. Social Security has an extremely small overhead. It’s far more efficient than any private system yet proposed. The real idea behind privatization is to weaken the existing Social Security system while creating a parallel system based on private corporate control over the nation’s retirement assets.

How will this produce fewer liberals? If your retirement security is inextricably interwoven with corporate profit, you can protest the corporate agenda only against your own best economic interest.

If you think I’m overstating the case, consider this: President Bush’s notion of private accounts have been roundly rejected in polls and openly disparaged by a growing number of serious lawmakers in his own party. Even the President himself admits that they will do nothing to enhance solvency.

So why are they still on the table?

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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