Maybe the Trouble Is That Government Is Irrelevant

November 10, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "Why not close down the whole shebang'' of government for a few days, to see what life would be like without it?

Frustrated with the riptide of anti-government sentiment sweeping the nation a few days before Tuesday's Republican landslide, federal budget director Alice Rivlin threw out that facetious suggestion in a talk to public administrators here.

The vision of closing down services from air-safety control to Social Security, from local garbage collection to checking for dangerous bacteria in municipal water supplies, may be worth a chuckle. To some it sounds whiny -- blaming voters whose message isn't simply less government, but better government.

But the elections repudiated a president who's made immense effort to ''reinvent'' the federal government from within. And in state after state, people seemed willing to eviscerate the public sector.

It's tough to avoid reading a message that government's too large, too much of a burden. A voter in Raleigh, North Carolina, told a reporter: ''I just want government to leave me alone and quit taking one-third of my paycheck.''

Her own job? She works for the state government.

In New York, historically a top spender among states, voters went for a Republican, George Pataki, who promises a hardly credible 25 percent cut in state taxes. Voters may not believe he can achieve it, but they seem happy enough with a slash-and-burn approach to state governance.

But is this simply churlishness? Voters may also be grasping, in an inchoate way, the idea that government, as we know it today, is losing a lot of its punch. It's probably dangerous to talk about big ''paradigm'' shifts, but William Dodge, a Pittsburgh-based government consultant, offers one that rings true in many ways.

In the old days, he says, we looked for solutions to our problems at three levels -- federal, state and local. But the new order of problems and potential solutions are radically different: They are global, they are regional and they are neighborhood.

Mr. Dodge may have a point. Global economic restructuring tears apart familiar relationships and has been forcing every institution -- business, government, medicine, maybe even academia and the media -- to cut costs, reorganize and redefine its role.

Strategic planning for the future may be best focused at the level of the real city of our time, the great citistate regions where 80 percent of us live.

And it's at the level of the neighborhood, of grass-roots community, where America's grave and growing social problems must ultimately be dealt with.

If there's truth to this, then government organized along the familiar federal-state-municipal lines is bound to seem less and less relevant to people's needs. Citizens may indeed need to lead -- and make do -- a lot more for themselves. The Republicans sound closer to that new idea than the Democrats, a partial explanation for their triumph.

Yet in a campaign season polluted by viciously negative ads, there was virtually zero discussion of things that matter -- how we'll need, on many fronts, to invent new types of institutions, from integrated regional road and transit systems to neighborhood-directed all-day schools to ways our regions can negotiate their own environmental future or forever be victimized by federal and state regulations.

And while Republicans celebrate a historic breakthrough, old-style partisanship is unlikely to hold for long. Most youth don't even recognize that political parties exist. President Clinton couldn't hold his Democrats together on multiple issues, health care included. More PACs (political-action committees) may now move over to support the Republicans -- in time entangling and destroying them as an effective governing force -- as the Democrats have just experienced.

Indeed, the great question mark around Republican governance in Congress is whether 40 years of saying no, of blocking, of unifying merely to capture political attention, can be translated into a program more coherent and affordable than the campaign-season ''Contract with America.''

A friend likens the Republicans to the dog perpetually in chase of the car -- until one day he catches it. The instant the cold plastic bumper's in his mouth, the exhaust fumes in face, his canine brain has to wrestle with the question: What will I do now?

Republicans may reply: We'll do very nicely, thank you. Just look at the popularity of Gov. Christie Whitman, working hard to cut taxes in New Jersey, or Gov. Tommy Thompson, working to trim welfare in Wisconsin, or the phalanx of other GOP governors easily re-elected November 8.

Yet in the meantime the dissolution of millions of American families proceeds, violence spreads and prisons explode with new inmates -- even under supposedly successful ''law-and-order'' regimes. City-suburban income disparities get worse, intensifying dangerous social divisions between our ''haves'' and ''have-nots.'' American schools compare miserably on a global scale of advanced societies.

When we finally get around to coping with these problems more effectively, government will have to be part of the solution. The trick will be redefining governance as a shared enterprise in tune with the new global to neighborhood realities -- and most important, as ''us,'' not ''them.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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