Misreading Our Mood

We’re less than a month away from the election — the latest in a string of elections that liberals and conservatives alike want us to treat as the most important election in modern history! — and I wonder how well our political classes even understand the average voter.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times about how an increasingly unpopular President Obama has been “benched” by his party capsulized the issue for me.  The article says that the President hopes, once again, to “pivot” to the economy and give a series of speeches about jobs initiatives and a “clean energy economy,” but his advisers are frustrated because the American people are worried, instead, about a possible Ebola outbreak and the terrorist threat posed by ISIS.  One of the operatives said:  “When people are jumping a fence at the White House and Ebola is in Dallas it’s hard to get a message through.”

No kidding!

And therein lies the problem.  The political types dream of rolling out more wishful policy proposals in grand speeches; they treat real-world problems like Ebola, ISIS, and porous borders as irritants that serve only to distract from the more crucial policymaking process.  The American people, on the other hand, see Ebola, ISIS, and White House security as precisely what the federal government should focus on as its most important priorities.

Epidemics and terrorism are beyond the control of the Average American; they are the big, scary problems that only the government is equipped to handle.  When the big problems arise, we want to hear from clipped, hyper-competent people who have developed careful plans to tackle the problem — not expessions of regret that the deadly plague and the beheadings are preventing politicians from talking about the latest solar energy initiative.

The Times article plays into an important undercurrent in our society.  We know that the governmental types are eager to tell us what to eat, drink, and think.  They want us to accept their assurances that Ebola will never make it to our shores, and then when a man infected with Ebola somehow arrives in Dallas they expect us to believe new assurances that things are nevertheless under control.  Not surprisingly, such statements are greeted with increasing skepticism — and when articles indicate that the President and the politicos are straining at the leash to put Ebola and ISIS behind them and move on to debate about a “clean energy economy,” the skepticism grows, and grows, and grows.  In that context, why should we view statements that Ebola or ISIS are under control as anything other than a convenient effort to sweep the big, scary, problems under the rug so the policymaking games can be played?

It’s not unreasonable for us to want or demand a federal government that understands that the big, scary problems are its most important job, not some mere distraction.  How many voters will enter the voting booths next month with that thought in mind?

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Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

Time To Skip A Few Fundraisers

Yesterday Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California was asked about whether President Obama should alter his current schedule, which includes attending a number of fundraising events, so that he can focus more on some of the crises in the world, such as the downing of the passenger jet over the Ukraine by pro-Russian forces, the surge by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the escalated Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza.  Senator Feinstein’s response was delicately phrased.  She said that the world would very much respect his “increased attention” to these matters, because the Leader of the Free World needs to lead in such times.

President Obama has attended a lot of fundraisers during his tenure in office.  The Washington Post recently calculated that he has held 393 fundraisers while in office, which is more than George W. Bush’s total during his full two terms but not quite as many as Bill Clinton’s record.  It’s not hard to understand why Presidents like fundraisers.  By definition, it’s a friendly gathering — after all, everyone else in attendance is ponying up thousands of dollars to be there, and obviously they’re not paying that much for the food — and at the end of the event the President can see tangible results and tote up the money he’s raised to support candidates who will support his agenda.

The Obama Administration no doubt would contend that the President is fully in touch with his national security team and capable of dealing with these crises whether he’s in the Oval Office or wearing a tux at some glittering event.  Maybe . . . although the combination of world events and the mess at our border raise legitimate questions about whether the President is fully in control of events.  In any case, I think Senator Feinstein has put her finger on something significant.

Appearances and messaging are important in today’s world.  It’s hard to successfully characterize something as a crisis if you can’t be bothered to change your schedule and skip non-essential events in order to work the phones with international leaders and build working coalitions to deal with the problem.  When the President goes to fundraisers in the midst of these events, he’s implicitly communicating that he is more concerned about Republicans than he is about the Middle East, or the Ukrainian separatist activities, or the influx of unaccompanied minor illegal immigrants.

Senator Feinstein recognizes that — and, I suspect, so do the perpetrators of the events that have given rise to these crises in the first place.  I think it’s time for the President to skip a few fundraisers.

The Costs Of A Porous Border

We’re learning more about the costs — direct and indirect — of the mass influx of unaccompanied minors and other illegal immigrants across our southwestern border, and the news is becoming more and more concerning.

At a closed-door briefing with members of Congress earlier this week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson disclosed some of the direct costs.   According to members of Congress who attended, Johnson said the federal government is spending between $250 and $1,000 per day, per child, to house and feed the minors.  When you are talking about more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors already in the country and needing assistance — and U.S. officials predicting that another 30,000 will cross the border by September — you don’t need a calculator to see that the ongoing and future costs are enormous.

As everyone knows, our federal government is cash-strapped.  Some people may say we’ve been racking up huge budget deficits for years, and these costs will add just a little bit more to those deficits.  That reaction ignores the reality of our financial situation.  Every dollar of our deficit is financed through the issuance of U.S. government bonds and notes.  Do we really want to have to issue more bonds and notes to pay for these services, and pledge the full faith and credit of our country for them?  With our current budget situation, the inescapable reality is that we will be borrowing more in the future to pay the interest on these bonds and notes — which means that we’ll be paying directly out of pocket for our border problems for years to come.

There are indirect costs as well.  The U.S. government can’t house all of these minors on military bases, and already we’re seeing governors and mayors raising questions about whether these minors are coming to their states and communities — where they will need more housing, and food, and medical care, and attention.  Who will pay for it?  The NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon is in full swing.  Pennsylvania’s governor has expressed concern about whether the illegal immigrants have infectious diseases, says there should be enough room on military bases in Texas and Arizona to house them, and wonders how he will pay for the needed services if they are sent to Pennsylvania.  Officials in other states are saying that the federal government has resettled some of the immigrants in their states without providing adequate notice to local authorities.  And officials in cities as far away from the border as New Bedford, Massachusetts are concerned that an influx of impoverished, non-English-speaking immigrants will further strain governmental and school budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point.

Massachusetts sheriff recently said, “we are all border states now.”  There’s some truth to that.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that our porous border is creating huge problems for communities and states across the country.  As we figure out how to deal with these unaccompanied minors, we also need to pay attention to the root cause of the problem — a border that sometimes seems to be little more than a line on a map.  We can’t afford to pay $250 or $1,000 a day to care for every child that crosses illegally into our country, and we also can’t afford the security risks of a border that permits them (and adults, too) to do so.  The Obama Administration and Congress need to figure out how to close that border and do it before the costs and consequences become overwhelming.

The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question.