A Further Perspective

Washington’s Super-Sized Ego

Nice try, Mayor Bloomberg, but remember: Look to Washington for all the answers.

By 6.13.12

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WASHINGTON -- The other week New York's Mayor Bloomberg boldly proclaimed his city's intention to ban big soft drinks. Kinda, sorta. The move was both criticized as insufficient and mocked as nanny government gone wild. 

Fans of federalism might say the Mayor's action illustrates that state and local governments have the ability to experiment, as our Founders contemplated. New York can ban big sodas. Meanwhile, the folks in Missoula, Montana, and Meridien, Mississippi, and Montgomery County, Maryland, can make their own decisions on the subject. 

On the other hand, fans of the federal government's current trajectory would offer a different perspective: what's really needed is more federal regulation to address the plethora of problems caused by the pesky habit Americans have of making their own decisions. Happily, they could add, the current administration has made dramatic progress is displacing the patchwork quilt of individual actions and state and local laws with enlightened federal guidance.

Here in The Nation's Only Boom Town, inside the Beltway, our ruling elites understand the critical point overlooked by Mayor Bloomberg: every "problem" has a Washington-centered solution. Our country has many problems. We are told every day of all that needs to be done, and urgently at that. And all of our problems can be solved -- or at least "addressed" -- if we simply acquiesce in more federal government control over our decisions and our daily lives.

It is well appreciated here in Washington that there is just about nothing that should be left to the sound judgment of state and local officials. Moreover, it is even less likely that there are issues encountered in daily life for which individuals should be expected -- or even allowed -- to take responsibility. At least not without oversight from extremely well paid, and of course very well meaning, public servants in the nation's capital.

Like the water that fish don't notice, reminders of this world view surround us constantly here in Washington. Around the country, the warmth of this enveloping governmental benevolence is on display on network talk shows and in assorted op-ed columns every day. Washington experts are always ready to explain why ordinary people simply must have more guidance from the federal government if our societal problems are ever to be solved.

A couple of examples, which illustrate this phenomenon, arrived in my email within the past few weeks. While I noticed these two in particular, it is almost certain I overlooked others of equal or greater concern. After all, things of this sort have become so ordinary that one hardly notices. And that's the very reason we should sit up and pay attention.

Let Us Help You with That Savings Account
First, I received a program announcement from the National Journal. This federal government-focused publication advertised a panel discussion on the subject, "Are the Joneses Keeping Up? Policy Prescriptions for Personal Financial Security." Assorted federal officials and Washington insiders were identified as panelists.

The program description simply assumes it is proper and desirable that we consider how "Washington" can "promote financial literacy for middle-market Americans," and that we should discuss what federal programs and policies "could help Americans save, invest and plan for the future."

Now perhaps contemplation of what "Washington" might do on these subjects does no harm. But frankly, I wonder. Should we assume, as the flyer does, that it's the role of Washington to "promote financial literacy" for presumably benighted "middle-market Americans"? And should we accept, as a starting point for discussion, that it is up to the federal government to "help" us "save, invest, and plan for the future"?

A few decades back, parents taught their children to save by word and example. My folks took me to the local bank to open a savings account, with all of about ten dollars, when I was in the second grade. They wanted me to learn to save. In the final analysis, at least in those days, it was up to me. As I was raised to do, after school I got a job and earned money, paid taxes, and saved a little on my own.

In the past, outside the home, promoting financial literacy was the province of high school teachers, local banks, investment advisors, churches, and civic organizations. Planning for the future was a matter of personal responsibility. And investing -- at least, back before that term came to mean what government does when it spends billions on green energy companies owned by political supporters of the president -- was a means of saving and preparing for the future. 

Now the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is gearing up to come into your living room and give you a hand.

Thanks, Mom and Dad, We'll Take It From Here
More recently, I received an email from the American Bar Association summarizing a variety of things going on in Congress. It seems that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) has introduced the National Parent Helpline Act (S. 2293). This bill would "establish a national, toll-free telephone parent helpline to provide information and assistance to parents and caregivers of children to prevent child abuse and strengthen families."

As supporters of the bill put it: "This vital new national resource will assist parents with a wide range of issues such as parenting and positive discipline techniques, effective communication strategies, stress reduction, personal care and safety, and provide referrals to community-based prevention programs, shelters, substance abuse programs, respite care, and child care."

Of course, this will take some of your money, and probably not only for the hotline itself. Imagine the fun that advocacy groups and community organizers will have crafting the regulations that will some day be necessary for the hotline's operation. They will be determining who gets to be paid to staff the hotline, and what related community based activities will be funded as the scope of the operation inevitably spreads (you know, the way government programs always do).

Even more (costly and) entertaining, we'll have to have experts involved in determining just exactly how the hotline should be helping parents with the "wide range of issues" to be addressed. What will the federal uber-nanny allow the hotline deputy-nannies to say to parents about "positive discipline techniques"? And what "effective communications strategies" will be scripted out for dealing with, say, questions about birth control or sexual preference or religion? Mayor Bloomberg can take heart that in instructing on "personal care" and "substance abuse" the hotline can go after irresponsible soft drink swilling.

Clearly this is a program with very great potential. Just think, now we're finally going to have federal parenting standards! Maybe even a hotline for kids to report their parents for inappropriate words or deeds (oh wait, hasn't that been tried somewhere before?). This will be a marvelous engine for the encouragement of even greater dependency on the federal government. That composite woman Julia on the Obama campaign website ain't seen nothin' yet.

Please Try This Experiment
Here's an experiment I've found instructive, and which I commend to readers.

Whenever you watch a discussion on your favorite network, in which pundits or politicians blather on about some societal ill, listen to the solutions they support. If some sort of government program or action is proposed, see if anyone suggests that perhaps the remedy need not involve the government at all. Or that, if any government action is called for, it should be at the state or local level. Safety warning: Do not hold your breath waiting for such statements.

I think you'll find that in Washington folks very seldom ask, at least outside of Supreme Court arguments, whether there should be any limits to what the government should be called upon to do on our behalf.

So we should salute the genius of our keepers in The Nation's Only Boom Town. The answers they have for our problems may or may not work for us, but they are guaranteed to enhance the wealth and power of our ruling elite.

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About the Author

Ray V. Hartwell, III was a Washington lawyer and a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. He died on February 7, 2014, in Anniston, Alabama.