On Monday, the White House will hold a “tech summit,” playing host to leading executives from most—but not all—of the leading technology companies in America.
According to the Wall Street Journal, techsters will include executives from Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Google, IBM, and Oracle. (One prominent tech company that won’t be there is Tesla; its CEO, Elon Musk, is boycotting the Trump administration over its decision to depart from the Paris climate-change deal.)
Yet for the vast majority of technology companies, the gathering is vital, because the subject itself is so obviously important. Moreover, in addition to the general theme of American economic competitiveness—how to stay ahead of China, Japan, India, and the European Union—there’s one specific agenda item that understandably draws firms to DC: the upgrading of the federal government. After all, Uncle Sam will spend some $4 trillion in the coming fiscal year; that’s a lot of business.
As one early planning document declared, the Trump administration’s goal is for the federal government to “operate like a modern technology enterprise.” And that upgrading effort ought to be bipartisan, even non-partisan. As one of the White House upgraders, Chris Liddell—himself a former top executive at General Motors and Microsoft—told the Journal, “Modernizing government services is not politicized.”
In fact, reform of the government is something of a hardy perennial; after all, the earnest hopes of libertarians notwithstanding, the government doesn’t seem to be about to shrink. In fact, for the last 65 years, federal spending as a share of GDP has been remarkably stable.
Still, the government can always use a new look, for the simple reason that it’s always falling behind. That is, Uncle Sam is a lagging indicator; new trends tend to happen first in the private sector. Indeed, many observers will say that entrepreneurial companies move faster because they are unburdened by civil service and Congressional oversight, and they’re right. We might add, too, that the private sector is increasingly sloughing off labor unions, which leaves companies with an even freer hand to innovate.
Yet this churn in the private sector is having an unintended consequence: It’s strengthening the political left, the familiar champion of the public sector. That is, while the transformation of Corporate America may be increasing productivity and profitability, those same changes are causing civic damage, too. It’s plain to see: For all its value, “creative destruction” also has a way of rendering millions of employees defenseless against lower wages, stripped benefits, layoffs, and offshoring.
In other words, it’s not a coincidence that the “turbo-capitalism” of the last few decades has been matched by the rise of powerful populist movements on the left, including those led by Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain—it’s more like cause and effect. Indeed, one could add that one of the reasons that Donald Trump is president today is that he tapped into much of that same angry populism for his right-leaning candidacy.
For their part, Sanders and Corbyn aren’t the least bit interested in shrinking their public sectors—they want to see the state expanded, bigly. And come to think of it, it’s not so obvious that President Trump is going to succeed in his relatively modest efforts to shrink the state.
In fact, it appears that the United States as a whole is moving to the left: Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is now more popular than ever.
Meanwhile, progressive governors, such as California’s Jerry Brown and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, are moving their states leftward—and enjoying great popularity as they do so. And in Kansas, both chambers of the Jayhawk State’s Republican-controlled legislature recently voted to raise taxes; in doing so, lawmakers actually overrode a GOP governor’s veto, and the tax hikes are now law.
So we can see: If the government isn’t going anywhere, and if the government is always lagging, then there’s really only thing to do: Make it work better. In other words, don’t scorn the status quo—improve it. To be sure, a strategy of incremental improvement rarely pleases radicals. And yet it often pleases the general public; that is, the folks who just want a competent government.
In fact, a look back at the history of government reform shows that there’s a long lineage of doing just that—namely, enacting prudential improvements.
Back in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, an energetic reformer, established the Committee of Department Methods, which streamlined personnel, purchasing, and statistics-gathering.
The next big reform effort came in 1937, when the Brownlow Committee recommending turning a hodgepodge of individuals and entities around the White House into a formal Executive Office of the President. The EOP was established by Congressional statute two years later. (As an aside, we can observe that reform efforts take on permanence only when they are written into law—and that requires the cooperation of Congress. To put that point another way, any change that’s done with the stroke of a presidential pen can be undone with the stroke of a subsequent pen.)
Then in 1947, after the enormous growth of the federal government during the New Deal and World War Two, President Harry Truman asked former President Herbert Hoover to lead the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, known to history as the Hoover Commission. That endeavor led to many changes, including the creation of the General Services Administration, which coordinates all federal purchasing. (And yes, we can note the irony: Hoover, a staunch champion of small government, was brought in to ratify the enlargement of government—Truman knew what he was doing.)
The next major stab at federal reform came in 1993 when the new Clinton administration tasked Vice President Al Gore with the job of “reinventing government,” or Rego.
Yes, it may seem hard to believe now, but once upon a time, Gore was seen as a moderate, perhaps even something of a conservative. And so, aided by a notably talented staff of reform-minded insiders, Gore set about revamping public services, with an eye toward introducing private-sector methods, if not outright privatization. For instance, Gore’s group consulted with Disney to learn about how to expedite the movement of queues. In addition, the new technology of the Internet made it possible to begin the process of digitalizing public service.
For all these reasons, Rego was successful as a matter of both policy and politics. Confidence in the federal government rose sharply during those years—from below 20 percent to above 40 percent—and the Clinton-Gore ticket was re-elected in a landslide. As we all know, in the years since, Gore has gone from reinventing the government to reinventing the atmosphere, and yet the spirit of his original effort lives on at the Brooking Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management.
In addition, today we can observe that the same sorts of reinvention, still ongoing, are also evident at the state and local level. We can consider, for instance, the issue of K-12 education.
In the early 1980s, the public schools, especially in the cities, hit a nadir of dysfunction and, oftentimes, outright corruption. In response, President Reagan, aided by a young-turk reformer named Bill Bennett, established the National Commission on Educational Excellence. In 1983, that body issued a landmark report, A Nation At Risk: The Imperative of Education Reform, which sounded a loud klaxon horn: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
The result of the report was electric: Suddenly, educational reform went to the top of the national agenda, with Bennett as its sharp-tongued thought-leader.
More than three decades later, it’s impossible to say that the education crisis has been solved—as we have seen, problems of governance are, by their nature, chronic—and yet at the same time, it’s obvious that educational resources have improved. That is, a motivated student now has access to learning vastly beyond what a student a few generations ago could only have dreamed of.
Much of this improved access is the result of school choice—that is, market-driven schooling opportunities, as first outlined by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. Of course, Friedman advocated vouchers, usable at any school, public or private. And while that hasn’t happened, except in a very few cases, charter schools, which are a sort of compromise version of vouchers, have happened.
Today, of the 50 million K-12 students attending public schools in the US, more than 2.5 million attend charter schools. Indeed, in some cities, such as the District of Columbia, the charter-school student population is nearly as large as the traditional public-school population.
Yet even the number of students actually enrolled in charter schools understates the true impact of the school-choice idea. Across the country, more than 2700 magnet public schools are in operation; these typically attract students on the basis of some sort of curriculum specialty. In other words, there aren’t many students in America today that don’t have access to some sort of educational choice. And as Friedman—one of whose many books was entitled Free to Choose—liked to say, the only power anyone really has is the power of an alternative. Thus we can see: students today are empowered.
The point here isn’t to minimize the ongoing challenges facing public education. Instead, the point is to observe that in many areas, education has greatly improved. Thus we can see the power of structural reform, starting from the bully pulpit of the White House.
Sadly, it’s true, of course, that severe challenges to education remain, from a worsening home environment for many students, to the appalling increase in snowflakes and of political correctness. So without a doubt, there’s a lot more reform work to be done. Yet still, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to slip into the slough of thinking that everything is hopeless.
In the meantime, speaking of better ed–ucation—for students and for all of us—there’s a thing called the Internet. As we all know, it’s made a mega-difference in learning opportunities for everyone who is eager to learn. There’s distance learning, of course, and yet even more astonishingly, there’s the quantum leap of Wikipedia. We might pause to note that the libertarian-leaning Foundation for Economic Education refers to Wikipedia as a “wonder of the world,” rivaling anything that humanity has ever seen—and that seems to be a fair assessment.
Thus we are reminded that the modernization of government is a natural companion to modernization, period. So the more that we have of the latter, the more that we will have of the former. And that’s a good thing for all Americans.
So let’s wish the best for the tech modernizers gathered at the White House today. They may not agree on every topic, but on the issue of improving governance, history shows a steady pattern: Despite partisan and institutional differences, Uncle Sam, always prodded by the private sector, has a way of muddling through to betterment—and sometimes, even, excellence.
And as for the rest of us, well, we could all use some good news.