Getting the Government We Pay For

From Cliven Bundy to bungled websites, we’ve created a monster by starving it

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

According to a proclamation from Governor Brian Sandoval’s office, May 4-10 will be Nevada State Employee Recognition Week, to praise their good work, including how they “conserve and preserve our natural and clitoral resources.”

It presumably should have been “cultural resources,” unless it was a bow to the state allowing legal prostitution. Actually, though, it says a lot about both Obamacare and Cliven Bundy—not what’s wrong with them, but what’s wrong with us.

How did you react to the obvious typographical error? You may have laughed, or thought it referred to how state employees are treated. More likely, you saw it as typical of our incompetent government—whatever level it is—to make such a silly mistake.

Government makes bigger mistakes. Set aside what the Bureau of Land Management has done right or wrong lately, not to mention Bundy’s grasp of race relations. He quit paying his grazing fees 20 years ago. Where has the BLM been?

Some ranchers have acted similarly, but it’s worth pondering that Bundy’s freeloading officially commenced as the Clinton presidency began. Perhaps paying grazing fees to a Republican-led government was more acceptable to him.

At that point, Republicans had controlled the White House for 12 years, starting with Ronald Reagan’s claim that government was the problem, not the solution. A lot of factors had contributed to the poor reputation of government that Reagan capitalized on, from Vietnam and Watergate nationally to the dishonesty associated with atomic testing in Nevada. Reagan supporters such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform advocated “starving the beast”—cutting taxes to force the government to cut spending.

The problem was, and remains, their related goal: to render government incapable of functioning. Reagan’s popularity led Democrats away from arguing that government needs to be able to do what it needs to do. Consider that the IRS has found it can’t collect about $300 billion in unpaid taxes because it lacks the staff and the ability to keep up with scams that allow funds to be hidden offshore.

Meanwhile, some commentators call any recent government failure “Obama’s Katrina.” Does anybody remember that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration during Katrina had trained for the job by judging horse shows?

This problem of contempt for government didn’t develop overnight or only during Republican administrations. Good luck finding a robust defense of government from Bill Clinton when he was president. Still, Clinton did try to pass health care reform. Obama succeeded where Clinton had failed, but the subsequent rollout of was a disaster—as was Nevada’s version.

The websites had something in common besides health care: Both were outsourced to government contractors, and not just because the size of the federal workforce has shrunk under Obama. The Defense Department essentially invented the Internet, but in this case federal and state governments lacked either the means or the desire to run these sites themselves.

That right-wingers showed up to support Bundy is no surprise. Nor should it be surprising that a number of people who criticized Bundy’s actions said they saw his point about the intrusive federal government, especially the BLM. If the government should be criticized, it should be mainly for letting him disobey the law for two decades.

But that’s unfair. This is the government that we pay for—or, more accurately, that we don’t pay for. When we demonize and downsize it enough to make it impossible for it to do its job, government isn’t going to attract as many good people to work for it as we need, and it will fail to address our necessities, from collecting taxes to maintaining our clitoral resources … and our cultural resources.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.