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War on Waste Yourself

As the Gubernatorial race heats up, and the mudslinging rises to a fever pitch, one cannot help but notice that much of what both Bob McDonnell (R) and Creigh Deeds (D) are proposing comes across as being, well, fairly standard campaign fare. We’ve all been here before – that eerie moment during most campaign seasons when the besieged voter begins to wonder if there is much meaning to those things separating the two candidates.

Sadly enough, it’s not greatly different this time around in Virginia (maybe 2013, folks). To be sure, there’s certainly a bit of difference between our two contenders, but it’s definitely not proportional to the media warfare that inevitably engulfs even the most ‘positive’ campaign. Positive campaigning, I’ve noticed, is a political ritual as American as the customary embrace and subsequent discarding of New Year’s resolutions – but that’s a bit outside of my point.
I’d like to take issue with a particular item that jumped out at me while perusing our candidates’ websites – their absolute fixation with war-on-waste rhetoric. To be sure, Virginia government certainly has its problems with bureaucratic weight and misappropriation, but the way our political culture lends so much time, energy and paper to the issue of a few shekels here and there strikes me as somewhat missing the point. I’m not against saving some taxpayer coin (far from it) but it’s not even about saving money. The rhetoric of ‘government waste’ and ‘save money’ has somehow managed to replace actual policy leadership. Tell me the last campaign you remember where government wastefulness was not an issue, and I’ll retire from rapping.

The most obvious retort to this challenge is, of course, that such a political meme only underscores the massiveness of the problem. To this I’ll gladly concede. But imagine if we spent some of our time thinking about not merely how well or poorly our bureaucracies dispense their money – a mind-numbing exercise – but how we can actually use that money, those inputs, to produce a key outcome. Yes, yes, I know that we want less waste so we have more money for roads – but does that translate operationally at VDOT? In the sense that, do we give VDOT x billion dollars and say, go build us the roads we need? No. We burden that allocation with caveats and interpretations and restrictions and regulations so that the result is fairly simple: VDOT ceases to be in the business of serving the Virginians and is instead subject to the maddening affairs of complying with writ and law to perhaps, at the end of that whole process, build. And yet we wonder why we always need more money.

The whole concept of eradicating government waste is blared about for its own sake which, though understandable, has not borne fruit since its invention millennia ago. I’m going to go out on a limb here and venture to say that government waste, like its nebulous cousin ‘poverty,’ will not be eradicated in this or any future generation. Instead, I would challenge that we redirect our focus towards ensuring the provision of services – outputs – and granting our professionals in Richmond and around the state the means and flexibility to do so.

Again, this doesn’t mean that waste in government does not exist or that it should (or can) be ignored, but that the level of outcry over what is generally a minor sum could be far better applied to actually reinventing the mechanisms within the machinery of government to make sure that things are actually getting accomplished. So, why not keep VDOT’s funding static? Don’t cut it nor raise it. Let’s not do any tax increase, Mr. Deeds. Let’s not increase our public debt through a series of bonding initiatives, Mr. McDonnell. Why don’t we try something different this time? Let’s remake the rules governing public spending. Create real workplace incentives for public employees to be more aggressive and proactive about their work. Give our workers the opportunity to work remotely, if it makes sense. Deploy the carrot and stick to management to have them engineer and execute many of those innovative ideas to get our roads built, maintained and trains moving. Let’s look at this in the long-run.

There’s a place for decrying government waste. There’s also a powerful argument to be made that the state needs more money – I can even buy that. But what is absolutely inexcusable is the same drivel that is being stuffed down Virginia’s collective throat every campaign season and labeled ‘reform.’ Humbug.
Why not rationalize our byzantine processes, re-couple inputs and outputs, and make government more competitive before we resolve to saddle ourselves with evermore public debt or the stupidity of higher taxes (or, heavens, both)? If Virginia wants a war on waste, I say it begins with ending the wastefully antiquated way we’ve lulled ourselves into performing the business of government. Anything short of that is just more of the repackaged nonsense most Americans have come to expect from our political class.

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