Big Government

We Don't Do Big Things

Why the failure of Obamacare should temper America's political ambitions.


In January 2011, when President Obama closed out his State of the Union address with a double invocation of the phrase, "we do big things," it seemed more than plausible. It seemed obviously true. During the previous two years, Congress had passed, and Obama had signed, the biggest fiscal stimulus in history, a far-reaching overhaul of financial sector regulation that included the creation of a new federal agency, and a health care law intended to reform the insurance market and bring the nation closer than ever to universal coverage.

Obama's declaration wasn't so much a promise as a boast of progress already made; under his watch, the federal government wasn't merely going to do big things—it had already done them.

Nearly three years later, the federal government's capacity for expansive action looks far more in doubt. The $800 billion in borrowed stimulus money was spent, but to uncertain and perhaps minimal or even negative effect. Many of the new financial regulations, meanwhile, have not only not been implemented, they have not been formulated. By July of 2013, fewer than 40 percent of the new rules called for by the law had been drafted and finalized.

And then there is the health care law. The October rollout of Obamacare's health insurance exchanges was nothing short of disastrous, especially at the federal level, where Washington attempted to build a network of exchanges covering 36 states.

The technical failures compound the law's policy risks: They make it less likely that insurers participating in those exchanges will achieve a sustainable risk pool with sufficient numbers of young and healthy individuals to balance out the older, sicker population.

The botched launch of exchanges also ensures that the law's already combustible politics produce an explosion, as millions of individuals find that, contrary to the president's explicit and repeated promise, their individual health plans are being cancelled—and the exchange alternatives that were supposed to be in the waiting are not accessible.

The result, at least so far, is a looming policy disaster and a political catastrophe. President Obama's job approval rating dropped to its lowest mark yet in a CBS News poll released Wednesday—settling at 37 percent, down nine points just since last month. The same poll shows a new low for the health care law as well. Obamacare has always struggled politically, but in the last month its approval rating has dropped 12 points, to just 31 percent.

The news, and thus the polls, are not likely to get better any time soon. Multiple reports have hinted that the contractors and bureaucrats in charge of righting the federal exchange technology will not hit their self-imposed end-of-month deadline. And at a congressional hearing this week, the health official in charge of exchange development revealed that as much as 40 percent of the system has yet to be built, including the payment mechanism for transferring subsidies to insurers.

The administration is now so desirous of political relief that it has turned to tweaks to the law that involve selectively not enforcing some provisions and rely on expansive claims of administrative legal authority that are not likely to hold up in court. And officials are so desperate for technical workarounds that they have turned to the insurance industry in hopes of jury-rigging an enrollment mechanism that actually functions. Is the message that the federal government can't do big things, but the insurance industry can?

There are various lessons here about the need for administrative oversight and technical competence, neither of which appear to have been sufficiently present in the launch and implementation of the health care law.

More than anything, however, this rolling bureaucratic disaster and its fallout should serve as a check on expansive political ambitions and grand visions of social change.

That goes for politicians from both parties, and for projects both foreign and domestic; as Republicans learned in Iraq, simply willing something to happen, and throwing resources at the goal, is not the same as seeing it through.

But it also goes for voters, whose hope in governmentally driven change gives those politicians license to act. Americans do many big things well, but American government doesn't. The best way to avoid future grand debacles is to agree that we won't do them together. 

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  1. The only thing any government ever does well is kill people.

    1. “The only thing any government ever does well efficiently is kill people.”


      1. I even question that.

        1. Government is piss poor at doing everything it does. But it is quite capable of killing people at a scale that surpasses even the large corporation.

          1. Right, but efficiently? I don’t know about that.

            1. I assumed that “piss poor at everything” would be interpreted as “not efficient”.

          2. This is why I laugh at leftist paranoiacs rambling about being afraid of Jethro and Billy-Bob being armed and loose in the wild. Governments, often with the blessing of the masses, murder more people on a greater scale than a bunch of teabillies could ever hope to accomplish. Yet it’s Jethro and Billy-Bob whose weapons I’m supposed to support taking away.

    2. You forgot breaking things. They are good at breaking things, too.

    3. Governments are only successful at killing people when the other people are also led by a government. See: Soviet Union & US in Afghanistan and the US in Viet Nam. However, they do a pretty good job at slaughtering innocent bystanders.

    4. my classmate’s step-sister makes $83/hr on the computer. She has been fired for nine months but last month her payment was $14664 just working on the computer for a few hours. go…..W?W?W.D?U?B?3?0.C?O?M

  2. Infrastructure-fetishism. A lot of people think national greatness is based on big, gargantuan projects. Progressives in particular love government because they think only government is capable of organizing gargantuan projects. Remember that MSNBC commercial of Rachel Maddow standing in front of the Hoover Dam?

    The most obscene variation of infrastructure-fetishism is obviously Military Keynesianism. How much of the Empire’s resources do you think were misallocated to the Death Star and Super Star Destroyer projects?

    1. If they had only taken 5% of that budget and devoted it to target practice for the stormtroopers, the project could have been a huge success!

      1. The Rebellion were just a bunch of backwards, racists Rethuglicans.

        1. The Rebellion were just a bunch of backwards, racists Rethuglicans.

          Well duh. Skywalker the long-haired redneck farmer destroying the mighty Big Government, while dreaming of getting his sister into the sack. It’s a Tea Party fantasy.

      2. If only they’d remembered to hire that one guy to remember to cover up the exhaust port.

        1. Actually, Although it LOOKED wrong, the radiators on any space station that received excess solar energy would be one of the most vulnerable parts. Not, like, splodey ring of fire, bad. More like, “oh fuck, oh fuck, we’re all going to roast”.

    2. I remember the Hoover Dam ad. Rachel never pondered what might happen is that project were proposed today, or how she would vocally be on the side of the various groups opposing it.

      1. Exactly. Little problem with this article is that we DID build the Hoover Dam and put a man on the moon, dammit — but that was before the relevant government agencies got managed to death.

        1. The private sector could have done either of those things. Would it have? In the case of the Hoover Dam, maybe. In the case of the space program, probably not, or at least not back in the 1960s.

          1. The private sector could have done either of those things. Would it have? In the case of the Hoover Dam, maybe.

            Hoover was going to require a government contract to build it regardless, given the disputes over water rights to the Colorado River among the basin states. I can’t see a private sector company wading into those kinds of interstate legal battles without some sort of government intervention.

            If it wasn’t the Feds, it would have been a cooperative venture between the state governments to contract the work out.

    3. You missed the important point: Not every good thing humans do will make some company a profit.

      1. Yes, but things that involve killing people or taking resources that other humans would like to do good things with are not good.

        Hence most good things do not involve the government.

      2. I think you miss an important point, how exactly is going to the moon good? What did we get other than some cool footage of the moon and some space rocks (which can be found in Antarctica anyway). Private companies have no problem going into space to do good things like launch satellites and what-not, no government necessary.

        If you’re trying to say that only government waste made such space travel possible then I would argue that it was private individuals which pioneered flight and rocketry in the first place.

        If there is a good reason to do something then it will be done without the force of government. If there is not a good reason to do something then it should not be done (or at least not done at the people’s expense).

        1. If there is a good reason to do something then it will be done without the force of government.

          Not if it requires large investment with no guarantee of profit. Government exists because humans find it useful to mobilize resources on a large scale for certain purposes.

          1. So in practice, government is a way to privilege some peoples’ vision of “good things” over others’. So if Pharaoh wants a pyramid, Pharaoh gets a pyramid. Because it’s good. Or else.

  3. The $800 billion in borrowed stimulus money was spent, but to uncertain and perhaps minimal or even negative effect.

    What’s the uncertainty? The money was stolen from the private sector marketplace, where it was being allocated via the price mechanism to satisfy the most urgent desires of individuals, and reallocated via bureaucrats based on enhancing the careers of politicians.

    That is by definition, if you’re a libertarian, to “negative effect”.

    1. And in most cases, the money was given to state governments in order to allow them to maintain bloated payrolls and to defer having to deal with the pension crisis threatening to take over the state’s operating budget. So, again, spent to negative effect. Spent to allow a festering problem to continue and to worsen, rather than allowing the needed adjustments and bankruptcies to take place.

  4. I’m new here. This is my first post. I’ve read through some of the articles and comments.

    I have so many questions. For now… what is H&R or HnR?

    1. Hit and Run

      1. Thank you.

    2. 2 more helpful tips:
      FYTW: Fuck You That’s Why
      Tony: Village idot

      1. We have plenty of village idiots but I wouldn’t call Tony that. He’s more of a village sociopath type.

        1. No sociopaths are capable of projecting a congenial image and are often quite intelligent. Tony is just a liberal gadfly.

          1. More like a tapeworm smiley face.

  5. A good government of a genuinely great nation doesn’t do big things. It serves a defined, limited and useful purpose – protecting the rights of the citizenry and maybe, MAYBE, providing a few key services that can’t be provided any other way. That’s it. Whenever a government tries to do more, it winds up treating its citizenry as resources of the government itself – slaves – on behalf of whatever grandiose scheme that those in power choose to pursue.

    1. In theory, right? Or do you have any such great nations in mind?

  6. I guess the space program, the end of widespread poverty among the elderly, the Internet, winning world wars, a vast transcontinental highway system, aren’t big things?

    Obamacare is pretty much the least disruptive plan for universal healthcare anyone has ever dreamed up for this country. Don’t let that stop you setting your hair on fire over it.

    1. Space program – hugest boondoggle since WWII. Note that satellites are being launched by the private sector and maintained by them. I’ll admit you need government to study rocks on Mars – no doubt the biggest need we face.
      End of widespread poverty among the elderly – REALLY?? The wealthiest sector of our society living off the poorest sectors is a good thing?
      The internet – when the government controlled it, it was a communications system between the military and the scientists who were thinking up new ways to kill people. The private sector had to drag the damned thing out of the State’s hands to make it useful.
      Winning world wars – Uh… wars against other governments. Neither we nor the Russians do all that well against decentralized paramilitary groups.
      Vast highway system – uh, there were plenty of toll roads connecting cities before Ike’s grand scheme, and would have been more had the feds not stepped in. Although I admit that having the ability to seize any piece of land you want is handy when you’re trying build a road.
      Sorry, Tony!

    2. A space program that can’t even fulfill one of its primary missions, i.e. actually sending people into space

      Reducing elderly poverty while increasing youth poverty as Bean counter already noted. Why do you hate children, Tony?

      Roads, roads, roads. Good thing we have all those roads so we can continue to siphon off their usage fees to pay for bike paths and choo-choo’s which will never be self-supporting.

      Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, the primary method of covering the involuntary uninsured is a crime. What did the science say again? Oh, that’s right, Medicaid delivers no statistically significant improvement in patient physical outcomes. I thought you like science, smiling tapeworm?

      Internet? Gee, that backbone of the internet (without which the net of today wouldn’t be remotely possible) runs on fiber. I wonder who invented fiberoptics? Oh look, it was a private company and private individuals. Huh. Thank you private company!

  7. I can’t decide if it must be immensely satisfying being a libertarian or utterly disconcerting. The stimulus can’t have saved the economy–it would undermine all the bullshit we believe in. Thus, it did not save the economy. Ta-da!

    1. Tony,

      What do you think happens to jobs when the money runs out?

      If I no longer had the projects I used to have i’m going to lay individuals off once again.

      This is one of the main reasons stimulus plans are so monumentally stupid from an economic standpoint. You take on massive amounts of debt for temporary economic growth.

      1. How does money run out in our system?

    2. Uh, Tony…if this is a “saved” economy, I would hate to see a “lost” one. The point is that the stimulus was sold as good investment that would repay us with an improved economy. We borrowed nearly a trillion dollars from our grandchildren, and got less than a fourth of that back. So, NO, it didn’t save the economy.

      1. We borrowed nearly a trillion dollars from our grandchildren,

        Krugcaveman: If a trillion dollars didn’t work, we needed to spend two trillion dollars, obviously.

      2. Look at what a damn fine job the stimulus did! It successfully moved 2% of the labor force into perpetual leisure! Next job: toilet paper.

    3. Okay first question: why do you bother reading this site if it’s all BS to you?

      Second: Do you really think the economy has been saved?

    4. You mean the bullshit of millions of jobs created or saved based on a model and then confirmed using exactly the same model? Yes, I too can solve the complex equation of 1=1.

  8. Google is paying 75$/hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. On sunday I bought themselves a Alfa Romeo from having made $5637 this month. its the best-job Ive ever had.It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out

  9. Conservatives…

    We need to leave libertarians behind. They are every bit as priggish as they accuse us of being. None need apply if they don’t bow to their gay- pot- abortion-centric ideology. Social issues hold more sway than small government ones.

    We need to win and reshape the Republican party by making it truly conservative. Libertarians need to feel relevant for the first time in their history and that means tearing us conservatives down at any cost.

    Let them go. We can win without them.

  10. Conservatives…

    We need to leave libertarians behind. They are every bit as priggish as they accuse us of being. None need apply if they don’t bow to their gay- pot- abortion-centric ideology. Social issues hold more sway than small government ones.

    We need to win and reshape the Republican party by making it truly conservative. Libertarians need to feel relevant for the first time in their history and that means tearing us conservatives down at any cost.

    Let them go. We can win without them.

  11. Mr. Suderman–I think you missed the main point entirely with this post. “We” do, do great things, but “we” must be free to do them voluntarily with a free mind and the freedom to act. Compare the skyline of New York City to any hovel in India or Africa if you need a reminder.

    Government is force and force only destroys–that is why a moral government is solely directed at destroying the bad guys–people who initiate force. When government force is applied to any goal besides protecting us from the bad guys, then destruction is the only result. We are now being harshly schooled on the specifics of how that happens with Obamacare: the government’s destruction of health insurance industry. If not reversed, it will undoubtedly spread to the medical industry since most of their financing is filtered through 3rd party payments of insurance companies.

    When a writer of a major magazine supposedly devoted to “free minds and free markets” completely misses the main issue at hand like Mr. Suderman does here, one wonders if a reversal will ever come.

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