President Biden is touring the country to thump his chest about his bills and proposals to spend more. That his focus is on spending tells a bigger story about the standards politicians hold. Politicians want their success to be determined by whether they give the right people money. But no one should want this to be the standard. It’s easy to write checks. It’s harder to have those checks accomplish something.
Lawmakers aren’t going to change their standards of success unless people start to see through this ruse. Unfortunately, too many people think that the standard of success is not to accomplish an outcome, but to cut the right checks.
The point of food stamps, for instance, ought not be to transfer resources to poor people. It ought to be to ensure that poor people don’t go hungry. The public benefit is to eliminate hunger in America, to be the kind of place that doesn’t let people go hungry. A successful food stamps program does that.
Some people think that assistance programs serve a different purpose. A successful program to them is one that delivers more money to more people, often expanding beyond a recipient’s need. So any expansion is treated as an improvement, while any restriction is treated as a failure. But the point of food stamps ought to be to ensure that poor people don’t go hungry, and the standard of success ought to be whether people can afford to eat.
Lawmakers could lay out specific, measurable goals they want their new policies to achieve. People should want their lawmakers to manage for clear outcomes.
For instance, Rep. Debbie Dingell, introduced a bill in Congress to reshore American jobs. The proposed program would not be required to reshore American jobs. There are some criteria that administrators are going to use to hand out the subsidies that would be authorized. But the standard of success is whether the government hands out money, not whether it reshores jobs.
Legislators can be clear about what programs must accomplish, and they can end or change the programs that fail to do what they were created to do. Legislator could demand that jobs and production in the targeted industry increase by whatever amount they believe can be accomplished within the period they want, and reschedule the program for evaluation afterward. But they don’t.
I can’t think of a case where lawmakers put clear and measurable targeted outcomes into current policy. Politicians would rather be praised for giving money to the right people than for producing good outcomes for the public to whom they can be held accountable.
It’s not just elected officials who want check writing to be the standard. The people getting the cash want it to be the standard, too.
Michigan lawmakers established the Reconnect program to pay the tuition for people over 25 who enroll in community colleges. Community colleges declare the program to be a success because it paid to get people to go to community colleges. That’s a low standard to meet.
To hear the program’s supporters talk about it, they’re trying to increase opportunities and wages for the people who participate. They probably should boast about producing that outcome instead of declaring success because some people participate.
The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is not required to restore the Great Lakes. The people who get money from it declare it to be a success.
The 21st Century Jobs Fund was not required to add jobs. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm declared it a success because it handed out money.
People ought to use higher standards.
Politicians don’t use higher standards. One of the reasons Granholm is the federal energy secretary is because she handed out a lot of subsidies to green companies as Michigan’s governor. Whether they actually producedanything was irrelevant.
Public policy needs to be judged by its benefits, not by a program’s existence or lawmakers’ intent. If lawmakers want to expand economic opportunities for adults, we need to judge their efforts by the participants’ economic opportunities. If they want to restore the Great Lakes, they need to define what that looks like. Job programs need to be judged by the number of jobs in the state, and too often they are judged by whether they give cash to the right people.
Politicians use low standards because they are not held to higher standards. It has been sufficient for them to win votes solely because they were behind programs that gave taxpayer money to high-status groups and people. Check out the latest communication your elected official has sent you, and you’re likely to see evidence that this is so. What you won’t see are the outcomes that they’ve accomplished with those programs.
People need to wise up. Politicians are not going to play a different game unless their constituents expect them to. We’d all be better off if we judged public policy by its benefits to the public.
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