The cascading reports of dysfunction, disarray and disastrous failure to deliver at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs remind me of a famous line by the old baseball manager, Casey Stengel.
Looking at his pathetic, ’60s vintage New York Mets, ol’ Case once said, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
I’ve long argued that a key reason that governments don’t work as they should these days is this: Ever since the rise of Ronald Reagan, the ideological position of one of the nation’s major parties has been that governments are incapable of working.
When your winning political rhetoric boils down to “government is the problem,” you have no incentive, none, to do the hard work of delivering services effectively. In fact, you take a perverse delight in anecdotes of government ineptitude. They are a feast for your faction.
This theology that government is an inept den of losers over time can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When was the last time you were part of a conversation where an elder urged a talented young person, “You know, with your skills and enthusiasm, you should really go into government service?”
But the VA mess – which involves chronic lying about hospital wait times and late benefits – is still a hard one to figure.
The nation has a Democratic executive branch, with a vast political stake in demonstrating that federal government can do its job effectively. A highly regarded general had been running the department.
And, even in a partisan, dysfunctional Washington, who doesn’t want the VA to do its job? Who doesn’t want people who fought and bled for their country to get the excellent treatment and benefits they deserve?
Some federal entities do face hostile and powerful constituencies that want them to fail. The Environmental Protection Agency, say, or the Securities and Exchange Commission .
But the VA? Not so much. So why is the VA mired in lost paperwork, sullen nonperformance and gaming the metrics?
Liberals who believe in government do share some blame here. For decades, during waves of Reaganesque assault on government workers, they’ve tended to hop into a bunker with unionized government workers, locking arms to defend them against attack. Understandable, in some ways, because many of the attacks were unfair.
But this has also stymied momentum in many corners of government to correct the bureacratic sins that all governments (and no small number of corporations) are prone to.
The desire to defend government’s proper role in upholding public goods got conflated with defending ineffective habits, overly legalistic mindsets and fussy work rules.
Over time, this creates the kind of rule-encrusted bureaucracy, the keep-your-head-down cynicism, and the lack of customer orientation we are now learning about, to our horror, at the VA.