What Government Services Would You Willingly Give Up? A Succinct Symposium


In light of immense budget shortfalls at the state level, and unprecedented spending at the federal level, I posed the following question a few weeks ago to American Experiment members and friends:

Politicians, commentators, and others are talking increasingly about the need for citizens to “sacrifice.” It’s hard to imagine any sensible person disagreeing with the call in the abstract. But the question at hand is not the least bit abstract: Specifically, what government services currently and directly benefiting you and your family – be those services local, state, or federal – would you be willing to see curtailed or even ended entirely?

The 20 brief contributions below (the limit was 200 words, more or less) contain many useful and clearly practical ideas, for which I’m grateful. Although to be quite blunt and without intending to offend anyone in any way, the amount of pain implicit in most of these proposed sacrifices seem to be more pinching than wringing.

Bluntly put again, this likely is a product of the fact that the kinds of middle-class and more affluent people who participate in exercises like this (unless they’re on Medicare) generally don’t rely terribly much on the kinds of governmental health care and other social welfare programs slated to be scaled back in coming months. The respectful point here is in keeping with a column of mine in the Star Tribune a week ago: For all our strengths as a society, knowing how to truly sacrifice is not necessarily one of them, as we generally haven’t needed to for many decades now. We’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

Agree? Disagree? Please let me know.

In announcing this symposium three weeks ago, I also noted that we would award two tickets to American Experiment’s 2009 Annual Dinner on June 1, keynoted by Charles Krauthammer, to the “most insightful and intriguing entry,” a $500 value. After rounds and round of deliberations, my colleagues and I are pleaded to announce the winner is Lyall Schwarzkopf, for his combination of detail (he offers at least 13 ideas) and proximity (his focus is specifically on Minneapolis and Minnesota). My congratulations and thanks to Lyall, a great veteran and champion of civic life in this community, with equal gratitude for all other participants.

Mitch Pearlstein
Founder & President

I suggest that the undergraduate curricula across Minnesota be made available on-line, selecting the best from across all the campuses and then closing or “re-purposing” many campus facilities and reducing faculty and non-essential services or moving them to a fee basis.

Similarly, I suggest that Minnesota adopt what Kentucky, Florida and other states have done in regards to (at minimum) their high schools. That would be to create virtual curricula to reduce facility needs, busing and other overhead costs. Athletics can be supported through associations, charter and other schools can be allowed to share or lease under-used space. And in-school art/music and sports/gym programs would be maintained.

We also need to reconstitute the state planning agency and reduce administrative redundancies in various agencies so that cross-area planning can be accomplished more effectively. This calls for shrinking administrative overhead, but also calls for an improvement in the caliber and qualifications of the new employees.

Tom P. Abeles

I would be willing to give up some of the 27 parks, athletic complexes, land conservancies, and special use areas in my town. Most bike trails can go too. Inver Grove Heights with its 29,751 residents in its 28.64 square miles can live with fewer of these. A park is always nearby.

The parks are not on the tax rolls. It takes staff and equipment to mow the lawns, groom the fields, fix the fences, dump the trash, and perform all the other tasks involved with maintaining parkland. We can surely survive with half the number of parks.

Bike trails, like parks, need to be maintained. I can ride from my home to Brainerd and be on a road for only the half mile it takes me to get to a path, or when I cross a road. I like riding on bike paths, but most often ride on the road.

As a child I walked around the block with my grandparents. I even walked to the park with them sometimes. It was a good hike. When I was older I rode my bike, on the road, to the park. I survived just fine. My kids would too.

Wendell Buysman
Inver Grove Heights, MN

(An ode to be sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things.”)

Cabinet officials and sales tax collectors,
IRS agents and haircut inspectors
Auditors, bureaucrats waiting in wings,
These are all some of my least favorite things

Departments of Commerce and Transport and Labor,
HUD Sec and Ed Sec and all of the Peace Corps,
Senators Durbin and Boxer and Reid,
Begone with you! Leave us! I wish you Godspeed.

Researchers seeking perpetual motion,
Al Gore concocting a warming commotion,
Congressmen/women and this whole motley crew,
Oh can’t you find a new job to pursue?

If the Founders
Of our nation
Saw our government
They would be surprised at the size and the scope
And warn us all to . . . repent.

AmeriCorps “volunteers,” censors of TV,
HHS, NEA, PBS, all three,
Fannie and Freddie and EPA too,
These programs are bad both for me and for you

It’s hard to find a good government program
So many to choose from and most are a big sham,
Our Constitution has been pushed right aside,
And those we elect seem to take it in stride

We the People
Have the Power,
Do we have the will?
We’ll have to decide if we can keep our hands
Away from the Fede . . . ral till.

Larry Colson
Maple Grove, MN

As the owner of several farms, I would sacrifice all farm support and subsidy programs. Terminate every last one immediately. My farms (located in northern Iowa) are among the most efficient and productive in the world. My “sacrifice” would therefore benefit me by killing off my prime competition, the marginal so-called old-time family farms (a total hoax as no such thing exists any more). Less competition is always good for the efficient.

Roger R. Conant
Sunfish Lake, MN

I’m not sure that cutting services is the way to go, although if I knew the budget better, I’m sure I could come up with some that would impact other people more than me. How’s that for a cutting criterion! The budget shortfall presents a golden opportunity to move towards a flatter tax, which would help get the government out of the business of trying to manipulate the economy. Naturally, I would start by eliminating the deductibility of health insurance premiums from personal income and FICA taxes. It’s of no help to anyone in the long-run because the result is higher health care prices and insurance premiums and it’s especially of no help to people in low tax brackets, and even if it helped rich people, why do we want to do that?

I have a feeling you’re focusing on service cuts, however, not “new taxes,” but maybe even some “no-new-tax” Republicans could get behind a move towards a flatter tax.

Bryan Dowd

Let’s start with the Minnesota Political Contribution Refund Program. That’s where you make a political contribution, and the taxpayers of Minnesota (that’s us) reimburse you. I find it distasteful. I think conservatives should refuse to use it, on principle. But the argument is, “The other guys are doing it; so we have to, too.” It’s like an arms race: If they have The Bomb, we need to have The Bomb. Mutual Assured Destruction. I wouldn’t miss it. But since I don’t want it in the first place, I wouldn’t really be giving anything up, would I?

Then how about subsidized school lunches? My kids won’t eat them. They take their own lunches. Always have. Doesn’t cost much, and it’s not that hard to do. Still, my taxes are subsidizing school lunches, which, along with free breakfasts, serve to teach kids that it’s the government¹s job to feed them, so they can grow up to be yet another generation of parents incapable of feeding their own children. But again, I wouldn’t be making a sacrifice here, so maybe I’m missing the point.

Okay, let’s cut the mortgage interest tax deduction. I do benefit from that. Now I’m feeling some pain.

David M. Downing
St. Paul

Pondering the assignment to identify specific sacrificial targets, I considered Saturday mail. The Postal Service trumped that. But the more I thought about the assignment, the less I thought of it.

President Obama doesn’t propose sacrifice. Spending trillions while cutting taxes is not sacrifice. Pushing nominees who don’t pay taxes or are instant exceptions to pious no-lobbyist rules is not sacrifice. Heedless decisions to close detention facilities and scrap long-standing interrogation opinions do not sacrifice political expediency to a greater good.

But in fairness to Obama, now is not the time to sacrifice by raising taxes or reducing spending. An economy sagging on the ropes would be floored by the belly punches of more taxes or less spending.

That doesn’t mean Katie should unbar the door. If sacrifice doesn’t fit the times, the same is true of useless pet projects and the pent-up, non-stimulative demands of Democratic interest groups. Democrats are squandering political capital by proposing to squander real capital. If Republicans resist with words and votes, they can anticipate a good 2010 election night in the likely event that the stimulus package proves to have more fat than muscle.

In sum, we need responsibility, not sacrifice.

Jim Dueholm
Washington, DC

So here’s a real life example: The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has responsibility for enforcing consumer protection laws relative to housing construction and renovation, to the extent such oversight is not accomplished by city inspection services. There are 14 inspector positions – people who answer your complaint that the roof still leaks after you paid your roofer $10,000 to repair it and he’s skipped town. It’s the agency that puts repeat offenders out of business so they won’t prey on anyone else.

Because of earlier “economies” visited on state government by this administration, the inspection unit is down to six inspectors and the last four hired are going to be let go to meet new budget realities. But there’s no way that two inspectors-x-24×7 will equal what the Legislature anticipates it takes to uniformly enforce the law. The answer to your question must be that the Legislature should get out of the business of providing consumer protection against contractor negligence.

David F. Durenberger
St. Paul

Because I am an upper-income taxpayer, I benefit most from the government’s “tax expenditures” (“tax loopholes” to you), which reduce my taxable income. The main such expenditure for me is the exemption of mortgage interest and state and local taxes from my federal taxable income. This exemption encourages me to buy an overly large house and it stimulates my state and local governments to tax me too heavily. The next most important tax expenditure for me (most important for the average taxpayer) is health insurance premiums. I get health insurance through work, so the employer’s premium contribution is tax exempt, and my employer has a Section 125 plan making my out-of-pocket premium exempt as well. This exemption encourages me to buy health insurance through work and to choose an overly generous benefit package. Make no mistake – I benefit from these exemptions, but we’d all be better off if they were limited or abolished.

Roger Feldman

I am unwilling to see any of the governmental services currently and directly benefiting me and my family curtailed or ended. My wife and I live in a rural area of western Pennsylvania, and desire the snow removal service and police and fire protection to remain as is. We pay for the sewage and garbage removal services.

I am also unwilling to dispense with the Social Security benefits I receive. It supplements my small CPA practice which provides accounting and tax services to the minor segment of our community willing and wanting to be open, honest, and comply with all federal, state and local regulations. I don’t, however, view Social Security as a government handout since I’ve contributed to that alleged fund since 1958. And blessed with extraordinary health, I cost Medicare little, but wish for it to remain in place.

I also hope and pray our military remains strong, our borders become more secure, and roads be continuously maintained. Beyond the above, I am unaware of governmental services which currently and directly benefit us. As a supposedly free nation and self-reliant people, do most of us really need much more from government than this?

Tom Geier
Valencia (Butler County), Pennsylvania

A consequence of growing older, and certainly of the last six months, is the realization of how lucky I am. As close friends have lost their jobs or their good health, it’s become clear how small my problems often are. I would hope this realization, this consciousness of all that I have, would make me more likely to sacrifice: to let go for the good of the whole or someone individually.

I’m neither a philosopher nor an economist, but I believe that a feeling of “abundance” is a prerequisite for “sacrifice.” I won’t give if I don’t believe I have.

How does this relate to public policy? Over the past 50 years, we have created an entire infrastructure of public finance that is deliberately and inadvertently non-transparent. Enormous portions of our public budgets are transferred to people in ways they don’t realize and don’t understand. Through entitlement programs that never contain a price tag, and through a byzantine system of state/local fiscal transfers like property taxes, we have no idea what we pay for and how much we really pay for it.

The outcome of this fiscal confusion is certainly an inefficient use of scarce public resources. An accidental corollary may be an impact on citizens’ willingness to sacrifice.

When we know how much we have, we might be more likely to give back.

Sean Kershaw
St. Paul

Practically speaking, only the most basic government services directly benefit most citizens. Trash pickup, water/sewer service, law enforcement, emergency response (fire, ambulance), schools, infrastructure and defense – those are the services most working citizens need regularly. For the most vulnerable citizens, add social services such as food, shelter and health care.

There shouldn’t be too much left. Unfortunately, government at every level is funding far beyond core services. It is not necessary even to address “gray areas” such as transportation – there are plenty of programs that are blatantly not the role of government, and thus could be cut immediately. Examples include: every public dollar spent for “economic development” (including targeted incentives and advertising – most taxpayers would be shocked by what politicians fund in the name of economic development); government lobbyists; public affairs consultants; private sector charities/organizations; professional development for elected officials or government administrators (including “leadership training”); government-funded research that can and should be done by the private sector (example: alternative fuel research); college scholarships not based on merit and need (both!); and association dues for individuals or government entities. Those few, obvious cuts would save hundreds of millions of dollars in South Carolina and also boost our free market economy.

E. Ashley Landess
Columbia, SC

I believe I could do very nicely without the National Endowment for the Arts and especially NPR. Why are we supporting that rubbish, anyway? If it were representative of real art or entertainment, it would be self-sustaining.

Cecelia MacDonald
Mendota Heights, MN

I am not persuaded that our fiscal difficulties can be, or indeed need be, solved by citizen “sacrifice” as such, for this approach immediately draws forth visions of eliminating or reducing societal necessities such as fire and police protection, medical and educational entities, and a host of other truly necessary services which we won’t do without. Society should be – indeed is – willing to pay for these vital services.

But once again Ronald Reagan was right: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” And until we grind this fact into our collective heads we will continue to be plagued with the problem of not enough revenues to meet our budgetary demands.

Therefore, forget about calling upon society to “sacrifice.” Rather, reduce, eliminate, or modify structures and programs of government. No degree of citizen “sacrifice” will eliminate the problem of unchecked bureaucracy, for government has an insatiable appetite.

It may be opined that such a solution is simplistic and cannot be accomplished. Not so fast with that dismissive smug shrug! When cities and counties and states and the nation go broke we will be amazed by what can be accomplished. For now we “can’t” because we “won’t.” But we will when we have to! That moment approaches with lightning speed.

Michas M. Ohnstad
North Branch, MN

The only good thing about the mess the ruling class has created in the last 70+ years (with us as willing accomplices) is that we can start giving back supposed government benefits almost anywhere and wind up with something better. As I used to share with my former state representative: “You couldn’t get worse results from government programs if you tried – so I’m assuming you’re trying for these truly devastating results!” He always assured me he wasn’t, but if that were true, we’re worse off than I thought.

Let’s eliminate government-backed mortgages; all income tax deductions; the government-run Post Office; today’s Social Security system (I’m 65!); government-tax supported schools – and I’m just getting warmed up.

The list is endless, but it points out the big flaw in all non-constitutionally ordained government programs: they always favor some over others. Freedom cannot exist in such an environment. Without freedom for all, we can only end up in a dictatorship of “might makes right.”

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Larry Nelson
Maple Grove, MN

In regards to Minneapolis: In lower crime areas, shut off alley lighting until the economy is better. Reduce the time that mid-block street lighting is on. Establish a city administrator form of government, similar to Hennepin County and have part-time City Council members with only a stenographic pool for staff. Eliminate the neighborhood associations and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. Begin to eliminate fire fighters by retrofitting city homes and businesses with sprinkler systems and smoke alarms. Sweep city streets only in the fall of the year thereby eliminating one street sweeping cycle. Eliminate alley plowing in the winter. Put the Park Board under the responsibility of the City Council and combine services.

In regards to Minnesota as a whole: Require persons using state funds for nursing home care to pay more of the cost. Change the higher education formula so that aid goes with the student and not directly to the schools. Eliminate state aid to cities and counties. Give state aid to K-12 education on the bases of results and not on the number of children.

Lyall Schwarzkopf

One specific example of a state service that should be converted to a volunteer service is the staffing of the so-called “Visitor Centers” at various places on the Interstate and state highways in Minnesota. Currently, personnel at these centers are paid and could be replaced with volunteers, as is the case in Colorado. Colorado volunteers are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their state and anxious to help visitors. And it doesn’t cost Colorado anything.

Mahlon Schneider
Austin, MN

Just looking around in my city of Chanhassen I can see ways of cutting. It always bothers me when politicians say “we have cut to the bone” when I can come up with more ways to save money and not affect that many people. Let me give you two examples.

We have a “Chanhassen Rec Center,” paid for by taxpayer money to compete with free market businesses such as Lifetime Fitness and Snap Fitness (both located in Chanhassen) and a variety of other facilities. The Chan Rec Center costs the city somewhere between 50K and 80K a year to operate beyond what they take in in dues, not to mention the dollars that it took to build it.

The major expenditure that bothers me is bike trails. While this seems to me to be a “feel good, let’s bike to work” thing, very few people actually use them. To make matters worse, they’re plowed in the winter. Nobody uses these trails when it is cold and when it’s summer very few use them in comparison to the actual population.

I built a 26,600 sq ft. building back in 2001 for my business. As part of getting a building permit I had to contribute around $7,000 towards the construction of bike trails. It was another tax on business.

Steve Shipley
Chanhassen, MN

I would curtail daily mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service to my house which is also my business address. I could live with delivery two or three times a week just fine since most of the mail is requests for money from either politicians or charities. Of course, I already receive these same requests by emails. The infrequent personal letter I receive is never urgent enough to require-six-days-a-week mail delivery. The Postal Service could reduce services gradually as people retire and by moving mail carriers to other open positions in the federal government.

I also believe most homes and businesses could live with less frequent mail delivery too, since the most urgent packages are sent by other mail services already. I would reduce mail delivery to homes to Tuesday and Thursday, and to businesses on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. After a few years of this service level, I would consider cutting service even further, given the continuing increase in electronic mail and more efficient private mail services.

John L. Swanson
Plymouth, MN

At risk of missing out on the prize, I must sensibly disagree with the call for “sacrifice” in the abstract. “Sacrifice” is accepting a lesser value in place of a higher value. The phrase “sacrificing for one’s principles” is a nonsensical contradiction. The way out of the current economic situation is not further sacrifice, but less. A more revealing question than “What government services would you be willing to see curtailed?” is: “What government services have you, or will you, unilaterally give up?” As no individual virtue is found in imposed government largess for the benefit of others, there is no virtue in waiting to accept curtailment of government largess to one’s individual benefit. Perhaps the answer to your question is as simple as “just say no.”

Craig Westover
Afton, MN.