The fire is long out at Gene Cranick's house. But the rhetorical battle continues over the symbolic significance of the South Fulton Fire Department's decision to let Cranick's home burn because he hadn't paid a fee that those living outside the town must pay. Some commentators say Cranick was a classic "free-rider" who should have followed the Obion County "pay for spray" policy, a set-up that's not uncommon in rural areas. Others look to the burning house and see a civic sphere gutted by "small government" ideology, beholden only to the privileged few. The Huff Post warns that this is what a Third World America would look like: a libertarian's dream, in which bare-bones, a la carte government threatens to become a stark reality, not just in rural towns, but across the country.
We would argue that government, on the federal level, has already been upended by small government ideology, beholden to private interests as never before in our memory. But you can't just blame the Tea Party, which wasn't around when this revolution in governance took hold, or even just mainstream Republicans who were. Both parties share the blame for handing over government work - and by extention, public power - to private companies. The irony is that, for all their talk of fiscal austerity, politicians have created the very opposite of an Obion County-style, lean-and-mean operation: what we have now is a sprawling shadow government - one that is often less efficient, less visible, less accountable, and even potentially dangerous in nature.
The liberal website Think Progress shows vividly how the small government rhetoric collapses on close questioning: here you can see journalists press GOP leaders touting budget cuts on just what they would slash. No one should be surprised that they don't have an answer: for decades, politicians have avoided real cuts, upholding the facade of contained government, by shifting work to contractors.
It was President Reagan who famously said: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" Reagan thought that government should do less, and what it did do would be done better by private business. And so the "Reagan revolution" sanctified what was already an entrenched practice: contracting out government services to reduce the headcount of the federal workforce, giving the appearance of austerity but not the reality. Those hoping a Democratic president might reverse course were very much disappointed by the Clinton administration, whose stated aim to "Reinvent Government" made clear that small government dogma had been firmly embraced by both parties. The injection of business principles into government was reflected in the language: recipients of state services become "customers" and citizens "shareholders". Contracting accelerated and assumed new incarnations during the Clinton years, and outsourcing exploded during the Bush era. The cost of services alone provided by contractors soared from some $125 billion in 2001 to an estimated $314 billion-plus in 2009. The advent of ever more complex technologies, which the government largely outsources, tipped the balance even further.
Today private companies are increasingly performing not just government work but inherently government functions. Those are the things deemed so sensitive and vital to the public interest that they should be carried out only by federal employees. Oversight of all this (one of those inherent functions) is severely lacking, leading to potential breaches of public and national security. And ironically, outsourcing often costs more, not less - hardly the "reinvention" and "efficiency" that voters were sold on.
Most troubling, the federal government is now perfectly primed for 21st century-style political corruption, and not in the old fashioned sense of blatantly buying influence. This is more insidious, in which a new kind of power broker, what Janine calls the shadow elite, can exploit the ambiguity that is now rife throughout the system, able not just to evade but actually write the rules governing their own conduct. This new breed works bureaucracy to their advantage, preferring to operate by means anathema to official, legal, and procedural objectivity. Meanwhile, taxpayers are only dimly aware that they are paying into a public system that is both bloated and often dictated by personal agendas.
Taxpayer Gene Cranick, for his part, knows all too well what it means to be a "customer", in the parlance of government "reinventors", for what most of us take for granted as a basic public service. He also knows something about the cost of government ambiguity and lack of standard process. Cranick said he had forgotten to pay his fee 3 years ago, but firefighters still put out a chimney fire and let him pay the fee afterwards. This time, firefighters were told to do nothing. We're guessing Cranick would have been thrilled to hear those words that so spooked Ronald Reagan: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."