Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tim Pawlenty's Brilliant "Google Test"

It’s the rare politician who has a brain. That may be hard to believe as politicians tend to appear highly educated and articulate, and they theoretically immerse themselves in policy of all sorts. But in my experience, most politicians simply mimic what they are told by their handlers. That’s why so many are so bad at debates. Pawlenty impresses me as something different. Indeed, his platform is full of original and significant ideas. And he just added a doozy.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I am not endorsing Tim Pawlenty, nor have I made up my mind about who I will support. To quote Ian Holm from Alien, I’m still collating. But what Pawlenty said is worth discussing. Indeed, it’s something the entire party should adopt.

What did Pawlenty say? He said that if a service can be found through a search on Google, then the government should not be doing it. He called this a “Google Test.” The Google Test may sound esoteric, but it’s not. To the contrary, it’s actually a fundamental statement about what government should or should not be doing, and it’s a really good one.

Since the age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, privatizing government has been all the rage. But there’s been a fundamental flaw in privatization -- there was no real test for what should be privatized? By the 1990s, privatization was being done under an Office of Management and Budget policy (Circular A-76) which required agencies to find potential services for privatization and then let contractors bid on those services. The bidding was done with “FTEs” -- full time equivalents. In other words, you look at how many full time people it takes the government to provide the service. If a contractor can provide the same services with fewer FTEs (usually at least a 20% discount is required) then the government agency is supposed to privatize that service. But this is a haphazard and unprincipled approach because it leaves it up to the government to decide which services to put up for bid. What Pawlenty is suggesting is an actual framework for what the government should and should not be doing, i.e. the government should privatize or eliminate the things it does that are already commercially available.

This test shows that Pawlenty more than any other candidate since Ronald Reagan fundamentally understands the proper role of government. When the private sector is capable of providing a service, there is no justification whatsoever for the government to also provide that service. His Google Test is a clever way to say that and to say it in a way that people can understand. What’s more, if this policy is put into place effectively, it will result in a drastic trimming of government down to only the “core functions” that the private sector simply cannot provide because of cost or liability (sorry CATO institute, there are some thing the private sector can’t do).

Leftist journalists jumped on this immediately, calling it a gimmick and pretending they couldn’t understand what it means. For example, one hack said, “if I can find ‘veteran’ and ‘hospital’ on Google, does that mean he wants to close VA hospitals?” Actually, that would be a good idea, but no, that’s not what he means because you can’t find “veteran services” in Google. But it could potentially mean farming out some VA services to private hospitals.

To give you a further sense of how smart this is, compare this with the generic “eliminate pork” that all politicians promise. This is actually the same promise, only Pawlenty has told you exactly what he considers pork, the other haven’t. When Romney or Gingrich or Obama promise to cut pork, they haven’t told you anything because pork is in the eye of the beholder and the word is so vague as to be meaningless. But what Pawlenty is saying is that anything the government does that is also being done commercially should be seen as pork and eliminated. That’s meaningful. Indeed, this is such a great idea the party as a whole should adopt it: the government simply should not be doing things that people are doing for themselves.

The one question I have at this point is whether Pawlenty is merely talking about privatization or if he’s talking about ending the government’s role in providing the service completely, i.e. no longer providing them even through private contractors. I don’t know that yet, but either interpretation would be a huge step toward shrinking the government.

Finally, to keep things fair and show that I’m not pimping Pawlenty, I will also give you an idea Romney had in 2008 that the party should adopt (sadly, he seems to have dropped the idea). His plan was to eliminate payroll taxes for seniors with the intent of getting them back into the work force, reducing the cost of labor for companies, improving the quality of labor available, and spurring employment. This is another idea the party should adopt as a whole, only they should add minors to the list to get them into the workforce and learning the kinds of skills and discipline they need to become successful later in life.

When and if the other candidates have similarly good ideas, I’ll point them out. In the meantime, ask yourself if you know a better way to define which services are essential and which aren’t than the Google Test.

(As an aside, before anyone says “the Constitution,” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but things like the Commerce Clause are so expansive that saying “stick to the Constitution” is not a useful limitation. That’s where a formula like the Google Test comes in -- it seeks to return the government to its properly limited role through other means.)


Tennessee Jed said...

An interesting theory, and one which tends to generally support my overall vision of limited government. I did try mercenary private military contractors and got some interesting results. Nothing is foolproof, of course, and I like the outside the box thinking displayed.

One of the biggest problems with the government is that once created, agencies find a way to perpetuate themselves and fight for funding long after their usefulness is over.

T-Rav said...

I don't know, Andrew--it sounds to me an awful lot like you're endorsing Tim "Reagan" Pawlenty!

This actually is a pretty good idea, and one which I suspect has the owners of Google gnashing their teeth, given that company's left-wing bent. Like most ideas, it needs some fleshing out, but it's a good base for going forward.

Also, like Jed, I too have tried mercenary contractors once, which were cheaper to defend Pittsburgh from zombies. It didn't go as well for me.

Tehachapi Tom said...

You have identified the most sane thinking any candidate has shown since RR.
I had not seen this till your post.
Thank you

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Like all tests that use words rather than math, a test like this can be manipulated with rhetorical games -- that's nothing new. What's key is taking a common sense view of what he's saying. If it's the kind of service that the private market already is out there providing to people regularly, then the government should be doing it. For example, the government should not be operating movie theaters or grocery stores or operating clinics when there is a hospital next door.

There are certain core services that everyone except extreme libertarians consider "core government services," and those are things that you really can't find. These tend to involve things that would incur incredible liability if done privately -- like police work, disaster recovery work, military service. Or they involve things that can’t be done profitably, like providing food stamps. Health inspectors are another because you can’t trust people to inspect themselves. If you use common sense rather than trying to parse the words, you won’t be able to find these services. You can find supplements to what the government does, but you just can’t find the full service. For example, you can find security personnel, but you can't find an air force. And while you could stretch it to say "we could turn mall cops into real cops," the truth is there is no one out there performing real police services -- just specialized parts of it.


AndrewPrice said...


What this will get at are things like agencies who handle food services in government cafeterias when there are restaurants nearby, maintenance, park management, the fleet of government cars, government health care clinics, etc. etc.

What I really like about this is that having been involved in some privatization, I can tell you that this is the "guiding principal" that is missing from the debate. And I find that really incredible that (1) he would grasp the importance of something like this and (2) could formulate it in a meaningful way, and (3) would see the value of it in a campaign. This is the sort of thing usually thought up by some wonk at a think tank that the politicians ignore because they don't understand how effective it could be.

Also, I think this is an excellent way to get average people to understand when the government has gone overboard. Right now, people tend to evaluate each service on whether it’s useful or not. This refocuses the public on whether or not the government’s service is needed or just duplicates what’s already out there. If people start viewing the government that way, then they should be biased toward smaller government -- and this would be a powerful argument for conservatives to use: “wait a minute, why should the government do that? Companies are already doing that...” That’s why I think this is brilliant.

AndrewPrice said...

(Hey T-Rav, will you be around this afternoon?)

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I think the time has come to admit that Pittsburgh is just a zombie-magnet and should be left to its sad fate. ;-)

This actually is Reaganesque in its thinking because it calls for people to think about government differently. Right now the argument people have if they want to shrink government is that it's too expensive or too inefficient or it's acting beyond the scope of its authority.

The response is always, "well, that may be, but we need to do this to help people." Pawlenty's test cuts that argument to the core by responding, "how can you say we need this when you can find it online or in the yellow pages?"

That's really a restructuring of the public's relationship with government because it gets people to see the government only as a last resort rather than as the thing you call "whnever something needs to be fixed." That is a fundamentally different view of government than the public has at the moment.

And yeah, Google is probably pretty unhappy right now. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Tom, You're welcome. I agree. I think people should not underestimate the significance of this idea, and the fact that Pawlenty keeps having ideas like this -- when the other are just saying platitudes like "cut pork" really makes him stand out.

As I say, this isn't an endorsement, but I have to admit to being impressed.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - This is a great idea. The Government's role could be in directing citizen's to the proper private service rather than providing the service directly. Kind of like a National "311" service. For those of you who do not have local "311" service, it is a non emergency direct dial number to obtain information, lodge complaints of a non-emergency nature, and seek information on services.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, in some ways I think that's more important than simply winning the next election. The public's way of thinking about the government has changed a great deal since the '30s, which affects how they vote; there needs to be a similar sea change in the very near future.

Pawlenty gave a pretty big economic speech the other day, where he really laid into Obama. The Wall Street Journal has some good excerpts. Let's hope this is a trend.

(And yes, I'll be around; don't get nervous. I was in Memphis earlier this week, exploring the non-ghetto part of the city.)

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I agree. I would love to see the government limited to (1) performing only core "governmental" services that the private sector traditionally can't provide, (2) and where possible using private contractors to provide those service with the government becoming simply a contract manager rather than doing all the labor as well, and (3) otherwise acting merely as a clearing house for information such as advising people where services can be obtained -- kind of like a better business bureau.

I don't think I've heard of a 311 line? Hmmm.

Good question on Net Neutrality. I'm not sure this particular test would affect that because this test is about just services and net neutrality falls under the area of "regulation" rather than services, which is a different aspect of government. So I'm not sure that net neutrality can be assessed under this test unless the government was attempting to get into the ISP business -- which this test would disallow.

In terms of when regulation is appropriate, I don't know yet what test Pawlenty would apply. That would be an excellent question to ask though if I were a reporter. It's too bad there are no reporters left in the country. Ug.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I saw that and it was pretty impressive -- especially compared to the rather weak attack made by Romney the other day (who I don't mean to keep picking on, but he makes it easy). It's time for people to step up and maybe this is the start of that?

I agree entirely about needing to get the public to rethink their view of government. This has that potential. The last person to change the public's view of government was Reagan, who really brought about half of the public around to the idea that "the government isn't the solution, it's the problem." His statement in particular about the scariest words being "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" killed the post FDR worship of government as a benign force that we should turn to for help.

This is the kind of thing that could be the next step and could win over people who aren't ideological, but are practical. In other words, you don't have to distrust government to realize that it shouldn't be duplicating private sector services. That's why I think this is something the whole party should think about adopting.

(Memphis? Ok, just checking, your article comes up at 4:00 EST.)

Unknown said...

Andrew: You and the readers have covered most of what I was thinking about. So I'll just do a little "me too."

One of the things that makes me think Pawlenty may connect is the simple choice of the word "Google." It's perfect for the history-challenged under thirty voters. McCain or Romney probably would have said "you can look it up in the dictionary" or "whatever you can find in the Yellow Pages." But Pawlenty picked the obvious and ubiquitous "Google."

And as you suggested, the federal government has the right and responsibility to regulate interstate commerce. It doesn't have the right to compete in interstate commerce. Where those two concepts cross is the difference between limited government and unlimited government. There's a gray area in-between (such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance). A conservative knows where the line of demarcation is. A liberal thinks there is no line of demarcation.

And finally, the Founders knew the difference between limited government and anarchy, and built that distinction into the Constitution. The national government has certain specific responsibilities that are simply best handled by one central authority, both logistically and economically (the military being the prime example). Everything else belongs to the states. Again, there are gray areas, but conservatives know when to stop and liberals don't.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, I like your characterization as "core government services." Believe it or not, even as a student I went through the exercise of why certain industries were permitted to be either run by the government, or monopolies were permitted. A great example was the original Bell Telephone. At the time, I thought the answer was there needed to be commonality of service, lines, etc., not to mention economies of scale.

It is interesting how times change. Areas that at one time may have benefited from a government run approach (trash collection, sewage treatment, etc. can, under the right circumstance, be better handled by the private sector. Another example was the original expense of laying cable in a municipality. Probably what should have happened was local tax funds paid for the cable laying setting up future competition for content or internet service providers.

Anyway, your point (and Pawlenty's) is rock solid as a concept. Whenever there is a viable choice between private and public sector, go private. Interestingly, this was a concept many large corporations began to embrace a decade ago. A lot of the underlying rationale on that had to do with dumping the cost of providing benefits like health care insurance to full time employees ( benefits usually mandated by intrusive Democrat politicians, btw.)

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - I realized after I hit "publish" that my "net neutrality" question was kind of irrelevant since Pawlenty does not necessarily mean one must literally perform a "Google search" to make a determination.

NYC has a very handy "311" number to call when you want to report those noisy neighbors, but you don't want to call "911" because it's not an emergency (even though at 4am it might feel like an emergency). It is also used to obtain information to various city agencies and services. It is quite literally a giant switchboard with knowledgeable people to direct your calls and inquiries. It is one of Mayor Bloomberg's better ideas (well, actually one of his few good ideas) though I don't think it was his idea originally. I think other cities are using the same "311" system.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree entirely. There is a huge difference between the power of government and government competing with the private sector. . . at least there should be. The problem is that for decades, the government crept more and more into the competition phase and now it does all kinds of things it shouldn't. This is a great test to get rid of all of that and rein in the government in a fundamental way. It's not a cure all, but it's a cure-a-lot. And more importantly, it shifts the bias away from "what do we fix next" to "why do we need the government doing this?" And by shifting that bias, you will naturally get a smaller, more limited, more conservative government.

I agree too about Google. The use of Google really is a modern bit of terminology and it shows that Pawlenty (and by extension Republicans) aren't hopelessly lost in the past. It's the kind of modern rhetoric we need to show that we get it and to show in particular that our goal isn't to turn back the clock. And you're right, a John McCain (who would never had come up with this idea) would have said "the yellow pages" or something worse. . . "any why are they making things that can be found in the Sear & Robuck catalog?" Ug.

(As an aside and speaking of turning back the clock, did you see the shameful statement by the new DNC head that the Republicans want to "turn back the clock to Jim Crow"? Unbelievable!)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think there has been a real revolution in terms of what people think of as core government services and what they don't. As technology has changed and consumers have changed, we've realized that almost any service that results in consumers (in the classic sense, i.e. people who are willing to pay regularly for the service) can be handled by the private sector. Hence, phone service, air travel, garbage pick up, electricity, etc. are all things that once sounded like only the government could provide them because "everybody needed them" but which people now happily buy from private companies.

There are even attempts to turn over roads to private companies (which I've attacked in a prior article -- I view that as causing too big of a barrier to the "common good"), policing (which I think is a mistake) and even military in a way as many former military functions have been farmed out to contractors.

I think what it comes down to really is, things where people will have a tendency to become free riders by not paying but relying on others to pay for them (like police) and things where we want the public having control over the activity because it is a collective activity that affects us all (like military) should remain public. Most everything else could go private. And I think Pawlenty's test would get us there.

Let's hope other Republicans are listening to this and "get it."

Unknown said...

Andrew: There's been a lot of buzz about that "Jim Crow" statement. It's an indication of just how frightened and desperate they are. They've cried wolf a few times too many, and it's starting to backfire on them. As you indicated, what the hell does Jim Crow have to do with any of these issues? And the answer is, it's all they have left. Scream racism, and hope nobody notices that it has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, That is an excellent idea actually. I know a lot of people call 911 for all the wrong reasons and most places have laws that require the authorities to respond with an ambulance or police cruiser. Giving them a 311 number for non-emergencies seems like a really smart idea. And if they can also give out useful information, that's even better.

Who knew Bloomberg could do something right? LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, That's true, that's all they have left at this point -- scream racism. Still, I find it despicable that someone with that level of authority would make that statement.

Ed said...

Andrew, That is interesting. On your point about parsing the language, one thing I like about it is that you can only parse it in a conservsative way for one! That means you can't get liberals in there expanding the government by stretching the words, but you can get conservatives stretching the language to cut back on the services. That's a good thing!

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That's true too. Normally, these tests are open to liberals reading them expansively to keep pulling in more and more functions as government functions. But this is a negative test and reading it expansively will only shrink the government further.

Notawonk said...

what will i be doing ALL afternoon?! goggling services...

Notawonk said...

make that *googling...

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, LOL! Sounds like a productive afternoon! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, Bev, do you think Weinergate means Bloomberg will stay on as mayor for life now?

T-Rav said...

Andrew, isn't the mark of a "true conservative" saying something bad about Romney at this point? (Obligatory LOL.)

The way I see it, this is the necessary next step for the Tea Party movement; we've gotten our ideas out there, now it's time to start formulating some concrete ways for making them happen, and this seems like a possible good one.

And yes, it does sound a little ironic given our discussion of Memphis the other day; I had to drop my sister off at the airport for a trip to Europe, so my mom and I checked out the Downtown/Beale Street region, which is in fact very pleasant and Old South-like. And DANG, do they have some good barbecue.

Koshcat said...

Hopefully, there can continue to be a debate about the extent of government. Clearly many are starting to feel uncomfortable with the amount of intrusion by the government, even by people who benefit from some of the multiple agencies out there. What also drives me crazy is how many different agencies exist who essentially do the same thing. Take medical care for instance. There is Medicare, Medicaid, Indian Health Service, VA, CHiPs, WIC to name a few. Each with their own rules and regulations and administrative bodies.

One thing that I also hope they adopt is changing the tax policy. I am entirely for some sort of flat tax or fair tax, but one mechanism that could more easily be changed would be to stop the payroll taxes and have people pay quarterly like I have to. Nothing irritates you more regarding wasteful government than actually seeing that money fly out the door. I have a friend, never really very political. Used to work for a large company but decided to start his own business. Couple quarters later and he finally understands what I was bitching about and proceeded to start complaining as well.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I think that's true. The next step for the Tea Party movement is definitely to find a way to put their ideas of limited government into policy terms, and I think this is a great idea to start with.

In terms of Romney, like I say in my examination, I see no evidence that he's a conservative. And I think there wouldn't be attacks on him if he was better at explaining whatever conservative views he may have.

Airport? I was all set to believe you until you said "airport." You're from Missouri! You have the world's biggest airport in St. Louis. I'm thinking this is all somehow zombie related, I'm just not sure how yet. Perhaps the evening news will enlighten us? ;-)

T-Rav said...

Yeah, and have you ever tried to fly out of STL before? Memphis is about as close, and much cheaper. Also, you don't have the airport people screeching at you after 30 seconds to get out of the unloading lane. There is nothing "zombie-related" about it; and if you persist in digging into it, you will be 'visited.' That's all I'm saying.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshkat, I know all about the quarterly tax -- just like the self employment tax. Both of those are infuriating!

I totally agree we need to reform the tax system. In particular, I think everyone should pay taxes (right now 40+% don't). That makes it too easy for them to be in favor of higher taxes and bigger government. I also think we need to eliminate the disincentives to work, e.g. the multiple tiers and the such. I would ideally like to see us switch to a consumption tax, but that is unlikely to happen. So I would instead like to see a low flat tax with virtually no deductions that everyone pays.

I hope the debate on the scope of government continues. Now is definitely the time to talk about that, and that's why I'm happy to see something like Pawlenty's test because the other candidates are just talking about generic cuts -- which will shrink the size, but not the scope of government.

I agree about the duplication. The government needs a serious re-design by someone who has structured corporations. It duplicates too much, it has agencies that don't really do anything, and it's horrible at sharing information internally. i don't know how much we could save by streamlining, but it's not insignificant -- not to mention it would help people (like doctors) if there was only one regulatory scheme instead of a dozen.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I've driven past and flown through, but never started in St. Louis. That sounds like Denver. When they put in the new airport, they put it so far away and put so many charges on it that people from Denver started driving 40 miles to the Springs to use our airport.

Did I mention zombies? I must have meant the band. Yeah, that's all I meant...

** locks door, looks for gun under couch **

rlaWTX said...

we have "211" which is similar to the 311 described - except for the non-emergency PD calls. In fact, the church I work for has used up our "families in need" funds, so that is one of the places we tell people looking for assistance to call.

I love the "google test"! simple and easy to articulate...

(goggling - googling, as long as it uses up the afternoon!)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I love the Google Test too (or the goggle test... either way!). It's easy to grasp and yet very meaningful. This is a good conservative idea and I hope the party adopts it no matter what happens with Pawlenty's candidacy.

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