Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Too big to manage?

By Don Klein
In recent discourse we have heard lots about businesses that are too big to
fail. That was why the government charged in with billions of bailout funds
to help foundering enterprises on Wall Street and in Detroit. I am beginning
to wonder if the emphasis is in the wrong direction.

I get the impression there is a much worse problem. Could it be that this
country is too big to manage. It seems that America is too overblown in every
way and too diverse, for any administration to be supervised skillfully.

Take an objective look at the country. It stretches from the Atlantic to the
Pacific over a multitude of miles of mostly fertile land and is the home of 310 million people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicity. Russia has twice the land mass with half the population and a population density of 8.2 per square
kilometer. Canada has slightly more land than the US with merely ten percent
of the population .

The US stands third among land masses on Earth with 9,629,091 square
kilometers and a population density of 31.6 per square kilometer. The
average population density for the entire world is 13.1. And it will worsen as
the US gets bigger, and we will because we have the largest expanding
population among the world’s industrialized countries.

In a mere 40 years the United States Census Bureau projects the country’s
population will be 440 million, or a 46 percent increase over today. It appears
to be impossible to run the country today, how are we going to handle 130
million more residents?

A growing population in a finite land area puts all kinds of strains on
government. People need water, food and space to live comfortably. We
already use a larger space footprint per person than any country in 2010, what
can we expect in another few decades?

Another problem, if you can call it that, is the tradition of freedom that exists
in America. The population may be derived from different backgrounds but
the ultimate goal of most people is doing what they want, where they want to do it and when they want to do it. How is that going to be possible when we will be falling all over each other in the not too distant future?

Twenty-five years ago I was in China departing a Hangchow to Shanghai
passenger train and stepped onto the platform of the busy station. All I could
see was an endless mass of Orientals streaming to the exits. I was with a
small group of Americans heading for our chartered bus and had to walk
against the flow of human traffic to get to our awaiting vehicle.

It is impossible to describe the feeling of smallness in that situation. The
crowd was hardly belligerent, just curious at the sight of us, as they
maneuvered by. The impact of the shear multitude in such a small area made
me feel intimidated. It was a dreamlike vision, even frightening to share such
a small space with so many others.

The thought of that as the future of the United States, even on a smaller scale,
is enough to provoke nightmares. But that seems to be where the country is heading.

We don’t have enough roads, nor enough bridges and tunnels to traverse our waterways, there are times we don’t have enough water for all our needs, and who knows how long our food supplies will keep us all fat and happy.

There are forest fires that burn down homes, floods that wash away our
towns, hurricanes that damage our cities, tornadoes that level our villages. All
have a human element. The forest fires are often caused by careless campers,
floods are caused by the lack of trees cut down to make room for expanding
home sites and hurricanes and tornadoes wreak much of their damage
because population density results in the inability of people to escape their paths.

But the failure to manage the country lies in the inability to get things done in
Washington. It has become not a question of governance, but the challenge to govern at all. Gridlock in Washington is monstrous as the minority party
votes as one against anything the majority party sponsors.

Recent examples: The unemployed lose of extended benefits, the ailments of
first responders to 9/11 attacks go untreated. But there are worse signs of
mismanagement. Reportedly about 6,000 graves at Arlington National
Cemetery are misplaced, the Department of Defense routinely cannot find
billions of dollars of its budgeted funds, and there are times the government
cannot even deliver a letter in reasonable time and without great expense.

We heard about wounded veterans not getting proper treatment at Walter
Reed Hospital, the icon of American military medical facilities, and we learn
that suicides among fighting forces are higher than ever and specialists in the
field blame the military for not recognizing the problem early enough and
treating the people in need.

Then there is the two worst aspects of US government. One is the outlandish
corruption of officials. Every year there is another series of scandals
involving present and former congressmen and senators. Then we also have
the endless problem of protecting the country from illegal aliens entering
across our borders. We don’t seem to have the gumption to do anything about

They say they can save billions of dollars if they rid Medicare of its
inefficiency. The same is true of every government function. The military
wastes more money than any other agency because it gets more. There is
Social Security fraud and mismanagement, and other entitlements that could
be trimmed without reducing benefits, and education funds go astray, but
government thrives on waste and incompetence.
Is there another country with all these problems ? I don’t know , but I doubt
it. The problem is size and wealth. America is simply too big and getting
bigger every year, and too wealthy, even though it is a debtor nation.

They used to say New York city was too big the manage. That’s peanuts
compared to the nation. Places with the largest population are the hardest to run. Think of California’s money problems. Maybe we should not worry about that and just amble along in our incompetence.

I was fortunate to live through the Golden Years of America – from World
War II through the end of the 20th century. I am glad I will not be around to
see what’s in store for the people the next half century.