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Edward L. Glaeser

Candidates quibble over size of government, but what US needs is quality

As the wild winds of Hurricane Sandy sent trees toppling, I found myself recalling Mitt Romney’s finest moment as governor. In July 2006, in the days after the deadly Big Dig tunnel collapse, he was a model of calm, resolute response, shutting tunnels and overseeing an expensive but thorough safety inspection. At that moment the Commonwealth’s then-governor seemed to embody exactly what America now needs: a champion not of less government or more government, but of better government.

Romney and President Obama have turned the 2012 election into an argument about big versus small government. Obama dons the mantle of government-expanding FDR, while Romney tries to be Reaganesque. They both have points, but their argument misses our real need: public competence that will vastly improve schools, efficiently target infrastructure needs, and reduce health care costs.

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Hurricane Sandy helped President Obama by providing a gigantic reminder of why we need government. In our delicate world, catastrophic dangers cannot be fought by each person alone. Only the government, with its ability to command vast resources and order evacuations, has the power to protect against such calamity.

Indeed, UCLA environmental economist Matthew Kahn (a friend and co-author) has found that death tolls from comparable natural disasters are substantially lower in countries with more capable governments. In 2010, massive earthquakes hit both Chile and Haiti. In competent Chile, deaths numbered in the hundreds, while in chronically mismanaged Haiti, tens of thousands died.

Yet Romney is also right to rumble against wasteful Washington, for we have often spent more without achieving more. Studies often find little correlation between school quality and spending, and it is even easier to waste vast sums on infrastructure boondoggles, such as Detroit’s People Mover monorail. Since America cannot give up on education or infrastructure, the right response to these shortcomings is not Ayn Randian individualism, but a passionate commitment to the wonky business of public-sector efficiency.

Across the spectrum of issues that government touches, efficiency starts with measurement. Consider education: Until Americans understand how poorly their own schools are doing relative to world leaders like Singapore and Korea, school reform will lose out to entrenched interests. And by comparing, for instance, the winners and losers in lotteries assigning students to coveted charter schools, like the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy, we’ve learned that some — but not all — charter schools can remarkably improve student outcomes. President Obama can reasonably claim that his Race to the Top program, a contest that pushed states to use hard data to improve instruction, was a good step towards more effective schools.

But Race to the Top was a noteworthy departure from how government often works; less laudable, and more common, is Obama’s free-spending approach to infrastructure. Shoveling cash out the door ensures waste, not a world-class system. Before championing high speed rail, the president should have embraced serious cost-benefit analysis, which would have shown the challenges facing passenger rail outside the Northeast Corridor.

Shoveling cash out the door ensures waste, not a world-class system.

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Basing decisions on hard data could usher in a new approach to transportation. Instead of funding highways with general tax revenues, we should have public-private partnerships which fund infrastructure with tolls and similar user fees. Drivers and airline passengers can pay for better roads and nicer airports themselves, but the federal government should guide the system — and monitor safety, as then-Governor Romney did in 2006.

In Sandy’s wake, Romney seems to have distanced himself from an earlier suggestion of returning emergency relief to the states. He would have done better to unveil plans to improve federal emergency response, so that Americans never again witness the failures that followed Hurricane Katrina.

When Governor Romney morphed from competent moderate to small-government ideologue, he gave up his greatest selling point: his private-sector experience enhancing the efficiency of companies like Staples. The private sector wouldn’t tolerate the mediocre service provided by many of our schools or the massive waste in our infrastructure spending, and taxpayers shouldn’t tolerate these things either.

We won’t get a better public sector by blindly cutting or blithely spending. Our leaders should eschew the old debate over the size of government, and instead fight harder for a better government.

Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, is the director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.
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