Mayoral Musings: Why Midterms Matter

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The news on the political front ahead of these mid-term elections has been intense and a little overwhelming. It comes at us from all directions and at warp speed. With news of bombs in the mail, high-profile targets, charges and counter-charges, no one could be faulted for ignoring the news and the election altogether.

As for the election itself, the conventional wisdom is that the mid-term elections are a referendum on this person or party and quite frankly, the conventional wisdom misses what’s really at stake in the mid-terms. Below all the hoopla there is something more fundamental at stake and it has to do with the value and availability of what the government provides. Our government is more than laws and regulations and below the elected level, we get value.

If you read nothing else this year, I strongly suggest a quick read entitled The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, who is the guy who wrote the popular books Money Ball, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, and Flash Boys, to name a few. This roughly 200-page book takes the reader inside several federal departments, such as energy, agriculture, and commerce, and shows us what we get and what we’ll lose if we assume these departments are worthless and the people dumb and lazy, which seems popular opinion these days. 

It is not a book about politics, but it does shed light on the incredibly important role these agencies serve for the American people and it does so in an easy way. It also highlights the dedication and commitment of the people staffing these agencies. This is no small thing and whether through ignorance, neglect, or corruption, a lot of valuable services and knowledge—paid for by taxpayers—could be lost.

For example, it was a guy no one ever heard of in the Energy Department (Frazer Lockhart) who organized the first successful clean-up of a nuclear weapons factory in Colorado, thereby setting a template for all future clean-ups that followed. A largely unknown researcher at the National Institutes of Health (Steve Rosenberg) led the way on immuno-therapy for cancers that no one knew how to treat. And it was an unknown woman at the Federal Trade Commission (Eileen Harrington) who created the Do-Not-Call-Registry.

One main take-away from Lewis’ book is that the federal government provides services that the private sector either couldn’t provide because of size and cost or wouldn’t provide because there was little to no profit to be made. These services include providing medical care for veterans, air traffic control, a national highway system, food safety guidelines, or clean air and water.

Our government handles a portfolio of risks that no private company could manage alone, whether it’s terrorist attacks, AIDS, natural disasters, a financial crisis as we had in 2008, or, more currently, the opioid epidemic that is ravishing our nation. There are the visible and short-term risks that we recognize, but also abstract and long-term risks such as cyber-attacks on the electric grid and a changing climate.

In The Fifth Risk, there’s a great example of the connection between a mid-term election and potentially losing valuable departments. Everyone’s heard of AccuWeather, which was one of the first for-profit weather companies, founded in 1962 by Joel Myers. While AccuWeather sees itself in competition with the National Weather Service, the company actually gets the raw data for its forecasts free from the National Weather Service paid for by taxpayers for weather satellites, radar, and everything else needed to produce forecasts.

Using free taxpayer-funded data AccuWeather, as a private company, makes millions of dollars through selling repackaged private forecasts and ads on its website. So be it, but the risk comes when Joel Myers lobbies Congress and the White House to pass laws forbidding the National Weather Service from issuing its forecasts, except when life was at stake, as nearly happened in 2005 when then-Senator Rick Santorum introduced just such a bill at Myers’ urging. Thankfully, it was defeated.

More recently, Joel Myers was the White House pick in 2017 to run NOAA, which is in charge of the National Weather Service. He was one vote away from being confirmed earlier this year. Had he gotten confirmed, Americans would be paying twice for weather forecasts.

It’s the quality, diversity, and availability of what our government provides that’s at stake in the mid-terms. Elect ill-informed, corrupt, or shallow-minded individuals to Congress, and watch what happens next.


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