Better Government

Problems Only Government Can Solve

“For almost forty years our economy has bred stagnant wages, long-term unemployment, huge disparities of wealth, and fewer escalators of social mobility.”

These are the opening words of social scientist Daniel Yankelovich’s book Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life. They describe a set of facts that, in ways often unrecognized or unacknowledged, dominates almost every issue. READ MORE

Why the Fiscal Issue That Matters Most Isn't Pensions

At Governing’s Summit on the Cost of Government last September, I asked a group of city, county and state chief financial officers what they saw as the biggest challenge facing their governments. Every member of the group said it was public pensions. I have a great deal of respect for these individuals. They are dedicated public servants, and many of them are far more knowledgeable about state and local government finance than I am. But I think they’re wrong. I think the No. 1 challenge facing state and local governments is infrastructure, not pensions.

First, the dollar estimates for the infrastructure deficit are simply larger than those for pensions. Don Boyd and Peter Kiernan, in a January 2014 paper, pegged the underfunding of state and local government defined-benefit pension systems at $2 trillion to $3 trillion. That’s a lot of money for sure, but the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the country’s infrastructure deficit at $3.6 trillion, and that was back in 2013. READ MORE

A Mayor's Advice for Avoiding Another Baltimore

Nearly every city in the country is vulnerable to the kind of unrest that Baltimore has experienced this week. The underlying forces that led to that city's riot are national in scope, and ours is a nation born in rebellion with a long history of violent civil disturbances.

Riots in America are not rare. From the New York City draft riots during the Civil War to those in cities across the country after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles over police brutality, some Americans have responded violently when the injustice they feel appears to have gone too far. READ MORE

The Fantasy World of Financial Reporting

During an accounting class I took in the early 1980s, the professor explained methods for calculating and recording business depreciation. Being a government guy, I asked him how those costs were reflected on the financial statements of a government. He told me they weren’t and that it didn’t make sense to try to calculate depreciation on the Statue of Liberty. I thought his explanation was absurd, and a short time later the Statue of Liberty got more than $250 million in repairs.

There was finally an attempt to correct this ridiculous situation in 1999. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) required for the first time that governments report as assets roads, bridges, dams and other structures, along with related depreciation or preservation costs. READ MORE

The Most Important Question in Government: Where's the Money?

“Where’s the money?” While that’s the second question in government, it’s also the one that really matters most. The debates that fuel elections and the legislative process are usually about the first question: “What shall we do?” But the answers to that are largely irrelevant if you can’t find the money to pay for what you want to do.

Financial crises are a perennial and perhaps endemic feature of democratic government, in part because so few public officials want to make this connection between money and the policies they advocate. Lois Scott, Chicago’s chief financial officer and the leader of the Municipal CFO Forum, echoes this theme. When a public official says, for example, “I’m for job creation,” Scott wonders, “Who’s opposed to job creation?” Anyone can talk about what government should do. The critical issue is how we will find the money to get these things done. That issue is the central theme of a new memoir by Richard Ravitch, former lieutenant governor of New York and co-chair, with Paul Volcker, of the State READ MORE