Menus Subscribe Search
federal-government-courthouse

(PHOTO: BROCREATIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

You Probably Rely on the Federal Government a Lot More Than You Think You Do

• October 29, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: BROCREATIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The American political system has developed an unusual way of meeting citizens’ needs while attempting to hide the fact that it is doing so.

As the botched rollout of the Healthcare.gov website reminded us, big government projects can be messy. Fairly or unfairly, recent events will serve as fodder for politicians who like to claim that government is not the solution to our problems and is more often the problem.

And yet the government tends to get involved where real needs exist, usually due to market shortfalls. Lack of health insurance, unaffordable flood insurance, difficulties obtaining housing, lack of access to higher education, etc., are real problems, and American voters have repeatedly expressed their frustration over them and their support for candidates who offer solutions.

Except … these needs run against a peculiar American ideological strain that rejects most (or even all) signs of federal power and equates even modest levels of taxation with tyranny or socialism. Thus has the American political system developed an unusual way of meeting citizens’ needs while attempting to hide the fact that it is doing so. This system has been dubbed “the submerged state” by political scientist Suzanne Mettler and, relatedly, “the kludgeocracy” by political scientist Steven Teles.

Even Senator Ted Cruz gets help from the taxpayers, despite his claims to the contrary; his wife’s private health insurance plan is provided through a tax exemption.

As Mettler shows in her work, such a form of public policy tends to lead to perverse understandings of American politics by its citizens. For example, many people wish to buy homes, and the federal government wants to see more people owning homes, as homeownership produces desirable qualities in citizens and the housing sector is an enormous part of the economy. But houses are expensive. So rather than produce some federal bureaucracy that helps people afford homes or sets price caps on them, Congress instead inserted the home mortgage interest deduction into the tax code. The federal government spends about $100 billion per year on this program, but most of its beneficiaries either don’t know about it or don’t think that they are benefiting from a federal program. Indeed, some 96 percent of Americans rely on some federal largesse at some point in their lives, coming in the form of subsidies or tax deductions, but most of us think of ourselves as independent. Even Senator Ted Cruz, as John Sides points out, gets help from the taxpayers, despite his claims to the contrary; his wife’s private health insurance plan is provided through a tax exemption.

All of this means that policymakers who actually want to use government to make Americans’ lives better face the difficult task of doing so while making it appear that they’re not doing anything. This helps us to understand why the Affordable Care Act was such a monumental and complex undertaking (and why the bill was so long). The government was responding to real and growing concerns —sharp increases in the costs of health care and the growing number of citizens without insurance. It would have been eminently easier (and probably cheaper and more efficient) to simply make the federal government the sole provider of health insurance, essentially Medicare for all. And yet that was not remotely within the realm of the politically possible, even with Democrats holding large majorities in Congress.

Thus did Congress construct an intricate system of health exchanges that leaves citizens still being insured by private companies, but with guarantees of coverage and lower costs. (Of course, even this was described as a Commie/Nazi takeover.) And while there’s no excuse for the poor functioning of the Healthcare.gov website, is it at all mysterious why such a website, culling information from hundreds of different insurance vendors across various states, would be such a daunting project?

This also helps us understand why Americans take such a dim view of Congress. In addition to all the fighting and posturing that necessarily occurs in a deliberative legislature, here’s a body whose main job is to fix our problems while making it look like it’s not trying to fix our problems. Good luck with that.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.