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

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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