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Point of Perry's Stumble: Hating Government is a Reflex, Not a Plan

David Callahan

Forget the fact that Governor Rick Perry had a "brain freeze" last night when asked at a GOP debate to name the three government departments he wants to ax. We all sometimes forget what we were going to say and one of the worst things about politics today is that people get ridiculed and attacked for being perfectly human.

What actually deserves attention here is the ideological extremism and intellectual laziness of Perry's proposal to kill off the U.S. Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy. For Perry, the principle of just generally downsizing government is clearly more important than the details, and even if he were faster on his feet last night, you can bet that he would be pressed to explain why these departments should cease to exist and who, exactly, would take over their vital functions.

Put aside for a moment the obvious short-sightedness of abolishing a major federal role in education at a time when human capital has become all important to economic success and global competition. You'd think that a supposedly pro-business Republican like Perry would think twice about offing the Commerce Department -- created by Theodore Roosevelt a century ago as the U.S. economy grew more complex and the first wave of globalization accelerated.

Among other things, Commerce works to promote U.S. exports -- which everyone agrees is important -- by helping U.S. companies penetrate foreign markets and compete with powerhouse trading states like China and Germany, which see international economic policy as a central task of government. Why would any 21st century U.S. leader want to downsize federal capacity in this area when the intensity and stakes of global competition will only rise? Commerce also plays a crucial role in approving patents and trying to protect U.S. intellectual property from infringement abroad. Doesn't that sound like pretty important work in a knowledge economy? Oh, and one other small task of Commerce: It houses the U.S. Census Bureau, which undertakes one of the few governmental tasks actually specified in the Constitution, which is to count the number of people in the U.S. every decade. 

Getting rid of the Department of Energy is another bad idea. Energy scarcity is certain to be a central national challenge of the future and U.S. dependence on oil from dangerous parts of the world is a big problem right now. High energy prices and volatility in this area has negative effects on the economy as a whole and is brutal on lower income households who pay a larger share of their income for gas and heating. On the flip side, moving to a clean energy economy is a promising way to create jobs, spur innovation, and make America more globally competitive. (About 2.7 million Americans already work green jobs and growth in this part of the labor market is outpacing the rest of the economy.)

Does Perry really believe that the federal government shouldn't be trying to grapple with these huge challenges? And does he really believe that DOE should shut down the 30 or so research facilities it runs, including the fabled laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos, or the huge particle accelerators that the government has built to keep the U.S. on the cutting edge of science? Maybe Perry does want to junk all this stuff, which is why the right's small government ideology doesn't offer a path to competitiveness and prosperity in the 21st century.

Still, surely Perry does want to properly manage the vast government complex that oversees America's nuclear weapons and its nuclear waste. Yes, that is part of DOE's portfolio, too, and it's a huge job.

Maybe Perry should be happy that all the focus on his style, not his substance -- since the latter is impossible to defend.