Dangers of invisible government


More than a decade ago, political scientist Suzanne Mettler coined the phrase “the sunken state” to describe a core feature of modern U.S. government: Many people don’t realize when they take advantage of a government program.

“Americans often fail to recognize the role of government in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives,” Mettler wrote. “That’s because so much of what government does today is largely invisible.”

Her prime examples have been tax breaks, including those that allow people to buy a home, pay for medical care, and save for retirement. The concept also included programs that were so complex or removed from everyday life that many people did not understand them, such as federal grants to local governments.

Mettler’s thesis is both a defense of the role of government and a critique of the modern Democratic Party’s preference for technocratically elegant and often invisible policies. It wasn’t always like that, she emphasizes. Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill — as well as New Deal parks, roads, and bridges, many with signs marking them as federal projects — helped popularize government action because they were so obvious. If voters don’t know what the government is doing to improve their lives, how can they be expected to support it?

My colleague Alex Burns, reporting from Richmond, Virginia, just published a story on the latest example of the sunken state: the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan that President Biden signed last year, officially known as the American Rescue Plan. .

Alex writes:

Unlike the New Deal, however, this $1.9 trillion federal investment in American communities has barely registered with voters. Rather than a trophy for Mr. Biden and his party, the program has become a case study of how easily voters can overlook even a richly funded government initiative that delivers benefits close to home.

Biden’s popularity has waned in polls over the past year, with voters giving him less credit for the country’s economic recovery than his advisers had expected. In Virginia, Democrats were bombed in the 2021 out-of-year election amid the country’s faltering rise from the depths of the pandemic.

Ambivalence among voters is partly due to the fact that many of the funded projects are still invisible.

Examples in the American Rescue Plan include community center renovations, housing initiatives, and health programs. Together, the projects can be valuable. Individually, many may be so modest that they go unnoticed. Americans may also not realize that the projects are related to a federal law.

“Generally speaking, political leaders don’t get much credit for such federally funded, locally run initiatives,” Mettler told me yesterday.

Biden himself seems to recognize the problem. Speaking to members of the Democratic House last month about efforts to publicize the plan to voters, he said: “You tell them about the US bailout and they say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?'”

Even some potential counterexamples in the law can eventually be undermined by their modest size. In Boston, Michelle Wu ran for mayor last year — and won — while pledging to eliminate public transportation fares. That’s a big, easy-to-understand idea that could change the way people think about public transportation.

But the details are murkier and less ambitious: With a small portion of the money from the US bailout, Boston is clearing just three city bus lines to run. It hardly seems like the kind of program all of Boston will be talking about.

Many Democrats know voters remain unsure about how their party has used its control of government over the past 15 months to help people. With polls dropping, Democrats in Congress are trying to figure out what new legislation to pass in the coming weeks.

“Democrats win elections when we show we understand the painful economic realities of American families and convince voters that we will bring about meaningful change,” Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote this week. “To put it bluntly, if we don’t use the remaining months before the election to carry out more of our agenda, the Democrats will face huge losses in the meantime.”

It’s a reasonable argument. But the party still doesn’t seem to take into account the problems of the sunken state.

That begs the question: If a policy is passed in Washington and no one can hear it, does it make any political noise?

Read Alex’s full story here.

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  • Some in the White House worry it is a sign that Putin’s isolation is making him reckless, writes David Sanger of The Times.

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  • Finance Minister Janet Yellen left a G20 meeting as Russia’s finance minister spoke.

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You buy a coffee and a muffin, and the barista points you to a touchscreen that asks how much you want to tip: 15, 20, 25 percent? The growing prevalence of automated checkouts has made prompts like these so common that some customers say they have tip fatigue, writes Christina Morales in The Times.

Many people tipped more early in the pandemic, recognizing the increased risks to food workers. But as the world returns to a semi-normal state and as inflation pushes prices up, some customers feel that employers are shifting the responsibility for caring for employees onto them.

“It’s our social duty to make sure the person who feeds us is feeding themselves,” said Gabriel Ramirez, a Los Angeles smoke shop employee. “Employers shouldn’t look at the tip jar and say, ‘This is how my employee is going to do this month.’”

Everyone in the Times article expressed support for tipping in places where it is customary, such as sit-down restaurants. But the touchscreens also bring tips to businesses where they make less sense. For example, how much do you give at a self-service counter or for takeout?

Janhavi Bodkhe, a college student in Iowa, said the touchscreen at a local movie theater asked her for a tip. She left 15 percent. “It speaks to your character how much you tip or not,” she said, adding, “I want to be seen as a good customer.”

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