Yesterday vaunted literary journal THE POLITICO bring us news of an Obama Administration executive order that will “direct government agencies to, among other things, ‘stop using taxpayer dollars to buy swag.’” No more government branded clothing, pens, and mugs, less “information technology devices” for government employees, and so on.
What do we make of this? Certainly, we could approach the matter from the standpoint of etymology, but experts have already settled the matter. “You old people killed swag just by knowing about it,” indeed.
So what does this mean in the context of public policy and governance? It seems to me that the Obama administration has become distracted, and more problematically, has bought in to the conservative framing of government as wasteful and unnecessary.
By way of background, this particular executive order falls under the broader Obama administration initiative “Campaign to Cut Waste.” Here we have a fun video President Obama made explaining said initiative:
Of course, there is a lot here that makes sense. Whenever I receive a new, thick telephone directory delivered in a will-not-biodegrade-ever plastic on my doorstep, I lament how wasteful this is since I am just going to google whatever telephone numbers I need anyway. So fine, let us stop printing the Federal Register since all that information is online already. And I think the President is right to call for a professional mindset that avoids waste in the first place. This is a good plan for any organization.
However, there are problems here. As the president rightfully reminds us, there is wasteful and inefficient government spending and resource use that we should identify and eliminate “even if we didn’t have a deficit.” A more appropriate way to understand what we are saying here is “even if we hadn’t accepted the prevailing notion that the most pressing matter facing the government is the deficit, and this deficit exists because the government has grown too large.” Sadly, the executive order to eliminate swag and the Campaign to Cut Waste (as advertised here) more generally will not only fail to mollify those who champion the “government is the problem” narrative but only makes the problem worse by accepting that argument and trying to play to it. It is a fight the Obama administration will never win in the long term and one they are only making worse by trying out-flank. They are, in the parlance of the West Wing’s Leo McGarry, “accepting the premise of the question.”
What the Obama Administration is saying here is that “your suspicions are confirmed, conservatives, the government is wasteful and here are examples of how wasteful it is.” The administration’s goal is to make people think they are solving the problem of waste, and thus the deficit, by addressing the matter. But this will not help convince people already of the opinion that the government is too big and is the course of whatever problem is troubling them. So why do it?
One could say “low hanging fruit,” but there is more going on here than that. The real reasons problems like “the deficit” or whatever other complex social issue is under discussion are complicated and seriously addressing them is a politically-sensitive challenge that involves carefully articulating issues and taking on powerful interests. What is happening here is that the real problems are being masked by simulacra and their causes are being obfuscated and replaced by more well known targets that are already socially defined.
Ken Layne at Wonkette addressed this issue months ago in his critique of Vice President Biden’s use of the deserttortoise.gov website as an example of unnecessary government spending, a $125 enterprise which Layne rightfully juxtaposed against the $125 billion spent on fighting in Afghanistan. Layne noted that not only was the tortoise website not really a strain on the budget in this context but that the funding for the turtle website could easily be considered money well spent under a particular set of values, one that includes concern for protecting the environment and not letting entire species of animals fall prey to poorly conceived and unsustainable approaches to economic development.
(It is also worth noting that Wonkette again hit the nail on the head regarding the swag ban with the headline “Expert Fun Ruiner Barack Obama Outlaws Personalized Mugs”)
So the issue is one of problem definition. Yes, the United States has a long-term debt problem. But this problem was not caused and nor can it be solved by cutting down on government swag. Indeed, there is no dispute that long-term debt problems are fueled by growth of entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare. (Of course, even if we were to only consider discretionary spending, the amount spent, and likely wasted on the military dwarves whatever saving the administration can hope to achieve by eliminating swag. And if the notion that money spent on the military somehow doesn’t count in debates on the budget wasn’t already clear, the fact that “the new orders will not affect baseball caps and windbreakers worn by federal law enforcement officials in the field or commemorative ‘challenge coins’ distributed by military commanders to troops and their spouses” only serves to underscore this point.) And the way in which we address these issues is not straightforward any efforts to do so would involve taking on entrenched interests through a political campaign and citizen mobilization around a carefully articulated set of values.
But, there is a prevailing understanding that government is wasteful and government workers are inefficient and overpaid. So, to make it seem like the administration is addressing the deficit problem, here are efforts to get rid of government-branded trinkets and, as the video shows us, wasteful websites for musical groups composed of government employees and websites for silly endangered turtles. Rather than fighting the tough battle and making the tough decisions the president says we should make and fight (though he does not say when or how), the efforts outlined in this video describing the Campaign to Cut Waste and the Executive Order on Swag rely on established tropes that government is too big and wasteful and government workers are lazy and inefficient and, in this example, spend their off-hours making bad blue grass music.
The idea that the whatever savings cutting government swag would produce would be meaningless in the context of the deficit problem more generally is so obvious it seems unnecessary to even bother typing it. Indeed, hearing the president’s statements on the matter as he signed the executive order banning swag made clear just what the point of the whole endeavor was. The president’s remarks and the way the executive order was framed focused on the idea that while ultimately, any meaningful policy designed to reduce the deficit must come from congress, we don’t need to wait for congress to take action to reduce spending now. Thus, the president’s remarks to the media on why he was signing this executive order neatly illustrated that the purpose of the order had little to do with how much money it would save and more to do with the fact that it would allow the president to make a statement to the media about what the administration was doing while congress remained at an impasse. It was the statement and the news coverage that was the whole point.
And that is what makes the language and the framing of the issue so problematic. By picking these fights on these issues, the administration only exacerbates the problem and the conservative characterization of government. We have already witnessed the need to push back against negative portrayals of government workers. Seen in this light, the idea of banning swag is not only fighting the wrong fight but counter productive.
I joked earlier about the use of the term swag, but the decision to use such a colloquial expression was certainly intentional and purposeful. The term ‘swag’ not only connotes style, but flaunting style. We are set up to picture government employees awash in cool gear and high-tech gadgets new laptops, riding around in fancy government sedans and attending fancy conferences in Vegas. But the same Washington Post story that describes these items directs away from this caricature to a reality in which government agencies have been forced to cut back considerably already. This executive order and the discourse surrounding it, especially that of the president, only serves to portray government employees negatively, scapegoating the very people whose skills and efforts are needed to successfully govern the country.
The problem with this approach is perfectly captured in a statement by federal worker, reported in the Washington Post: “I like working for my agency and want to show pride in it and our mission — the same way that I would for a favorite sports team.” We should want to create a culture where government work is a source of pride and a Treasury-branded coffee mug is a sign of prestige rather than waste. But the Obama administration has instead chosen to portray federal workers as decked out in unnecessary swag. This portrayal is not only a distraction from a more meaningful debate on how to address the pressing issues that the country faces, it also serves to reinforce the negative depiction of government and its workers so often championed by the administration’s most ardent conservative critics.
It need not be this way. Indeed, President Obama has passionately argued for government as a positive force, a place where citizens can come together to address social problems, and as vehicle for us to be our brother’s keeper. But in his efforts to leverage existing attitudes about federal employees and government waste to construct an image that these his administration is addressing while congress remains in gridlock, President Obama is effectively ceding ground on broader debates about the important place for an active government in democratic society that he himself has spoken of so eloquently.