“Bigger is Better” not true in government, world affairs

Chances are you have seen an AT&T commercial on television in which a man gives a group of young kids a simple choice and concludes, “Bigger is better. It’s not complicated.”

It’s as if everybody knows that bigger is better, which the man illustrates with swimming pools and cell phone networks.

Is there something to the message he seeks from the kids?

A recent Gallup survey in each state asked people if their state was one of the best states to live in. The top-rated state by its inhabitants was Alaska. The worst state was Rhode Island. Maybe bigger is better. Or maybe lower taxes were a factor.

Maine, “the way life should be” state, finished fifteenth, topped by both New Hampshire and Vermont in New England.

But whether bigger is better is a good deal more complicated than the television ad would have us believe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun talking about “New Russia,” which has its historical roots in an area far larger than the current Russia. It would include the Ukraine, possibly Belarus and maybe even Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Putin and many Russians have not recovered from the loss of their country’s world influence when the Soviet Union was broken up, and they would like to restore its standing by creating a new and bigger Russia.

Bigger may be better for the Russians, but it obviously worries their neighbors. The way Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimean territory reveals how it might create a bigger, “New Russia.”

Americans, who generally like bigness, are beginning to worry about the rise of Russia as a new complicating factor in world affairs thanks to Putin’s version of “bigger is better.”

Then, there’s China. With a population of almost 1.4 billion people, it is the biggest country in the world. The United States is third, after India.

At the end of this decade, China is expected to have the largest economy in the world. Americans, used to having the Number One economy for almost 100 years, may have trouble no longer being the biggest.

On a per person basis, the United States will continue to have higher wealth than China for quite a while. And it should be pleased to be passed by China.

As countries become more prosperous, they seek to gain influence more often by economic means than by force. The United States can compete well on an economic playing field, and almost everybody would prefer such competition to military conflict. Bigger won’t necessarily make China better than the U.S., only better than China used to be.

And, of course, there’s the perennial debate about the American government. Is a bigger federal government better? That question is at the center of American politics now, just as it has been since the Constitution was written.

To some extent, government grows as the population grows. When the government provides services or monitors those it funds or regulates, it needs the personnel and equipment to cover more operations and deal with more people.

But congressional Republicans argue the federal government is involved in too many programs and has grown too large. They want to cut the size government and use the money saved to reduce either the federal debt or income taxes.

Much of the struggle with Democrats is over which programs to cut and by how much. The bipartisan agreement on agriculture policy, cutting funding for both farm subsidies and food stamps, was a rare example of how the two sides can work out a compromise reducing the size of government.

The obstacle to reductions frequently boils down to people wanting government programs to be cut, but not the ones from which they benefit.

The two major target areas for reducing the federal budget are the cost of entitlements, especially Medicare, and military spending. Savings in most other areas would be more symbolic than effective.

Medicare may look like a blank check to pay for ever-increasing costs. The solution would have to be some kind of cost control, which competition alone cannot sufficiently provide. But Congress has been unable to come close to agreeing on controlling health care cost increases.

As for the armed forces, according to some studies, the United States now spends more than the next nine countries combined. Congress sometimes gives the military more than it requests or needs, because it creates jobs, though it blocks direct, job-creation programs.

When it comes to the federal government, many would agree, “Bigger is not better.” How to get to “smaller” is the challenge.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.