In the US, Republicans and Democrats like to argue about the efficiency of government. Republicans argue that government is less efficient than private enterprise, while Democrats say the opposite. However, when was the last time the US government did anything? Anything at all? Seriously, like when?

Look at the American government after World War II. They did things – big things. They built the highway system. They went to the Moon. They created suburbia and the health insurance system and the modern university system and the car culture, and many other parts of the America we know, love, and hate.

Now, what does the government really do? The “big legislative achievements” of the past decade don’t change the lives of most Americans in any substantial way. The healthcare bill? After the bill is implemented, you will still pay for medical care with insurance. Insurance will still be offered through your employer. If you’re unemployed, you still have to either pay high health insurance premiums, or pay outrageous medical bills (far above what insurers actually pay out). There will still be Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for the old. You might have to fill out an extra form, or spend a little less money here or a little more there, but nothing will be really different for almost everyone.

Is it really just more of the same? Yes. Consider that, a hundred years ago, none of that stuff existed. There was no health insurance. There was no Medicare. There was no Medicaid. Your employer sure didn’t pay for anything. Doctors charged the same amount to everyone and you paid them in cash. There was no FDA approval for drugs. There was no FDA at all. There were no Department of Health or HMOs or PPOs or FSAs or MSAs or other three-letter acronyms. All of that stuff was set up during the last century, mostly by the government.

The healthcare system used to be essentially all private spending, and now the spending is half-private, half-public. Hence, a comparable change today – comparable to back when the government actually did stuff – would be to make it all private, and eliminate Medicare and Medicaid and all the other healthcare-related government programs. Or, on the other end, make it all public, and create a single-payer health insurance system like Canada’s. What are the odds of either of those happening in the next decade?

Or, consider the “Wall Street reform” bill. What will the bill actually do? I have only the vaguest notion, and I was an economics major. Mostly, it seems, it will create additional paperwork for financial institutions, but those institutions will all still exist, in essentially their present forms. There will still be commercial banks and investment banks and private equity firms and hedge funds. There will still be IPOs and mortgages and stock trading and corporate bond issues.

Compare that to what the government did during the New Deal. Here are just a few of the things they did:

– Created the SEC, the first-ever federal agency to regulate stocks
– Eliminated all gold, and replaced it with unredeemable “greenbacks”
– Federally insured all bank deposits
– Created mortgages with fixed monthly payments

Can you imagine the government doing anything like that today? Can you imagine them eliminating the SEC – anyone is now allowed to issue their own stock to the public, for any company they want? Or banning all mortgages – sorry, that house has to be paid for in cash? Or getting rid of all dollars, and replacing them with the euro? Or removing deposit insurance? They used to do stuff like that.

To elaborate a bit on one example, gold had always been money, all through American history, all through European history, through ancient Greece and Rome and back to the dawn of civilization itself. The government banned gold. Can you imagine federal agents coming into your house, and your neighbors’ houses, and forcibly confiscating every dollar bill and every coin and replacing them all with yen? That’s what it was like back then. We can argue about whether that was a good or bad idea, but the government just doesn’t do stuff like that now. It would be way, way, way too politically impractical.

The list goes on. Space exploration? NASA’s abilities have been pretty clearly surpassed by SpaceX and other private competitors – NASA doesn’t even have a manned space vehicle anymore. Infrastructure development? New York has added seven subway stops in the last forty years, out of a total of 468. Social Security? Last significant changes in 1983. Taxes? They’ve been pretty much the same, plus or minus a few percentage points, since the Reagan reforms. The military? Our most powerful weapons – our nuclear missiles, our carrier battlegroups, our bombers and fighters and main battle tanks – are still the same as our most powerful weapons in 1970, albeit somewhat improved with electronics and so on. Iraq was largely the same style of war as Vietnam. (Minus the draft, of course, but we got rid of that more than three decades ago.) Education? If you were teleported back to a classroom from 1950, I bet you would have a hard time telling the difference, except for how people dressed. And so on, and so on.

Why doesn’t the government do anything? Very recently (since 2010), there’s been a special form of political gridlock from the Republican refusal to support anything Obama supports, leading to stuff like the debt ceiling crisis. But the trend is far deeper and broader than that. If I had to point to one reason, it would be a distressing lack of vision on the part of our leaders. There is no one in government today, except the batshit crazy Tea Partiers, who thinks that things ought to be substantially different than they are.

Eg., one might look at Barack Obama’s website. There aren’t even any proposals – it just talks about stuff Obama has already done, mostly minor stuff that has small effects on small numbers of people. Or on Mitt Romney’s website, the proposals are equally small – change this by a few percent, cut that by a few more percent, and (mainly) repeal everything Obama has ever done. All campaigns involve attacking your opponent, but this focus on the past is remarkable. One candidate only talks about what he’s done already, while the other only talks about repeal, as if the world was perfect in 2008 before Obama took office. We can’t change the past. What about the future?