Far Too Many Little Fiefdoms

In these hard economic times, it’s easy, noble and well-founded to hold “tea parties” in protest of public subsidy of private failures, in the face of a big federal government getting ever bigger.

I’ll stridently support noble causes like simplification of tax codes, prevention of higher taxes, preservation of the open marketplace, and of course, incentives for the worker versus the slacker, excellence versus shoddiness, the achiever versus the failure.

A lot of the policy and discourse coming out of Washington right now punishes and devalues excellence, diligence, honest hard work and wisdom by rewarding mismanagement, ineptitude, unsound judgment, laziness and unethical conduct. This applies to giant corporations with outmoded business models, shortsighted banks of all sizes, tens of millions of individual people too irresponsible to live beneath their means, and all kinds of scales of economic operation in between. It is why so many ordinary citizens of Middle America — ever the social centroid of common sense in this country as well a geography — have reinvigorated the tea party concept. Count me aboard.

My greatest concern, however, is waste, whether government, private or personal. This includes not only waste of money, but of time, resources and talent. Duplicate functions in government are prime examples. This isn’t just a federal government problem, with all its inexcusable Congressional pork, $500 hammers, unnecessary layers of middle and regional management of various agencies, hopelessly complicated tax codes, and so forth. Government at all levels is guilty — from the feds through states, and down to municipalities and school boards.

Even though he is a registered Democrat, I long have admired Tom Brokaw for his plainspoken South Dakota sensibility, and well-grounded integrity. One reading of his book, A Long Way from Home (Growing Up in the American Heartland in the Forties and Fifties), shows that the vast majority of far more liberal brethren in his party desperately need a dose of his carefully measured analysis, sense of pragmatism, and ethic of personal responsibility. Unlike so many on TV, he is authentic as can be, exuding clarity and thoughtfulness, a gentleman in every respect, a man with whom almost anyone would feel comfortable at the family dinner table.

Tom Brokaw is one (perhaps the only) Democrat that I actually would consider voting for any given elected office — local, state or national. That alone should reveal the level of respect that I have for this man, even though we don’t always agree.

It is from that framework, then, that I took careful note of his well-crafted comments in a recent Op-ed piece for the New York Times. [Wow! The Times, boiling cauldron of radical left-wing propaganda and root source of journalistic septicemia that it has become, actually printed something sensible. That alone should stop the presses!]

Here’s a short, salient, fair-use excerpt.

    As the Hawkeye State’s taxpayers grow older and less financially productive, the cost of government services becomes more expensive.

    Yet Iowa proudly maintains its grid of 99 counties, each with its own distinctive courthouse, many on the National Register of Historic Places — and some as little as 40 miles away from one another. Each one houses a full complement of clerks, auditors, sheriff’s deputies, jailers and commissioners. Is there any reason beyond local pride to maintain such duplication given the economic and population pressures of our time?

Excellent question, Tom. Even though it boasts a “Foundation in Education”, Iowa’s example, in this regard, looks mightily stupid, backward and ignorant. Leave it to Brokaw to cut through the hazy noise and put a critical issue right on the table. As he notes accurately, it isn’t just a problem in Iowa or the Dakotas, where he has lived and/or worked.

    This is not a problem unique to the states I have cited. Every state and every region in the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience.

Damn straight. Elimination of unnecessary government shouldn’t end at the federal level, and in fact, should extend to every target of tax dollars at any level. Even here in Middle America, Common Sense Country, is a bastion of massive and wasteful redundancy like Iowa. Clearly that state’s citizenry, deeply steeped in sensibility as is its tradition, hasn’t bothered to elect officials bold enough to put an end to this sort of massive wastefulness.

Same goes for Oklahoma! Where I live, in the only state that (I’m proud to say) colored every single one of its 77 counties red for McCain, we have longstanding and outrageous examples of parallel bureaucracies with horrendously wasteful redundancy. Each of those counties has its own sheriff’s department, court system, and clerks as well. Heavens to Betsy…why?

We don’t tap Morse code into telegraphs to communicate, nor commute two days to the county seat in rickety prairie schooners for filing assorted land claims, license applications, legal documents or court papers. This is the Internet and IPhone era, where such procedures can, should and often are done online, in seconds, with equal speed and effectiveness, from anywhere in the state or in this nation.

Even in my own little county, for cryin’ out loud, one can use an interactive mapping function to search individual property parcels for ownership information, from any location in the entire world that has web access! I can get online in Johannesburg, South Africa, and see who has bought the house next door to mine back home in Norman, in seconds.

This is 2009, not 1909. Tell me again why this state needs 77 fiefdoms, each replicating the same functions, with only variations in scale due to population? How about consolidating these into far fewer, with net savings to the taxpayers of our state hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the process?

The same goes for school districts in Oklahoma. I’ve been perplexed by this for years, long before Tom Brokaw penned his pearls of plainspoken wisdom. Get this: Oklahoma is a state with only about 640,000 kids ages 5-18, nearly a sixth of whom attend school in just two local districts (counts for Tulsa and OKC). Lil’ ol’ Oklahoma has over 400 school districts!* Each of these has a school board, superintendent, clerks and administrators, performing the same functions as each of the others. Ridiculous!

Don’t even get me started on the anachronistically large number of public universities sprinkled over this state’s relatively low-populated landscape. We can do just fine with, at most, two (OU and OSU).

The solution is obvious: Consolidate! I don’t see why we need more than (at most) ten counties in this state, one school district per county, and each serving roughly a tenth of the population. Even the Daily Oklahoman, a friendly, mildly right-of-center rag, but a rather staid outfit with longstanding ties to inertial public policy, is endorsing Brokaw’s refreshingly conservative and progressive advice. Let’s set another good example for other states and start heeding that advice.


* Wikipedia’s count is getting rather old, but an accurate tally of Okie school districts is darn near impossible. There are just too many! The website greatschools.net lists 517 school districts in Oklahoma! Only 317 of these have websites linked from the Oklahoma School Systems website. I tallied each of those up simply by pasting their names into WordPad for columnar formatting, then in turn into MS Excel for a line count. A hand count would have taken too long to be worth my time.


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