Some American values may be dimming, but transparency continues to shine bright
I grew up a military dependent, as did my wife. Her grandfather was the senior officer aboard his flagship, the USS Arizona, and he went down with her during the Japanese attack on the American fleet that brought us officially into World War II. Her father commanded, directly or indirectly, three of our four naval fleets. My father piloted a plane in the first B-29 raid on the Japanese homeland, flying over the Himalayas to bases in China.
Most people like me have been raised to think that what 1,320,357 Americans wearing our military uniform gave their lives to protect has an enduring and unique value for all of us. Part of that value was always understood to be a publicly provided safety net for those caught by unfortunate circumstances, but like its namesake, it was reserved pretty much for people who lost their balance. Then it was expanded for people we owed, like military veterans.
But most of those well over a million defenders didn’t put their lives on the line to protect the safety net or Veterans Affairs benefits or Medicare. They fought in defense of the right to make their own life choices, to live with unfettered possibilities and to worship how they chose.
But enduring apparently does not mean what it used to, and the economic system that is today failing so spectacularly in Venezuela nonetheless finds its supporters. Even social-media videos of shoppers looting what’s left in the grocery stores doesn’t seem to have destroyed the brand for lots of Americans. The link between shortages of food, medicine or other basics of civilization and price-and-currency controls is something that is not guaranteed to be understood by adults in this country anymore, to say nothing of our youth.
In fact, there is an inelegant theory to explain why so many young people could support a socialist this year for president. They want someone else to pay their student loans.
Part of the disaffection with the “system”– both here and, literally, around the globe – is almost certainly due to different lessons in schools today than we were taught, and part of it could be lack of transparency. This helps to explain why revelations of personal gain and manipulation of the levers of government by elected officials have caused vacancies in the national leadership of Iceland and Brazil in the past couple of months.
As in many other areas of public policy, the states have led the way in updating their efforts to allow citizens to evaluate government services and expenditures based on availability of data. Lack of transparency led one brave constitutional officer in Ohio – a former Marine, by the way – to go all-out to inform Buckeye State citizens of how taxpayer money is spent. The officer was Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who put every single state check online for everybody to see – a total $400 billion of state expenditures.
Mandel effectively and inexpensively developed a program and website to allow taxpayers to see what they are paying for. In doing so, Ohio earned the only A+, and perfect score of 100, in the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s 2015 survey of state government transparency. The site, OhioCheckbook.com, has since launched partnerships with the Ohio police and fire pension fund and with many of the state’s largest counties, including those that contain major cities like Cincinnati and Columbus. Mandel and his team are moving to include school-district data as well.
Alas, not even Ohio has a comprehensive list of government entities that are self-funded outside the state budget. In some states, current reform efforts focus on abuses in civil-forfeiture laws, illustrating how lack of transparency translates into lack of oversight by those officials responsible to taxpayers.
So if responsibility to the foundational ideals of the country isn’t always in evidence, even on Memorial Day, at least we still have public opinion on the side of accountability to taxpayers to afford us some protection.