I’m a big believer in government. A robust state which provides services to itself and its citizens is good. Our particular institutions do a lot of valuable work that is taken for granted.
I want more smart people to go into public service, and fewer smart people doing weird, illegal finance things. So, below are two brief examples of good government that I hope might inspire some plucky students to consider becoming bureaucrats.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, is a federal program that gives low-income Americans money for food. It feeds millions of Americans who might otherwise go hungry.
A great part of SNAP is that it’s dirt cheap. It seems untoward, but cost is an important part of welfare programs. How many people need money? How much will we give them? How much will this improve their standards of living? Helping people is good, but there’s a big difference between a billion dollars and a trillion dollars. SNAP comes in at under three percent of the annual federal budget.
We knew that SNAP would be affordable thanks to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), whose economists and policy analysts model costs and budgetary effects. CBO models run on information from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers SNAP, the Census Bureau, which collects demographic information, and the Federal Reserve, which monitors economic conditions.
The planning and analysis of SNAP implicates a handful of federal agencies, but the day to day operations are handled by states themselves, which gives us more than fifty agencies and probably thousands of employees. This sounds like a vast bureaucracy, but employees are very cheap! The total cost of all federal employees in 2019 was around 300 billion dollars, which is roughly the cost of SNAP itself.
For a tiny portion of annual spending, the federal government gets an army of dedicated public servants who provide quality data, analysis, and oversight related to of a wide array of programs like SNAP. This is an excellent and often overlooked feature of the federal government.
The Little Rock Nine
In 1957, nine black Americans enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. They had been barred from attending by segregation, but the Supreme Court had just ruled that this was unconstitutional1. In a shocking move, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus defied the Supreme Court and ordered the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly block the students from entering school.
The federal government obviously has to intervene here. You can’t have governors using pseudo-armies to defy court orders. It isn’t as feel-good as feeding hungry people, but an important function of government is maintaining order and enforcing laws. Fortunately, President Eisenhower understood this and sent in the Army.
Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task and it becomes necessary for the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to use its powers and authority to uphold Federal Courts, the President’s responsibility is inescapable.
In accordance with that responsibility, I have today issued an Executive Order directing the use of troops under Federal authority to aid in the execution of Federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. This became necessary when my Proclamation of yesterday was not observed, and the obstruction of justice still continues.
—President Eisenhower, 1957
Eisenhower’s ability to do this requires a lot of moving parts.
First, there needs to be a federal law enforcement mechanism which can force states to do things. That’s a professional military. Second, there needs to be some legitimate authority for the President to use force to restore order. Congress provided this in the Insurrection Act of 1807. Finally, the President needs to have the character to use the tools at his disposal wisely. We can’t have the military shooting pickpockets in New York City.
It’s an old American pastime to complain about Congress and the president, but they are public servants who make important legislative and executive decisions. Had Congress not recognized the importance of a strong military, if they had been more squeamish about enforcing laws, or if Eisenhower had been a little racist himself, school integration could have played out very differently.
Government is necessary, but good government takes good public servants. We need more smart people in every branch, every agency, and every office. Math students tend to not have the charisma necessary to be politicians2, but there are a lot of other good options!
There are openings every summer at the Department of Energy, the NSA always wants mathematicians (but has some questionable hiring practices), and you definitely qualify for jobs in the 1500 series. This includes jobs at Census, IRS, GAO, NIST, Treasury, and more. If you are interested in the judiciary, then you will be comforted to know that math students tend to do pretty well on the LSAT.
I would encourage all math students to at least consider an internship in government. You can spare one summer to try it out!