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Nanny McPhee and the Nanny State

12 Jul 2013

Director Kirk Jones brought the award winning British actress Emma Thompson to American screens in a humorous and funky children’s tale entitled Nanny McPhee back in 2005. The context of the story is a widower with several untamed children who go through nannies like babies go through diapers. McPhee shows up announced. She is a stern, haggardly, be-moled old woman who scares the children momentarily before they reengage their determination to run off yet another nanny. McPhee, however, uses a combination of coercing, cajoling, and convincing (along with a healthy dose of magic) to help the children understand the importance of treating one another with respect and behaving decently around adults. With each new lesson that the children learn, Nanny McPhee becomes progressively more attractive. She loses her gray hair, she loses her rather monstrous mole, and her features evolve into an attractive, kindly, young woman…just about the time she has taught the children all they need to know. She then disappears just as mysteriously as she arrived.

President Obama’s administration has eagerly taken on the role of the “Nanny State.” When he has been unable or unwilling to coerce, cajole or convince Congress or the American people of the rightness of his plan, he has used the magic of the executive order to get it done. The distinction, however, is that President Obama appeared at our door as a rather young, kindly, and attractive president. Who could quibble with plans to save electricity by making light bulbs more efficient? Who could complain about air quality improving around coal plants that produce electricity? What parent would object to careful policies laid out to protect their children from concussions as they play high school sports? Why not require electric power plants to pursue alternative means of producing power? After all, our pocketbooks, our planet, and our children are worth the effort.

The problem is, of course, that Nanny McGovernment is not Nanny McPhee. She cannot wave a magic wand and make everything better, and she seldom has our best interests at heart. Nanny McGovernment is at her heart a political animal. She craves power and has an agenda.

I have been frustrated by that agenda quite a bit recently. I went into my local Walmart to buy a light bulb and the shelves were bare. Much of what I read online suggests that the law does not outlaw certain types of incandescent bulbs, but the practical application of it does. If a bulb manufacturer cannot produce a bulb that meets certain efficiency standards then it cannot be sold. Now I am left with buying inferior flourescents that cost as much as ten times more to save me up to 50% on my electrical bill of $4.80 on that bulb per year. The math does not add up for me as a consumer. Given that light bulbs account for only 10% of electrical use in the average home, the environmental argument is weak as well (and that is assuming one agrees that the science behind global warming has any validity which remains a topic of significant debate.)

I drove into Pennsylvania to see family this past month and passed billboard after billboard by the PA coal industry pleading with consumers to support the Pennsylvania coal industry. It is shocking to think a state so reliant on the coal industry should have to be pleaded with, but given the electoral returns in the state, one can understand why. I suppose it is easy to live in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and not be too mindful of one’s rural brethren, but coal actually does matter to everyone in PA. Actually, It matters quite a bit from PA all the way across the country cutting south to Texas. There are two major coal fired power plants that control much of the energy flow to this huge region. Nanny McGovernment’s war on such plants has them running scared. One is gambling and spending over a billion dollars to make the plant more environmentally friendly and the other is not. The gamble is that even after all that expenditure, the Nanny can change its policy, absent any legislative action by Congress by the way, and rewrite the rules yet again. The reality is that the Obama administration wants fossil fuel power plants to go away. For a while he was talking about bringing more nuclear power plants on line but that has gone nowhere. We all know how he squandered money from the stimulus by lining the pockets of his alternative energy supporters (ie. Solyndra debacle). Yet he forges on. Nanny McGovernment is now requiring electric companies to produce a certain percentage of its electricity using renewable means. That means local power companies are subsidizing inefficient solar and wind power plants to produce energy. Guess who will pay increased electric bills now and in the years to come. We have enough coal (and natural gas based on new finds) to keep our country lit for generations to come inexpensively and efficiently. Nanny McGovernment knows better, however. The consumer does not matter. My fellow economists on this blog page can speak better to the issue of regulation’s impact on the broader economy, but I am quite sure that the type of restrictions I am talking about are hurting this country’s overall growth.

Finally, I took my kids for their annual sport physicals and was told that my son, who plays high school soccer, has to go through a pre-testing regimen for concussions. This protocol, of course, is because of state legislation making such things mandatory. Nanny McGovernment strikes again. I am thrilled that the state cares about my son’s brain, but I am struggling with the mechanism and the assumptions behind it. This time, the culprit is my own state government. If we really researched, my guess is that the media shares part of the blame. Story-starved investigative journalists conjured up multiple stories about concussions in big league sports and then descended on colleges, high schools, and playgrounds near you. They found that there are concussions everywhere. And there are…and have been for some time. The fact that they became a news item somehow made them a national crisis. So now, my son undergoes government mandated testing during the pre-season. So what is my beef? Nanny McGovernment assumes that I either do not care about my son or am incapable of caring for my son so it must step in and mandate how I protect him. No one may object to this particular initiative, but we do not have to pursue this very far to see the problem with the mechanism. Is government really the best location for deciding how to protect our children? What roles, responsibilities, and rights do parents actually have? And what is to prevent our Nanny from infringing on other areas of parenting that do not seem so innocuous? I recently finished Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I cannot help but to think he was right. Government intrusion into the economy leads inexorably towards intrusion into the lives of individual citizens. It leads ultimately to tyranny. No matter the rationale or the face on the one pursuing it, it has historically led to the same end.

Nanny McGovernment may have started out looking pretty attractive for many or even most Americans, but I fear her face is rapidly changing. Some rebellion by her children may be in order to keep her in check, or we may wake up one morning and wonder why she looks so ugly.