I was very struck by two conversations I had in Iowa on Saturday.
At the Mitchell County Fair a farmer told me about the dramatic increase in corn production per acre over the past few decades. In his lifetime science has increased the yield from 73 bushels per acre in 1970 to 162 bushels per acre in 2009. That's about a 125 percent increase in yields.
The same day, a county commissioner in Decorah, Winneshiek County told me the sheer weight of the corn harvests have been beating up the roads and bridges. He was faced with a crisis because the cost of building roads and repairing or building bridges had gone up dramatically (and even had doubled in some cases).
The county commissioner said two major roadblocks to improving the infrastructure are the huge layers of state and federal red tape and the failure to develop new productivity-increasing, cost saving materials and techniques. We still build most roads and bridges the same way we have for decades.
Here was a contrast between scientific progress raising productivity and the standard of living while bureaucracy and red tape raised costs and drove down the standard of living.
This contrast between scientific progress and government failure led me to reflect on the implementation phase of the new debt ceiling deal.
The lesson is that this can't be just more of the current incompetent, inefficient, and job destroying bureaucracy.
There are three questions Washington offices should ask every morning for the next six months as they work to implement the debt ceiling agreement:
One: Will this change increase jobs or kill jobs?
We are in danger of an even deeper depression with even greater unemployment. As I wrote recently, we face the possibility of 10 percent of Americans officially unemployed, with a full 20 percent unemployed, underemployed or no longer looking for work.
There are clear steps Washington can take to stop killing jobs. Repealing the destructive Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes Oxley Acts, creating a 21st century Food and Drug Administration, replacing the EPA with an Environmental Solutions Agency, and launching an American energy plan are all vital steps to creating jobs and increasing revenues through economic growth. Historically a growing, larger economy has been the most powerful method for reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio. The first question in Washington every day should be what to do to create jobs.
Second: How can government be more effective as well as more efficient?
Strong America Now, led by Mike George, argues that applying the Lean Six Sigma method for dramatic cost cutting could yield $500 billion in savings a year.
That would be the biggest reform to bureaucracy since the civil service movement of the 1880s.
We don't just want less of a failing, inefficient bureaucracy riddled with corruption and waste.
We want a smaller but much more modern and effective system.
Companies today survive in the world market through a relentless focus on being more productive and more innovative. That is the opposite of the spirit of our federal bureaucracies. Washington must ask what it is doing to create an agile, honest, and accountable system.
Third: What do we need to do to keep America safe?
Our competitors and our enemies will not wait for us to sort out our fiscal problems.
The Chinese work every day to modernize their economy and their military. Our enemies among radical Islamists work every day to acquire dangerous weapons and other methods of defeating us. The Mexican drug cartel and its war inside Mexico remains a serious threat along our border.
Our leaders have to think through new strategies for ensuring our safety.
The most expensive defense is one that fails. There is a grave danger that we will come out of the fiscal exercise with a dramatic increase in our vulnerability to our enemies. Washington must ask with every decision whether it is making America safer or more vulnerable.
These three questions could turn the next six months into one of the most creative periods in American history. By January 2012, America could be on a path to a better economy, more jobs, and a better, more effective and smaller government and a safer future.
Or, mindless cuts could leave us even deeper in depression with even more inefficient bureaucracy and growing vulnerability to threats from our opponents.
America's future depends on getting Washington to take these questions seriously.