NOT LONG AGO the argument was advanced on these pages that America's intellectuals had run dry in their ability to contribute to imaginative public policy. "The cupboard of ideas is bare," lamented Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer.
I don't doubt that the academics of Cambridge and "the great polymaths of New York," as Gotham's heavies were described, are tuckered out. Their cupboard may well be bare. But I challenge the notion that because thinker's block has gripped the intelligentsia to the north, it follows that political creativity has ground to a halt everywhere.
Original thinking in public policy is alive and well and can be found right here in Washington. The city is filled with people who have repeatedly confronted the government either from the inside or out. Not all are drones or cynics. Some are what could be called closet creators. They secretly nurture ideas of their own, too shy to unveil them, much less promote them. Yet given the opportunity - at a party, while running with a friend - they'll blurt out their brainchild.
The idea range from a radical overhaul of an existing federal program to totally new concepts of governing. With little difficulty I collected many such ideas, all discovered within a one-block radius of my house. My favorite is this one:
Pat Fleming's Kiosk Plan
Pat Fleming is orginally from Arkansas. He has experienced government as a congressional staff aide, an executive branch official and now as a private attorney who deals frequently with federal agencies. From all these vantage points he has abserved how the government gives away billions of dollars each year in grants to state and local governments.
He has heard recipients complain about the red tape that has to be endured before getting the money. He also understands the government position: Regulations are necessary to prevent waste and stealing. He thinks he has come up with a plan to satisfy both these concerns.
The key to Fleming's aproach is to find the right setting for giving away the money. He feels the location should be a place surrounded by patriotic symbols, "to remind us of the significant public responsibility which it entails."
Fleming has selected the little kiosk on the Elipse behind the White House, the one used by the Park Service to dispense tourist information. There he would install one man or women.
"This person will wear a green eye shade and sleeve garters and sit on a high stool," explains Fleming. "He will have a great ledger and one of those big checkbooks with multiple checks on every page.
"He will open for business every weekday morning at 9 o'clock sharp and will say, in bank teller voice, to the first person in line: 'What can I do for you this morning?' The person will answer: 'My name is mayor so-and-so. I am from Blytheville, Ark., and we wish to build a sewer system.'
"The person in the kiosk would say, 'How much do you want?' and the mayor would say, 'We need a million dollars.' The person in the kiosk would then look at a sheaf of papers to his left. 'We're running a 50 percent special on sewer systems today,' he'd say, and write out a check for half a million dollars."
Fleming would impose just two conditions on receiving the grants. The first is that the mayor would have to be accompanied to the kiosk by the editor of his local newspaper and a photographer. The photographer would take a picture of the event and the editor would run the picture and a caption, as he does with legal notices. "By running it in the paper everybody would know that the mayor got th money," says Fleming.
The other condition is that there could be no substitution or line-holding among recipients.
"We have taken to the policy in this country of rationing by hardship," Fleming notes. "The people who get gasoline are the people who stand in line for hours on end. Why not make that the medium for filtering out wanton, capricious and frivolous requests for public beneficence. We'll follow the same process. Only mayors and governors and county commissioners who are willing to endure hours in the broiling sun on the Elipse or the swirling snow should themselves bring home the bacon."
The Kiosk Plan, Fleming contends, would save the taxpayers millions. Any reasonable cost-benefit analysis, he says, would show that the amount of money either stolen or wasted would be infinitesimal compared to the overhead costs in planning, auditing and general paper-shuffling requirements of the current system.
In addition, says Fleming, the plan would lend itself nicely to federal attempts to influence the economy through fiscal policy. At present, notes Fleming, there is a considerable lage between the time the government makes a fiscal move and when that action affects the economy. In the Kiosk Plan, the impact would be immediate and controllable.
When the Council of Economic Advisers reached a decision, the chairman would pick up the phone and ring the man in the kiosk. "If they wanted to slow up government spending, he'd say, 'Write slow.' If they wanted to speed it up, he'd say, 'Write fast.'"
I discovered Fleming's Kiosk Plan at a neighborhood party. I'm sure there are other bright ideas right around us. Let's go after them and fill up the cubboard.