The total number of governmental bodies in the U.S. is approaching a staggering number – 90,000. During normal economic times there is plenty of money to go around, but now every city, state, county, parish, township, and special taxing district is competing for the same tax dollars that the federal government is.

Governmental entities are living, breathing organisms, each fighting for survival. With tax shortfalls cropping up in nearly every corner of the U.S. economy, most are struggling to preserve their own piece of the pie. With money declining, many are compensating with unusual policy decisions that they hope will shore up their balance sheets.

But it’s not just about money issues. Along with taxing authority, each one of these governments has its own ability to create and enforce new laws, rules, and regulations. Working with a limited set of tools in their toolbox, governments have resorted to using laws and regulations to solve virtually every conceivable problem. The sheer volume of laws emerging from these 90,000 rule-making bodies is truly stunning.

Abraham Lincoln once said, ““The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.” Similarly, the quickest way to bring America to its knees is to strictly enforce all of its laws.

Sales Tax Battles

Most of the governmental entities are funded through some form of sales tax, a system designed during an entirely different era that is now on the verge of collapse.

At the heart of current debates is a 1992 landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that determined retailers are not required to collect sales tax from shoppers unless they have a physical presence in the state where customers live. Initially, this ruling applied mainly to catalog companies and home-shopping channels on TV. But it also applied to the emerging online retail industry, giving them a distinct competitive advantage, and consumers a reason to change their buying habits.

Local retailers who have invested in their community, who send their kids to local schools and volunteer for local charities, find themselves competing with faceless online companies, most of whom have never set foot in town. The problem with current sales tax laws are that they create a disadvantage to those who are local. But here is where it gets complicated.

If an online business has a physical presence in a state, such as a store, office or warehouse, they must collect sales tax from the customers who purchase items in that state. Without a physical presence, no sales tax needs to be collected. That sounds simple enough, until you get into the definition of what constitutes a physical presence.

Some states now claim that anyone doing affiliate sales, placing referral ads on their blog sites and receiving a commission, can be construed as being a local sales agent, and therefore the entire transaction is subject to sales tax. As a result, companies like Amazon and Overstock who count heavily upon the no-sales-tax advantage have cancelled affiliate relationships with anyone doing affiliate sales for them in those states.

Maximizing the Failure Points

Rest assured sales tax issues are but a small piece of a much larger problem.

Complexity creates failure points. Every decision point along the way increases the odds that something will go wrong, and we have moved into an era of non-stop decision points.

A country with 90,000 governments, whose primary tools for solving problems involves creating new laws, is a country that has maximized the number of failure points.

As I’ve often said, “The health of a nation is inversely proportional to the number of laws needed to govern it.” From this perspective, we live in a very sick nation.

Over time, these complexity-laden systems will invariably descend into the lower levels of disfunctionality, with anger and finger-pointing setting the stage for more graphic battles to follow.

In a tough global economy, the good people of the U.S. have chosen to tie ankle weights of complexity around their legs as they attempt to swim towards a better economy.

The Futurist Perspective

Backcasting is a tool used by futurists to look at the present from some point in the future.

In much the same way we stand in amazement as we read about the Salem witch trials, or 18th century doctors who used bleeding to cure diseases, or Polynesian tribes who sacrificed virgins to appease the volcano-gods, a country comprised of 90,000 governments is destined to appear equally ludicrous in the future.

One hundred years in the future, people in 2110 will look back at this era of history and marvel at the insanity of our times. They will be amazed at how people managed to live in a country with more laws than anyone can count, a tax code that, according to NPR, is over 67,000 pages long with 1,638 different tax forms, and a justice system that controls one out of every 31 people in the country and has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in history.

All of our defensive posturing for maintaining the status quo will quickly deteriorate into the equivalent of modern caveman thinking as future generations make us the punchline of their jokes and the universal symbol of “what not to do.”

Reining in the Unreinable

So how do we reverse the avalanche of complexity that is cascading around us? In philosophical terms, how do we create the immovable object to deal with the unstoppable force?

The short answer is that abrupt change is simply not possible. Systems that have evolved over decades cannot instantly be traded in for something new.

With a society that is already heavily invested in our current systems, and people already pre-programmed to think and act accordingly, the operating system can only be changed by rewriting the source code. In short, we need to create systems for changing the system.

We currently have no check-and-balance system for impeding the excessive law-writing now taking place. Simply by adding friction to the rule-making process will slow it down. Adding a lifespan to the laws will help force decision-makers to focus on the highest priorities.

Here are a few examples of system changes that may help:

  1. All laws must be posted in one central location online. As a first step towards getting a handle on the runaway law-creators, we need to create a law that requires all laws be posted on one central website online. Any laws not posted will be deemed unenforceable.
  2. Any laws that have not been enforced in that past 20 years become unenforceable and must be removed from the list. Time spent getting rid of the clutter means less time for creating new laws.
  3. All laws must be written on an 8th grade comprehension level. No laws can become law until they are certified as having been written on this level.
  4. Most importantly, no government should be allowed to profit from the enforcement of the law. Whenever there’s a profit motive linked to law enforcement, the nature of government changes, and our humanity becomes compromised.

Aspiring to Synergy

History has taught us that governments can only exist if there is an adversarial relationship between a government and its people. For this reason, few have bothered to question the abrasive relationships that have developed.

However, business and government need to maintain a synergistic relationship. Governments provide the operating system and businesses shares the wealth, proving the revenue streams upon which governments operate.

Companies in the U.S. are continually facing new forms of global competition, and anything that makes it more difficult to conduct business, makes them less competitive.

For a country to prosper, it’s not necessary to be perfect. When we find ourselves being chased by a bear, we only need to be faster than the other guys.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

7 Responses to “A Country of 90,000 Governments”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Vince Emmer</a>

    Tom, I've enjoyed your emails and several of your firm's seminars. I especially enjoyed the above piece. For another measure of governments' impact on your personal life, check out
  2. Roland U. Straub

    Tom, I believe that you put your analytical finger on a very sore issue; one that is debated by many intellectuals interested in the fiction of an open society. As an early example I'd like to point to Juergen Habermas' genesis of the 'public sphere' - as a necessary counterweight to political authority - in his early work: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Political Authority represented in 90,000 governmental bodies is a problem per se, but it is the inflationary character of the ensuing rule making that stifles innovation, intellectual re-tooling and private inititiative. I like your suggestion for laws and regulations to go through a more accountable and radically simplified process - however, realistically I have to resort to Churchill's famous saying: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else."
  3. Rebecca Young

    Brilliant!! Thank you for taking the time to think about this huge problem and find a potential solution. Strong and intelligent vision is a rare quality that only true leadership can provide. It is indeed mind boggling as you have described, what we are dealing with now in government. Finding the remedy for the disease, Dr. Tom, is a good beginning, now just getting the patient to take it illustrates just what or who we are really dealing with, as all levels of consciousness are exhibiting here. The disease of too much law has mutated, morphed and spread into the private sector, turning up for example, as hoarding where individuals are dumbfounded as to how to deal with excess stuff, while corporate interests dizzy themselves by continuing to hang on to outdated models of unnecessary expansion, while the earth is moving beneath them. Winding down the process of collapse of empire will break through the powerful control system of moneyed elite, only by gaining their willingness to take a rest and cooperate. It may require a tranquilizer given where they aren't looking and I can't say what that would look like, except that management has become a burden when technical expertise has been the medicine. Some of these controllers are unconsciously driven and only motivated by their unique belief system of greed, which ultimately is metaphorically ,described as, "to get the best bang for the buck". The BP oil spill is a supreme example of the continued insanity of government, as it stands by while the planet undergoes a severe and radical environmental holocaust, as a result of control mechanisms based in excess, that no longer serve the greater good if indeed they ever did. I like to think they had their day in the sun. But now their day is done. Meanwhile comatose couch potatoes are waiting for their next IV of toxicity that may just bring this final hour to an end. Good luck, your operating room is ready, and your waiting room is full!! A few words by Wordsworth for the changing times, "Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind."
  4. Isaac

    How about expiration dates on all laws requiring periodic renewal for everything? I also like the idea that all laws that will cost money need to include the funding source required for the added enforcement at least. I also like the idea of unbundling laws so that we can have our representatives vote on clean measures. Some would argue that politics requires compromise and unbundling techniques like the line item veto remove the necessary ability to horse trade or puts too much power in the hand with the veto stamp. Perhaps another unbundling mechanism would be better.
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ray Hutchins</a>

    Tom: I think you have articulated the righteous components of the rebellion seething in the land. The people have correctly intuited that their government is out of control, but they don't know exactly how it has become so. Thanks for your analysis. I'll do my bit to spread it around. R
  6. David Locke

    The simplicity of the language used in laws can still hide the purpose of the law. A Texas constitutional amendment was phrased as giving the State the ability to determine what Gulf beaches were public. Sounds good, but ALL Gulf beaches are already public. So they really meant to determine what Gulf beaches would be private. It's a matter of context, and absent that context, the language is just cover. Let's face it anarchy and poverty are the current aims.

Leave a Reply