Government Doesn’t Work (They Say)
I think one of the most harmful utterances in the history of this republic was when Ronald Reagan said the most dangerous words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” He also said “Government isn’t the answer to the problem; government is the problem.” I wonder if he was referring to the same government that George Washington had three horses shot out from underneath him to help create. We hear it all the time from the Republicans, that government doesn’t work, it can’t do anything right. The subtext is that they want to privatize every government function possible. The private sector can do it faster and better, they say — both damned lies, and they know it. It’s all about profiting from everything possible.
What is the purpose of government? The Declaration of Independence isn’t a legal document, but it is our founding one. And in it, right after listing our innate rights, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (they typically capitalized words for emphasis), it says: “. . .That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.” The Constitution is a legal document, and among its stated purposes is “to promote the general Welfare.” It’s intentionally vague, as it can mean a lot of different things, but the Founders must have considered it important, because they repeat the phrase in Article I, Sec. 8, as a necessary reason “to lay and collect taxes, duties . . .” and so on. Oh that’s right; Republicans really hate taxes, too, don’t they? It’s should be clear to anyone that government must be more than just the military, courts, and police.
Let’s examine some of the ways government hasn’t worked in the past, and we can begin with the Republican Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment was at 25%, so the government did its job and became employer of last resort. FDR’s New Deal programs put millions back to work while at the same time building or repairing valuable infrastructure. (something we should be doing right now). At the same time, 90% of urban Americans had electricity, but only 10% of rural America. Utility companies said they couldn’t afford to lay out all those lines and they wouldn’t do it, so the government stepped in and said fine, then we will. The REA, Rural Electrification Administration was created in 1935, and by the 1970s 98% of rural homes were on the grid. Let’s not forget the massive interstate highway system that began in the 1950s under President Eisenhower, a Republican (though a good deal more progressive than most of today’s Democrats).
Also in 1935 was the Social Security Act, which has become easily the most successful social program in history. It immediately lifted half of all seniors out of poverty. In eighty years of its operation, I’ve yet to hear of one single late or missed payment to a beneficiary. But we’re told it’s broken, it needs to be fixed (privatized). It’s true that by 2034 it will no longer be able to pay full benefits, there’s an easy fix no one seems to talk about: lifting the cap. Did you know about the cap? Any income over $118,000 isn’t subject to FICA taxes. In other words, Bill Gates and the Koch brothers paid no more into the Social Security fund than anyone else making $118,000 in any given year. The Republicans like to push their idea of a regressive “flat tax.” Well, a flat tax here would make the fund solvent virtually forever.
In 1957 the Soviets sent up Sputnik, the first satellite. It was during the cold war, so after we all freaked out, the government got into the space program, and within twelve years we had put men on the moon. .
How about being able to mail a letter or card to anywhere else in the USA, including Hawaii and Alaska, for less than fifty cents? That’s a heckuva deal. The postal service has been around for a long time. The postal service has been with us from the start; the first Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin. The Constitution mentions building “postal roads” as an integral part of the nation’s infrastructure. Did you know about 25% of USPS business is delivering UPS and FedEx to the folks way out in the sticks? It’s called “last mile” and isn’t profitable for UPS or FedEx. But the post office is going broke, it needs fixing (again, privatization). The reason it’s broke is that in December 1996, with the lame duck Congress itching to get home for the holidays, a bill was quietly slipped in and voted on, sort of by stealth. It mandated that the USPS must pre-fund their employees for the next 75 years. They must put aside about $5 billion annually and are getting behind. This has never been done to any private or public agency before, not ever. Why, then? The USPS is by far America’s largest public union, some 600,000 employees. The irony is that in 1996 they were doing so well that they were considering a plan to make half their small delivery vehicles electric. If the mail gets privatized, how much do you think it’ll cost to mail anything them? And forget delivery if you live too far out in the sticks.
Do you like your computer, all the things it does; Google, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, all those cute cat videos on You Tube? Well, without the government we wouldn’t have any of that stuff. In 1969 the Department of Justice, in order to be connected to universities doing government research, created Arpanet — Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (now Darpa). It evolved into the internet and went commercial in the 1980s.
Naturally, there’s waste, fraud, and abuse, as there is in any bureaucracy or private sector organization. Our education industry isn’t educating our children any more, as echoed by George W. Bush ten years ago: “Is our children learning?” The rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, was a disaster, and that was apart from nearly universal opposition from the Right. It’s up and rolling now though, and nine million people have health care who didn’t before. There are problems with the Veterans Administration, mostly because a bunch of psychopaths lied us into two wars, and now there’s an overload of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD cases. Sometimes government even works too well, as in excessive and unwarranted NSA surveillance. There are a wealth of successful social programs, though; Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP, TANF, WIC, and utility bill assistance to low-income or the elderly. Republicans hate these government handouts, and for decades have strived to “Starve the Beast.” Cutting tax on the rich and corporations means less government revenue, and the targets of budget cuts are always the social programs. And yet, government spending is only 20% of GDP, whereas in the other developed countries it averages 45%. That’s because they nearly all provide health care and free education, including college.
If government doesn’t seem to work, if the approval of Congress is at an all-time low, you can blame most of it on the Republicans, who have vehemently opposed any sign of success for this black president. They will do anything, exemplified by whole states denying the free Medicaid expansion that makes Obamacare work for everyone, risking the health and lives of their own constituents. You’ve got to really be committed to show that kind of heartlessness. But the answer isn’t less government, as the conservatives preach; it’s better government. If the wealthy and large corporations paid their fair share of taxes, government would work better for everyone else — promoting the general welfare.
As for the old saw that WE are the government, I guess that’s true, theoretically. But I don’t think you get to say that if only 36% bothers to even vote, as happened last November. I would also submit that anyone who doesn’t believe in government has no business running for political office. And the next time you hear someone bitching about how government can’t do anything right, tell them to visit one of our national parks.
Conservatives want less government for the same reason that criminals want less police.