of the people, by the people, and for the people
D. Sidhe has some thoughts about the uses of government
Phil Nugent had some thoughts on defunding the federal government this weekend, you are encouraged to read them. The man's an amazing ranter, and I mean that with absolute respect. But it sent me off on a tangent of my own, and about the time I realized that my comment was going to get truncated over at No More Mister Nice Blog's place, where Phil crossposted, I decided perhaps it'd be better over here where a smaller audience might mean no one points out my various and prominent flaws in logic. (Unless you feel like it, in which case, have at it.)
For some reason, I'm pro-government. Always have been. People who say things like "Government doesn't solve problems", or "Name one good thing the government's ever done", or "Capitalism can do that better" baffle the living hell out of me.
Give me a few minutes, and I could name at least three dozen government programs that are important enough they need doing but that capitalism isn't capable of, or interested in. Let's start with orphan drugs. People with rare diseases, for which drugs aren't available because any given company can make more manufacturing Cialis than something maybe a thousand or so people across the US take. Unless we're willing to just write these people off, telling them, well, yes, a cure exists, but you can't have it because there's not enough profit in making it, taxpayer subsidies seem like a good solution.
Rural electrification, there's another good one. No for-profit company is going to string wire all the way out to some tiny hamlet in the Ozarks for the sake of a few hundred people. For that matter, no for-profit hospital is going to spend much if any time treating the indigent in their ERs if they're not made to. For-profit schools is another good way to say "MacDonald's Training Academy", and no kid is going to learn literature or citizenship or art there. Anybody want to explore the concept of capitalistic fire departments? Remember, your non-covered neighbor's housefire can very quickly become yours, and even if the fire department saves your home, you'd have less damage if they put out the fire when it was still two houses away. Road building, police departments, prisons, the military, you want to see what happens when they go capitalistic, Iraq is rather instructive.
There's an awful lot of stuff I'm perfectly happy to pay taxes for so everybody can use, and so no one person or group controls how it gets used. If civil courts are replaced with the sort of arbitration my bank tells me is my only option if we have a disagreement, those of us who aren't hiring and paying the arbitrators will never see justice. If the roads are maintained by auto companies, you can just keep your bike in your garage. If Microsoft is the only source of funding for the local aquarium, you can expect to have to wait outside with the field trip kids while they hold their monthly employee banquet. When the Wall Street Journal gives PBS more money than anybody else, you can expect to see programming where some B-list columnist quizzes guests as to whether the economy is going "great" or "really great".
So government can absolutely solve problems, and paying taxes is how we have a government with an interest in and an ability to solve problems that are important, rather then just profitable. And right off the bat, I have an adversarial stance toward anyone who tells me smaller government is inherently better--which is not to say I'm any happier with those who propose that larger government is inherently better. It's not the size, as they tell us, it's what you do with it.
The thing is, I don't actually know anyone who goes around saying that big government is inherently good, unless you count the walking pathologies we've come to refer to as "authoritarians", and even they aren't really arguing for bigger government, just more powerful government. And even that only in certain, narrowly constrained areas (like, "any part of the law that will control the behavior of people who aren't me"). So when I find myself arguing about the appropriate role of government, it is almost exclusively with republicans, and usually with the drown-it-in-the-bathtub sort.
I will continue to contend that a big part of why we have Bush is that we let Clinton get away with pretending we had a "budget surplus". I know, I know, we really only did it because it made the GOP's Congressional witchhunters look bad to be going after a guy who accomplished the budget restraints they were never capable of, etc. I was never a huge fan of Clinton, and a couple of his noteworthy policies still strike me as unnecessarily vicious, which is not to say, as they do, that he might not be entertaining to have a beer with. But even so, I found myself defending him in conversations with people who still regard The Clenis as the Antichrist. And defending him frequently. I suspect it was probably pretty common for liberals to have a few policies with which they agreed with Clinton, and to defend him on that basis to people who thought calling Hillary a "dyke", Chelsea a "dog", and Bill a "scumbag" was the height of wit.
So the budget thing came in handy, especially to jab at republicans and conservatives who advocated balanced budget amendments all the while venerating Reagan. But it was pretty predictable the sort of problems that would come from letting it be framed as a surplus. Especially it should have been predictable after we got a good look at what Dubya had done in Texas, though surprisingly few people seemed to regard it as any sort of valid indicator of anything.
So we had this money that was theoretically unspoken for, and the GOP, as they do, announced that the government was stealing your money! More than it needed! Because that's what governments do! And it is only justice--justice, I say--to return it to the people from whom the government stole it! And thus the grand GOP experiment of bribing the voters with their own money--and never delivering anyway--brought us to Dubya, Worst President Ever.
The worst part of allowing him to bribe his way into the White House with that money is, it damned well was never a surplus in the first place. It was the money we'd promised to all sorts of people and programs that we cut during the Reagan/Bush years, and, yes, during the Clinton years as well. We took the money out of schoolkids' mouths, we took it away from health inspectors and teachers and hospitals and research and civil servants in all those boring but necessary positions.
The reason at the time was that we couldn't afford it, not with these huge budget deficits. So we cut right back to the bone all the social stuff that helps hold the country together, and when we had the money again, instead of going back to re-fund those programs, we pretended it was a surplus. We pretended, for example, that teachers were doing just fine on smaller classroom budgets, or that poor families had learned to go elsewhere for food, and that these were solutions that were workable for the long term.
Regardless of whether every poor family found a non-governmental solution (and I can promise you a lot of them didn't), it's pretty close to obscene to have pretended that if they weren't objecting loud enough for us to hear them, then there was no problem. (Meanwhile, we made damned sure they couldn't get anywhere near any sort of position from which to complain.)
But the minute people started referring to that as a "surplus", rather than "finally having the money to meet our obligations", the GOP candidates were all set up to start yelling about how we needed to give all that extra money back to "the people who paid it". (Or at least those whose major tax burden was income tax, which is not the case for most people.)
That was predictable. And it was predictable that a whole lot of idiots would buy into it. And now we have Bush, and we're struggling to meet even the already grotesquely inadequate budgets for our social programs--and will be doing that for the foreseeable future.
Life sucks, and sometimes you have to make choices. If Junior drives the family car into the neighbors' living room, maybe the family has to talk to the dentist about making smaller payments while they do something about the mess. But if it turns out the damage wasn't quite as much as it was expected to cost, the family doesn't continue to skip dental bills and instead buy a big screen TV with the money. They sure as hell don't triple Junior's allowance with the money they're keeping back from dental bills.
Personally, I've never for the life of me been able to imagine why we let the GOP control the government when they don't seem to understand what the point of it is. Phil's got me a little closer to understanding it, and it was worth the read just for that.
(The title of this post, for the record, is an Arrogant Worms song.)