Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blessed by Government

Last Sunday evening, kayaking on nearby Marsh Creek Lake, I startled a great blue heron, which flew up, squawking, to watch me from a perch high in an dead tree.Two young wood ducks stood their ground on a tree trunk sloping into the water; a belted kingfisher scolded as it flew across the water. 

Circling the far end of the lake I saw a large bird flying toward me, large and dark against the pink of the setting sun. As it came closer I saw the clean white of its stately head, the white of its tail, the strong beat of its large, dark wings: a bald eagle. It passed not far over my head and I turned to watch it go, powerful, determined. I hold the scene in my mind: the striking black and white of the eagle, the pink of the perfect clouds, the green of surrounding trees, the still, blue black of the quiet lake. 

As I turned back toward the landing, a strange thought hit me: this is government at its best. Be thankful. 

Odd thought, right? Yet the moment was made possible by wise government, effectively applied. 

Not long ago, the eagle was on the brink of extinction. Once common on any open waterway, hunting and loss of habitat had diminished their numbers. The 1940 Bald Eagle Act made hunting eagles illegal, but numbers continued to slide.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring described the impact of DDT on eagles and other birds of prey. The chemical, indiscriminately sprayed to control mosquitos and other insects, was ingested by birds, resulting in thin-shelled eggs which broke prematurely. In the following decade, ornithologists, ecologists, toxicologists, insect control specialists and cancer researchers testified regarding the wide-spread harm of DDT, not just to birds, but to the rest of us as well, and in 1972 the federal government banned its use.

By the mid-sixties, fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles existed in the continental U.S.; now, four decades after the DDT ban, that number is up to around twenty thousand and it’s once again possible to see eagles flying over local lakes and rivers. 

Without federal environmental regulations, properly enforced, the eagle would be long gone, and with it much of the open land, clean air, beautiful shorelines that contribute so deeply to our quality of life.

But my moment of enjoying the eagle in Marsh Creek Park also owed much to state funding of the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, DCNR, which funds and operates 120 state parks. Other government entities have a hand in the park as well: it was created to help supply drinking water through the Chester County Water Resources Authority. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection maintains oversight of water quality, ensuring safe water for our community and others. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission oversees fish populations and boating safety. 

I’m thankful for them all, and thankful for the lake, the park, the clean water every time I turn my faucet. 

I’m thankful for government, and all it contributes to me, my family, my friends. 

I find myself increasingly impatient with arguments for “small government,” or admiring repetition of Grover Norquist’s fatuous goal: “to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” 

Yes, there are countries with smaller governments than ours. Most of them have high rates of illiteracy, inconsistent power supply, inadequate water and sanitation, makeshift health care, insufficient infrastructure. Somalia comes to mind. With no Coast Guard, piracy is rampant. Only 8% of girls in the country enter secondary school, along with 12% of boys. Just 30% of the population has access to “improved” drinking water. Life expectancy? Fifty. 

Maybe we don’t really want a government small enough to drown in a bathtub? Just cut it in half. That would put us at the level of Ethiopia, with government spending at 19.4% of GDP (ours, in 2011, was 38.9%). Ethiopia’s literacy rate?  35.9%. Girls in secondary school? 23%. “Improved” drinking water? 38%. Life expectancy? Sixty.
This argument for smaller government misses the point: we’ve agreed that well-cared for public roads are a value. We’ve prospered with well-funded public education. We’ve asked for help in caring for our elderly, our poor, our chronically ill.  We’ve voted for parks, museums, libraries, infrastructure like public water, sewage, trash collection. We worked hard for regulations on air, water, wages, working conditions. 

The issue, as far as I can see, isn’t big versus small but effective versus ineffective, just versus unjust, wise versus unwise.

There are voices calling to privatize everything from education to roads to parks to ports. 

Who profits? Who loses? Who benefits? Who doesn’t?

In my own state of Pennsylvania, our governor and representatives refused to tax the booming natural gas industry, instead charging a modest “impact fee.” The 2012 budget cut business taxes by $288 million and doubled funding for tax credits for businesses supporting privatized education.

In the name of “smaller government,” it reduced child care programs for low-income working families, eliminated cash assistance for some of the state's most chronically unemployed, sliced funding for county-provided human services, significantly reduced environmental protection staffing at a time when that protection is needed more than ever. The “small government” budget also ensured that needed repairs on roads and bridges are postponed; Pennsylvania now holds the dubious honor of being the state with the largest number of deteriorating bridges. Five thousand of our bridges, one out of four, are in need of structural repair.  

“Government” isn’t some elusive, alien power, sapping our energy, intent on stealing our health and wealth. “Government” is the elementary strings teacher, Mr. Madden, who taught me to love music and practice hard. The deeply commited principal, Carol Bradley, who postponed retirement to shepherd my kids’ elementary school back from the brink of divisive disaster. It’s our old friend Jim Wilson, getting up at four in the morning to go plow the highways, or John M., the park ranger, working hard to preserve park programs he fought for but can no longer staff as his budget is cut once again. 

As I said, I’m thankful for government. Deeply thankful: government helped me pay for college, helped us buy our first home, helped us keep my grandmother in her home when she was too frail to navigate her daily tasks. 

Are there places where I’d make cuts? Happily:

Ecowatch: How Your Tax Dollars become Twinkies
I’d be happy to cut spending on high-tech weapons when we already outspend the next fourteen nations combined. 

And happy to see us spend less locking non-violent offenders away, exploring a mix of public service, restitution, rehab. 

I’d gladly cut agribusiness subsidies - billions of dollars a year spent to undermine our health and undercut small organic farmers. 

And fossil fuel subsidies: do companies whose CEOs receive millions a year really need government billions to keep themselves afloat?

I’m sure I could find more to cut, although oddly, the things I’d cut are the things defended most strongly by those advocating small government.

But teachers? Policemen? Bridge builders? We’ve cut too many already. Hire them back. Fast.

What about government inspectors checking conditions in slaughter houses, factories, restaurants? According to small government proponents, we don’t need them. Not the EPA, the FDA, the FAA, OSCHA.  

A ProPublica review of 220,000 natural gas well inspections found that one well integrity violation was issued for every six hydraulic fracturing wells examined, yet in Pennsylvania, the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) has had its budget cut so sharply that less than one in three wells are inspected each year, and those inspections are done so quickly it's a wonder any violations are observed at all. 

Who benefits when regulations and staffing are cut? When manufacturing waste is dumped into rivers or allowed to seep into uninspected aquifers? When working conditions are left to the good will of employers? When companies can tell you what they want about their products and you have no way of knowing if it’s true?

I suppose that question, who benefits?, will have to wait for another day. 

For today, again, I’m thankful for government, imperfect as it is. Thankful for the bright blue, unpolluted sky, the clean water in my tap, the well-paved roads, the traffic lights that work, the dependable public sewage, the electric grid that powers this computer. 

And for all those people, part of government, who have contributed, continue to contribute, to the lives we take for granted, lives unthinkably easy compared to those with smaller governments, lives unimaginably blessed.

What aspects of government are you thankful for today? Which would you grieve the loss of? Which do we take too much for granted?

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This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?