Sunday, August 2, 2015

Big Government / Small People?

This summer I’ve been reviewing and reusing some of my earliest blog posts. It’s interesting to see how discussions from the not-too-distant past replay, sometimes with slight variations.

Kayaking on Marsh Creek Lake the evening of August 2, 2011, just hours after a debt ceiling agreement was signed into law, I found myself thinking about government. Good thing? Bad thing?

House Speaker John Boehner, in his televised remarks the evening before, had made a remark that was already been recirculated with great glee: “the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” Apparently he was paraphrasing a Dennis Prager column from a few weeks earlier that was already accepted as common knowledge: “Big Government Means Small People.” 

Watching the families picnicking along the side of the lake, the inevitable dads and kids fishing from the bank, sailboats tacking across the water, I found myself giving thanks for government. 

Marsh Creek State Park is owned, operated, maintained by government, as are most of the places important to me: Central Park, the vast reserves of the Adirondacks, the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point, the sandy beaches of Bombay Hook.

But government has given me more than parks.

Government gave me thirteen years of really great schools, committed teachers, formative programs. I learned to play the cello thanks to a government-funded music teacher. I learned to love art using thick, government-funded tempera paints. Our town helped pay for my summers at camp through a program for low-income families, and when I wasn’t at camp, kept me safe all summer at a government-funded rec program, where I perfected my knock hockey skills with other children of working parents. 

I think it’s safe to say I would not have survived childhood without government. When my grandmother, sole guardian of four needy kids, didn’t have money to take us to the doctor, government stepped in and paid our doctor bills. And when she found she couldn’t earn enough to pay rent, buy us clothes, and also put food on the table, government stepped in with Food Stamps.

College? Without government, I wouldn’t have gone. I was fortunate to live in New York State during a period when the state put a high priority on developing its human capital. State grants and scholarships paid all of my tuition, and most of my living expenses. Thank you, government.

Thank you, too, for Title Nine, passed as I was entering college. It encouraged my school to add some women’s sports, which made it possible for me to play field hockey, and eased my entrance into graduate school and access to grad school funding.

When I was first married, living in Philadelphia, we found we couldn’t afford a car, so were grateful for Septa and Amtrack, both subsidized by government. Of course, we still enjoy government-subsidized transportation: safe bridges, good roads, modern airports. As I write this, a crew is repaving the road in front of my house. Thank you, government.

We lived for years near the United States Geological Survey offices in RestonVirginia, so when I check the weather, or hear about hurricane warnings, or read the latest about forest fire control, I think of my USGS friends, government workers I’m thankful for.

I have friends involved in water missions to parts of the world where government is small and human needs are great. In a world where more than 880 million people have inadequate access to clean water, I am deeply grateful that every time I turn on my faucet – every time! – clean, clear water flows out. Our government works hard to make that happen. There are some who think they should work less hard, but I believe they’re wrong.

Do I agree with all government spending? Of course not. Misguided farm subsidies have done real damage. Too much US aid is channeled through corporations like Monsanto in ways that harm, rather than help, food production in developing countries. And I’m still trying to understand why multinational banks like Bank of America were given billions of dollars in federal bailout money when they did little to help people in foreclosure, have paid no US taxes in years, and managed to give their executives millions during the worst recession in decades.

But that’s not a problem of big government. It’s a problem of big business exercising undue influence in the legislative process.

I wrote last week about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which held its annual convention last week in San Diego

For decades, ALEC fought “big government’ regulation of tobacco sales and use, promoting legislation that blocks producers and sellers from liability, limiting local government’s ability to regulate second-hand smoke, providing “talking points” about the contribution of tobacco to local economies. The cry of “big government” was an effective smoke screen for the real issue at stake: protecting profits of key industry donors, including JRR Reynolds and Philip Morris, and the  Cigar Association of America.  

Studying agriculture issues several years ago, I was intrigued to see ALEC model legislation blocking local and state level attempts to protect organic farmers from contamination by neighboring farms spraying pesticides or seeding with genetically modified crops, legislation benefitting large farms at the expense of small, “ag gag” bills that make it a crime for concerned citizens to photograph or videotape unsavory activities at factory farms. ALEC agriculture legislation did little to limit the size of government, but much to ensure the continued profitability of the “Big Six” seed and agrichemical companies (Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Bayer, BASF and Syngenta) 

One of ALEC’s perennial goals is to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, or to pass laws that restrict and deter every attempt at appropriate regulation. ALEC publications accuse the EPA of “ waging war on the American standard of living.”  A novel idea introduced at the San Diego conference was  the "Environmental Impact LitigationAct," which would allow corporate interests to fund state lawsuits against federal environmental laws. Again, while the argument is that  “Big Government” is destroying local economies, the reality is that fossil fuel corporations will reward legislators who help place profit above protection of air, water, or public health.  

Do I want less government? I’m sure there are some places where less government would be a good thing. But in the places I care about, for the people I know best, less government has been a disaster: crowded classrooms, crumbling bridges, desperate single moms trying to find affordable childcare so they can keep their minimum wage jobs and their substandard housing.

I don’t believe big government makes us smaller. I believe wise government enhances our lives, opens doors of opportunity, protects us and our environment, provides a safety net for the poor, the frail, those squeezed out by the systems of the day.

And ensures a needed corrective to the goals and ambitions of large companies eager to externalize costs and maximize profits at public expense. 

How big should government be? 

Big enough to accomplish those tasks well, and big enough to fund the search for that elusive fraud and waste Big Government opponents like to talk about.

[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging. Parts of this appeared August 2, 2011 post, Big Government, Small People?]

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