Bobby Jindal's train-wreck of a "response" Tuesday night may have had the (very) unintended effect of focusing Americans on the positive and necessary role of government. In trying to argue for less government by inexplicably referring to Katrina, he made the point that is a basic tenet of liberal politics: There are times when government is exactly what we need.
One of the more ruinous myths within the American story is that private enterprise, the great domain of the individual entrepreneur, is where we find our nation's greatest innovators, achievers and success stories; government, on the other hand, is composed of scoundrels, carpetbaggers, fools and sycophants. For almost thirty years, we've lived with Reagan's big lie, that "government is the problem." Yet it was Reagan who grew the national government's reach and cost to unprecedented size while simultaneously leaving fewer and fewer Americans under that government's care and protection — or able to pursue the American Dream. And even as quickly as we are seeking to forget Bush, let us understand that he outdid Reagan's lies, growth of government, and abandonment of citizens by huge margins. And let us remember as well that he, like the Gipper, was a conservative, no matter how vociferously conservatives seek to deny him.
Today, as the nation collapses in virtually every way possible, from the economy to the environment to baseball, true-believing wingnuts like Jindal, Governors Mark Sanford and Haley Barbour, and Republican members of Congress like John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Oregon's own Greg Walden, all insist that government should be doing less. Fortunately, the American people have given their support, not to these flat-earthers but to a leader who has inspired them to once again trust their government — or at least have the hope they can learn to trust again. Once again, as they've done for presidents from FDR to LBJ, Americans are looking to President Obama to lead a government that serves, protects, helps, guides and makes a positive difference in the lives of the majority of Americans and not the rich and powerful.
Government can and must play a vital role in every aspect of American life. Anyone who has paid the least attention to American Government 101, or Economics 101 for that matter, understands that government, whether liberal or conservative, has a role to play that no one else can. In brief, that role is to do what individuals and/or the private sector cannot or will not. The usual examples are highways, national defense and such. These are endeavors that the private sector cannot or will not attempt because they are too massive, too expensive and used by too many who won't pony up for the costs.
The government fills that role. No one else can.
I understood this more clearly last night as I sat in the initial meeting of Commissioner Amanda Fritz's Healthy Rivers Committee. Forty citizens from a broad range of interest groups attended, including managers and staff from a variety of governmental offices. In the introductions and discussions of the two-hour meeting, the necessity and vitality of government was made clear. Here are some aspects of government's role that came to my mind as I listened to people speak (and a fair amount from Commissioner Fritz herself, who I did not support in the election but who I hope has great success with her collaborative approach). The following is not technical; it's just some of the more obvious advantages that government has and why we need and are benefitted by government's role in civic affairs.
Local governments are key. They are personal, have access to specific knowledge, can meet directly and work with local interest groups. Local government is made up of local citizens; their personal interest are often in strong alignment with their roles as officials and staffers — and in alignment with the community's interests. State and federal government will rarely possess the intimacy with the issues and people that local government has. Local government lives "here", too.
Outside of government are a huge and unwieldy assortment of groups. Pick any issue — in this case, healthy rivers — and you have groups representing neighborhoods, lifestyle interests (fishing, boating), business and development, the environment, labor, education, religion and ethics, politics and more. Government can serve as the mechanism to bring them together and transform them from individual entities into community partners. There are other ways to accomplish this, but none have the built-in advantages of a government agency, office or official. The fact that a new City Commissioner was hosting the event immediately gave the event, and the committee, a cachet no existing non-governmental group could match.
State and federal governments (the latter especially) have the resources and clout to move mountains — or clean rivers. If the Feds decide to do something big, they can do something Big. When the something big is also expensive and vital, often only the federal government has the ability to even make the attempt. Who else but the national government could have pulled off the Apollo program? The national highway program? Ensuring that every person over the age of 65 has basic medical care? That bank savings are protected — from banks?
Government can serve as a clearinghouse for ideas, data, people (connections, networks). An effective private group can serve a similar role, but, again, rarely can a non-governmental agency have the same level of recognition and resources. It takes a lot of work for a non-governmental entity to accomplish what a mid-level manager in a single agency can set in motion. Additionaly, government is who people turn to for answers that cannot be found elsewhere or prove difficult to find. When people need help, when they want an answer about something going on in their community, when they wanted something fixed or changed, the one entity most people turn to for answers and help is government. People may say they don't like or trust government, but it rarely stops them from availing themselves of government's resources, information and assistance.
- Public and private organizations hold diverse values, making conflict inevitable. Government, while not fully agnostic, can play that role more than almost any other actor in society, mitigating conflict when others cannot. While many in government can and do bring their own agenda to the table, not only is that agenda usually well-known by those outside of government, the role of government actors is proscribed to a large degree by law. Thus while non-profits and corporations can seek their own goals as they choose, governmental entities usually are forced to attend to a set of goals and objectives set for them by legislators, office-holders and ranking administrators.
Ultimately, what marks the difference between government and the private sector is the purposes of each. Business's goal is to maximize profit. Interest groups have a mission: save the river, get new boating facilities built, improve fishing, increase tourism. Government's role is to do what is right for all citizens, to the greatest extent possible. Businesses and non-profits use the power of excuses all the time: things beyond their control. Government does not have that luxury. It must succeed or fail regardless. A business that fails can carry on via bankruptcy and other means. A failed government gets tossed out on its ass.
Jindal's idiot explanation of why government is bad is, in fact, the perfect example of why government is necessary. Where were the businesses seeking to build and strengthen the levies? When those levies broke, what 800 number did citizens call for a private boat to come rescue them? After the flood subsided, where were the private entrepreneurs with their innovate plans to rebuild the levies and neighborhoods? Where were the brilliant children of conservatism when they were needed so desperately? From the moment it was clear Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast to this very day, the necessity of government to take care of everyone and everything has remained unchallenged, even by a dimwit like Jindal who still eagerly sucks at the Federal teat.
Only government has the resources and the will to take on tasks such as protecting the nation, educating all children (not just those of privilege), eliminating poverty, providing infrastructure, fixing health care. When a private company provides a major public good — Bechtel is a good example, although it could be argued that much of what they do isn't that good — they tend to do so only because the government gives them billions to do so. There are no businesses putting together financing packages to build a new bridge over the Columbia, but there are damn sure plenty of businesses and private groups ready to get rich off the government's expenditure of $4 billion (which will end up being far more if the 12-lane behemoth is ever approved).
The individual and the corporation have a place in this nation's progress, strength and health. But they have a vital partner who makes their success possible in the first place: government. Perhaps no other fact puts the lie to the conservative myth about government than this: the most vocal conservative critics of government ... work in government. From Ronald Reagan to Bobby Jindal, they all found their voice and their role, not in the private sector, but in government.
So, this is one progressive who thanks Bobby Jindal for speaking up and setting the record straight: The conservative lie that "government is the problem" is now the emperor wearing no clothes. Barack Obama's call to Americans inside and out of government to unite in common cause is our "post-partisan" credo. As he said, sometimes government is the solution we need, the only solution we have. And thanks to our hero, Bobby "let my people go ... into misery" Jindal, we can a last stop looking over our shoulder at the ghost of Ronald Reagan. Government is not every answer, but it's also not the demon nightmare from hell.
That would be another Jindal speech on national tv.