Fareed Zakaria, ever the reliable liberal, penned a smart essay on responsive government. In the essay, he suggests we need not less, but more (and I would say, better and more principled) government. In a word, a responsive, ethical, and subservient group of individuals who know how to do their jobs, serve rather than take, and govern effectively. Unfortunately, with Trump occupying high office, most government officials who can afford to leave already have. And Congress has a nearly-single-digits approval rating. Their job performance is truly abysmal. The courts are either suffering vacancies or filled with reactionary political appointees (consider the awesomely bad rulings by the SCOTUS, Citizens United, Vallejo, and McCutcheon). What can be done to help us achieve the kind of leadership we desperately need – more, better, principled, responsive government? Here are a few thoughts.
Take the spate of hurricanes that have plagued the Earth (and, specifically, my spot on it!) lately. As Zakaria points out, “Seeing the devastating effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and of wildfires out West, one cannot help but think about the crucial role that government plays in our lives. But while we accept, even celebrate, the role of government in the wake of such disasters, we are largely blind to the need for government to mitigate these kinds of crises in the first place.” I agree that global warming should be receiving much more attention. However, it is easy to feel helpless when your government officials aren’t getting out in front of it – instead, claiming it is a hoax, or that “all the data aren’t in yet,” or simply not being adult enough to realize that we cannot continue on with business as usual. It is deeply un-conservative (indeed, highly risky) to stick our collective head in the sand and hope that things get better without serious effort and quite a bit of sacrifice. But then again, we can’t even repair failing and dangerous bridges, so something as nebulous as climate change is not high on the list of our puerile representatives. We ignore the currently-in-your-face risks at our own peril. Here is an article to that point.
Zakaria traces the current crop of shysters, lobbyists-in-training, and poseurs to the Reagan era. He notes that in the 1970s, American leadership was crying out for a “small government” change. The actor, Ronald Reagan, rode up on his handsome steed, squinted his eye in the bright sun, and told us that morning was here. Zakaria notes that it might have made a certain sense then, but that “…even though we have entered a new age in which America has faced a very different set of challenges, often desperately requiring a responsible and responsive government. This has been a bipartisan abdication of responsibility.” One need only look at the gridlock, the self-servingness, the astronomical debt, the “socialization of risk,” and it is clear that things are amiss to the point of being alarming.
Have you heard of “starve the beast?” It’s a dark and cynical approach to governance whereby a) an ideologue on the political Right wishes to reduce expenditure on government-administered services (e.g., Veterans Affairs funding for vets) b) reduce taxes and c) pass on the responsibility for service provision to some private entity (or, think: Blackwater). The public wouldn’t approve of such wholesale selling out of the kind of welfare that a good program brings (think: Social Security or the national parks). What is a Milton Friedman devotee to do? Starve the beast. That is, government is akin to a beast, and if one starves it of needed operating funds, then it will die. Or, as the warlock Grover Norquist put it: “…drown it in the bathtub.” It is really a gross dereliction of governing duty to take this tack, but it is part and parcel of the Right’s playbook, and has been probably since the time of FDR.
No, we need more, better, effective, responsive government – not some starved beast. Bernie Sanders makes it plain with this quote: “It is an extraordinarily cynical “two-step” process. First, Republicans are looting the Treasury. They are stealing trillions of dollars from the American people in order to give huge tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations. Second, as their tax breaks increase the deficit by $1.4 trillion, they will come back and, in the name of “deficit reduction,” propose major cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, nutrition, affordable housing and other programs desperately needed by the shrinking middle class.”
Both liberals and conservatives who are not in the Beltway slap their foreheads when they think of what Zakaria is aptly pointing out in this sentence: “We watched as financial institutions took on more and more risk, with other people’s money, effectively gambling in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose system. Any talk of regulation was seen as socialist.” This reminds me of the previous paragraph in a way: instead of the competent, effective, and responsive government Americans deserve, we get a crony-capitalistic system that either comes up with ineffective, porky programs that drain the coffers, engage in ill-thought-out and woefully-performed wars, or bureaucrats who are more like lapdogs than watchdogs. Bernie Madoff, the swine/swindler of outstanding notoriety now serving time for bilking – I shit you not – Elie Wiesel of his nest egg, was portrayed in the docudrama I saw about him as being flabbergasted that a SEC auditor could have easily pulled the plug on his nefarious operation if they had only done their job right. He marveled at the system. We all marveled at the system when Volker, Summers, Paulson et. al. worked overtime to get the taxpayers to pick up the tab for Wall Street’s reckless gambling. Then we saw them pay bonuses. It was almost too much to bear. It was instrumental in giving rise to the Tea Party.
Zakaria deftly points out how inane government can be – not I think because we don’t have the brainpower, the will, or the formula for responsive government, but because both political parties have been screwing it up for decades. Look at how the DNC cheated Bernie Sanders – a loyal servant of the public by all accounts – and ushered in Trump while attempting to pave the way for Her Majesty, Hillary Clinton. In regard to climate change, Zakaria writes: “Houston chose not to have any kind of zoning that limited development, even in flood-prone areas, paving over thousands of acres of wetlands that used to absorb rainwater and curb flooding. The chemical industry has been able to persuade Washington to exercise a light regulatory touch, so there is limited protection against fires and contamination, something that was made abundantly clear in the past couple of weeks. And now, of course, low-tax and low-regulation Texas has come to the federal government, hat in hand, asking for more than $150 billion to rebuild its devastated state.” Here is another good writer, Eugene Robinson, commenting on this very topic.
Frankly, a stunning example of how badly a conservative ideology can muck up a potentially-functional system is that of Sam Brownback’s Kansas. Of course, the all-time prize for stupidity by a man who was supposed to drain the swamp is when Rick Perry was appointed to high office. Jesus Fucking Christ, as they say. Now that we are wading waist-deep into “tax reform”, get ready for some more claims that supply-side economics will improve our ailing land. Don’t believe the hype. I know a few wealthy people and I know what they do with tax cuts: more of the same. The very rich need a tax cut like they need more vacation homes (read: not at all), and halving the corporate tax rate when we are deeply in debt and some corporations pay very little in tax just boggles the mind. Here is a piece by the very reliably good Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Does it have to be this way? No. Look at the social democracies of Europe. They are happier, healthier, and less stressed. They have much less rampant and crony capitalism to suck needed revenue out of the stream (e.g., to be put into wealthy individuals’ bank accounts). Iceland was, to the best of my knowledge, the only country to prosecute and jail the “banksters” who played fast and loose and jeopardized the country’s financial and social welfare. Let’s look specifically at Denmark. Yes, it’s bigger than the United States. Frankly, anything a small country can do, we should be able to do. We beat the Nazis and Japan in war in and put a man on the moon. Here is a snippet from a revealing article in Psychology Today: “From the point of view of the scholarly literature on happiness, the answer is very clear: Denmark is a paragon of the ‘social democratic’ approach to public policy. While there are doubtless cultural and social features of the country that contribute to its high quality of life, the most important reasons are the two distinguishing characteristics of social democracy: progressive public policies and a strong labor movement. This may not be to everyone’s liking, depending on political taste, but it certainly is what the peer-reviewed (and thus non-partisan) research suggests.” I also read and enjoyed this book about responsive government in European countries.
“The clash over health care is the most glaring example of a more widespread battle over the meaning and importance of public goods: what they are, how they ought to be provided—and to whom. The question of whether to privatize and deregulate, or to restore—and even expand—public provision is at the heart of many contemporary political, economic, and moral debates. At the federal level, the question over public provision manifests in disputes over privatizing education or slashing funds for affordable housing. On a more local level, the poisonous water of Flint, Michigan, exemplifies the toll of the larger trend of budget-cutting and privatizing vital public services.” – K. Sabeel Rahman in The Boston Review
What we are talking about at the root is an economic system that couples with humankind’s baser instincts, resulting in a massive amount of wealth inequality, a failing infrastructure, crippling debt, an ignominious amount of poverty, and overpriced societal goods (e.g., student debt). Many commentators, authors, and learned individuals have heralded the need to reform capitalism. Perhaps chief among them are Richard Wolff, Robert Reich, Jared Bernstein, Joseph Stiglitz, and Gar Alperovitz. Here are a few books you might want to check out: Saving Capitalism; All Together Now; America Beyond Capitalism. A barn-burner of a book, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is worth a look if you want to read and then read some more. Here is a snippet about it:
“Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality—the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth—today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again. A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.”
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