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Government - What’s it Good for, Anyway

Libertarians must be ecstatic, even if a bit envious that the Tea Party’s getting all the credit. Anti-tax groups are protesting loudly and calls for “limited” government, and even for cutting the federal government by half — ala Glenn Beck — are stirring the passions of frustrated Americans.

The slogans may have a lot of appeal... until we try to get our heads around question Number One: Hmmm, and where would we begin?

With the Department of Transportation?... And is that before or after it forces Toyota to stop selling cars that can suddenly go speeding off the road?

With the Environmental Protection Agency... when 40 percent of America’s rivers and lakes are still too polluted to swim and fish in?

Or the Food and Drug Administration... when 76 million of us get sick and 5,000 die every year from contaminated food, costing an estimated $152 billion?

Beyond the wildest naysayers, the longstanding debate about government isn’t, of course, about doing away with government entirely, but simply making it small enough to “drown it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist put it so colorfully in 2001. It is big government that’s the problem. That’s the Tea Partiers’ insistent message and a lot of people feel that way.

But in some big ways, a focus on government’s size distracts us.

Think about it: small government can oppress, too. After all, in late nineteenth-century India, British civil servants maintained control with just one of them for every three hundred thousand Indians. Government’s size doesn’t tell us much.

What matters is whether government is accountable to citizens and whether we’re willing to stand up in its defense because we grasp its essential roles in democracy. So we’d best put sloganeering aside and explore: What are the appropriate roles of government in a thriving democracy?

Beyond security and essential infrastructure, on which agreement is easiest, I’d start with government as fair-standard setter and enforcer. Thomas Friedman, hardly a man of the left, sums it up this way, “[G]overnment’s job is to set high standards, let the market reach them, and then raise the standards more.”

If government fulfills this role well, it can be lean. Why? Mainly because it’s not burdened by damage control, by the costly and complex job of mop-up after things go awry.

Take poverty, for example. The real cost for all of us is not government over-reaching; it is government inaction.

By 2008, almost 40 million Americans were living in poverty — many more than the entire Canadian population — and that was before the Great Recession took its toll. Set aside, if you can, the incalculable human suffering and consider some of what we can tally up.

So many American children are poor — with one-half dependent on food stamps at some point in their upbringing — that the cost to the U.S., counting only that from lost economic output, higher health care expenditures, and the impact on crime, is estimated at nearly $500 billion a year—or most of our defense budget.

We know how to make government work for us to reduce costly poverty because we’ve done it. Remember the 1960s War on Poverty — naysayers’ proof of government ineptitude? Actually, Americans cut the poverty rate in half during that decade.

Similarly, enforcing standards to protect the environment is a steal compared to the mega-billions needed to deal with the messes made possible by lax government. One in four of us lives within four miles of one of these messes — officially designated toxic waste sites. “Superfund” cleanups of the hazards have already cost tens of billions of dollars since they began in 1980. And, over the next thirty years, an additional $250 billion may be needed for as many as 350,000 such sites, reports the Environmental Protection Agency — some of which will be paid for with our tax dollars and much of the rest passed on to us in higher prices.

Only accountable government can prevent costly and people-killing poverty and environmental degradation.

Government’s role as fair rule-setter to create opportunity for all doesn’t mean “big.”

At the top, it means, for example, keeping the market free by standing up to monopoly. Take the monopoly on seeds. If you eat, this one matters to you. One company, Monsanto, has patents on genes in seeds making up 80-90 percent of our main feed crops. And the cost of monopoly? Since 2001, prices for these seeds have risen five to almost seven times faster than the consumer price index.

Here, we need government to stand up for both us and a free market. Its size has nothing to do with it.

And at the “bottom” where the workers are? Ensuring a federal minimum wage that keeps up with real costs of living and protecting our right to organize without fear — neither requires “big” government.

Plus, government can serve citizens well as an efficient fiscal agent. Medicare’s administrative costs are significantly lower than those of large private insurers and HMOs. And for Social Security, administrative costs amount to less than 1 percent of benefits. That’s a tiny fraction of what privately managed investment accounts charge.

Finally, government can serve a uniquely powerful role as public convener to devise solutions to problems, including the choice of what we protect as a right versus what is a commodity available only to those who can pay. All western industrial countries, except the U.S., have chosen to make health care a right, saving themselves vast sums — on average about half what we pay for health care per person — and some achieving greater longevity, too.

And about food? In 22 countries food is now a constitutional right, though still relatively unenforced.

But in 1993 when citizens of Brazil’s fourth largest city Belo Horizonte elected an administration that had run on the platform of food as right of citizenship, things began to change. Government didn’t suddenly balloon. With government serving as convener and rule setter, civil society, business and government collaborated to make sure good food is within the reach of the poor. Within a decade their innovations had helped reduce deaths among young children by 60 percent. The cost to the city? About one penny per day per resident.

Maybe we here in America could hit on great bargains like this one — once we drop the unhelpful debate over big versus small government and get down to the real question:

How do we make government accountable to us?

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