Exposing A Myth: Government Can’t Do Anything Right

Posted in General by TBartine on August 16, 2009 No Comments yet

We can be a very ungrateful people…and there is much that we tend to take for granted.  The clearest, most obvious example comes in the form of the “government can’t do anything right” argument that has been utilized often in the current health care debate.  I have addressed this claim recently, taking the approach of citing several large, cost-effective, and valuable government entities that we, as citizens, have come to rely upon.

But I missed out on a more obvious, more compelling, point:  what about the COUNTLESS government agencies and programs that positively affect even the smallest portions of our daily lives?  Recently, the president of Whole Foods held an ill-conceived press conference, condemning health care reform.  Perhaps he failed to realize that most Whole Foods customer…are liberals.  The Whole Foods online forum became inundated with protests, and some people even posted the names and locations of alternative grocery stores, for those no longer wishing to give Whole Foods their business.

But one particular set of posts was exceedingly provocative.  A dear friend, who has her own blog here, provided me with a link to the Daily Kos entry regarding the Whole Foods forum exchange.  It started with this post:

You’re an ignoramus. Look at the facts. Anything the government has involved itself in haS becomes less efficient and more expensive. That’s not partisan it’s reality. The CBO has twice now substantiated that this trend will only continue if the government gets involved. We need to address the cost of health care but the gov. is not the solution.

This is, of course, the common (and specious) argument against government involvement…but as another poster points out, we both love and rely many times daily on government involvement.  Some highlights:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the national weather service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issed by the Federal Reserve Bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

The only reason government doesn’t work is because conservative Republican administrations defunded and/or patronage staffed them with people with ties to special business interests:  to wit the last FDA, Dept of Interior and Agriculture under Bush.  No one seems to have a problem with pumping over $500Bil to the Defense Department which last I hear is a socialized entity.

Exactly right.  Let’s break this down:

  • Nearly everything in your home, from the power that turns on the lights, to the water that comes out of the faucet, to the very structure of the building itself…is regulated by government agencies that operate every day to ensure houses are built safely and with safe materials, that the power is reliable and doesn’t fry us or our loved ones, and that the water is plentiful and safe to drink.
  • Everything in your refrigerator…is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and even the Centers for Disease Control (just to name a few of the many agencies that make certain that what we put into our bodies is safe).
  • Your television, your radio, your internet…regulated by MANY different agencies for both content, safety, and stability.  As a formerly FCC-licensed radio host, I remember very well taking the exams, following the protocols, observing the guidelines, and even surprise inspections to ensure that I knew how to properly run and Emergency Broadcast System test.  And did you know that the United States’ internet infrastructure is attacked every day from within and abroad, and there are government workers constantly monitoring these attacks and taking steps to protect us from them?  If they weren’t…it is unlikely you’d be reading this right now.
  • The streets we drive on funded/regulated/maintained at the Federal, State, and local levels.  And the drivers upon them (and, indeed, the cars they are driving), licensed and regulated.
  • Business…the jobs we work in, the banks we keep our money in, the businesses we shop in.  Our money, insured by the FDIC…our workplaces kept safe by OSHA…our interactions governed and protected by regulations, safeguards, and agencies.
  • The medicines we take, the doctors and nurses who care for us…licensed and regulated.
  • Our schools, their curriculums, their textbooks, their physical plants.  Our parks, our playgrounds, our public libraries. Our airplanes, trains, buses, and boats.  Our air, our soil, our water.  Gasoline, electricity, coal, and lumber.  All monitored, regulated, and protected by a host of government agencies.
  • This certainly NOT EVEN CLOSE to being a comprehensive list.  Agencies take care of our poor, our unemployed, our mentally ill, our disabled, our children, and our seniors, every day.  There are agencies protecting us and our loved ones from dangers and threats…that we don’t even know exist.

And the person who posted on Whole Foods…is half right.  When these agencies fail us…it is in large part due to understaffing and underfunding, most often caused by Republican cuts.  But WHY do the Republicans get those cuts passed…because WE let them.

That’s right: US.  It is often joked that Americans want all the best services…they just don’t want to pay for them.  And…we don’t seem to like to admit that “government” is even providing the services.  If we get sick from unsafe food or water…or take drug and suffer unknown side-effects…or get swindled by some big company…or see something on the TV that shouldn’t be broadcast…or drive over the same pothole on the road every day for a year…or the police take twenty minutes to respond to our emergency…WE CRY OUT, “Where was the FDA/FCC/DOT/FDE/Et Cetera?!?!?“  But when it comes time to pony up at tax time…WE CRY OUT, “Why are we giving the government so much of our hard-earned money?!?!?“  Teachers need a raise…forget it.  Money to add police to the force…no way.  A one cent tax increase to fix roads and bridges…they have all the money they need.

Most government agencies are consistently understaffed, by people who are PROFOUNDLY underpaid.  These agencies do not have the money to hire more people, and at the wages they offer (often a fraction of what the private sector pays a person to do the same job) they can’t get people with the skills they need.  They don’t have the money to buy new computers, or to upgrade their outdated and inefficient systems.  Oh…and when they do want to improve their processes and systems…they have to hire expensive contractors (if they can afford it), because they can’t hire anybody with the required skills to do the work in house.  Think about it:  how are they going to hire a good computer programmer (or database administrator, or network administrator) for $50,000 a year…when private companies are paying $100,000 to $200,000 a year?  Meanwhile, our demand for their services and that those services be delivered better, faster, and more reliably…INCREASES.

As I said at the top of the post…we can be a very ungrateful people.  And even though our government does innumerable things right every day, that keep us safer, happier, and more comfortable…we thank them by shouting that they “can’t do anything right,” and…we’d like them to do it with even less.