Friday, October 18, 2013

Fear and Loathing and the Future of Government

The Hollywood ideologue and right-wing conservative, "B" grade movie actor turned politician, known in some circles as "The Gipper," and elsewhere as Ronnie Reagan, liked to promote the notion that "government is not the solution, government is the problem."

Of course Reagan soon learned that he was wrong and the opposite was true! Government was not the problem but rather provided solutions for a number of problems we faced.  And because he also came to understand that taxes were necessary for government to function Reagan increased taxes big-time to the dismay of the hard-core right who to this day don't believe it!

And so they continue to verbalize that the government is the "problem," which, if true, means the best thing to do is either shut down the government or cut it off at the knees by denying it the funds to operate.  The Tea Party teapot crackpots who led the recent attempt at severing the government's ambulatory possibilities were doing nothing more than following the mantra of Lord Ronnie.  Who cares about fiscal responsibility?  The government wastes too much money as it is!  Who cares about the government meeting its financial obligations?  The deficit is too large and we must cut "entitlements" to force a reduction in the long-term deficit even if it means putting millions of our sick and elderly out in the mean streets.

The November 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine proffers an article, "The Anti-Economist - The Future Progressive," by Jeff Madrick, which argues that the current crop of Republicans and some Democrats "seek to prevent Washington from responding to change" as a way of shutting down the progressive philosophy that "change is a way of life, that society must work to ensure this change is for the better, and that government is the most important means of doing so."

[A disclaimer:  There are those huddling in the far right-wing of non-reality, such as Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, who have no dog in the fight of progressive vs. regressive, change vs. the status quo.  The reason for that is they believe in a special and very personal interpretation of their holy book - a revelation - that Jesus is coming back very soon and all will be well, and/or that God will help them take dominion of the entire earth at which time all the wealth of the sinful will be transferred to the righteous.  In fact, Sarah and Ted have both been "anointed" as "Kings" to receive this transfer of wealth.]  The full story here.

Mr. Madrick is not speaking about these religious fundamentalists for they live in an alternate reality which makes sense only to themselves.  He's speaking of the majority of the Republican Party who understand change to be a bad thing and thus signed Grover Norquist's infamous "Taxpayer Protection Pledge."  They pledged never to increase taxes for any reason!  Madrick notes that "218 of 233 Republicans in the House and thirty-nine of forty-five in the Senate have signed the pledge, which means that nearly half of our federal legislators have actively chosen to limit their own options in responding to the nation's changing needs."

Why would they do that?  If the recent government shutdown has taught us anything it has taught us that the current crop of Republican naysayers care more about retaining their seats in the domain of power than about the country they have sworn an oath to preserve and protect.  Norquist, for some reason which I cannot fathom, seems to have the power of non-return.  Those who defy Mr. Norquist are likely to lose their next election.

And that raises the question as to who is really running this country?  But Norquist represents only one aspect of this problem.  The Tea Party, a minority in terms of numbers, also has the power of non-return.  Defy the Tea Party and you're going to be back on the farm, punching cows and chasing chickens!

But change is inevitable.  Change makes "ancient good uncouth," as says the old hymn.  Again from Mr. Madrick:  "Neither the federal government nor the state governments could have known in 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified, that they would one day finance canals and railroads, build schools and medical-research facilities, subsidize land-grant universities, develop vast municipal water systems, create a network of interstate highways, and provide a public pension system for the elderly and a safety net for the unemployed."

Republican conservatives either cannot understand this or refuse to understand it.  They speak of the Constitution as if it was never amended to meet changing conditions and new understandings.  Not only so, but because they deny the importance of government, they have also come to believe that the best way to meet the challenge of change is to leave the challenge in the hands of individuals, often referencing the "pioneers," who they claim struck out on their own and made their own way as if the government did not provide loans and land grants and railroads and mail service and armies to protect them. 

Madrick mentions President Obama's remark that "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation."  [2011 State of the Union address].  Mr. Obama was correct and we can name many worthy American innovations developed over the past century.  But, as Madrick notes, "Our national reflex is to assume that most technological breakthroughs come from entrepreneurial giants and venture capitalists."  "I did it myself," is another Conservative mantra.  Re-read some of Mitt Romney's campaign speeches from the last presidential election if you doubt this.

Milton Friedman, say Madrick, has become for many Americans, the all-knowing economist.  In his book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman said "The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government."

Not so!  It's BS and Madrick tells us why:  "[...] the federal government--not merely through financial grants to private industry but through government research, vision, and risk-taking--has been the prime mover of innovation in America since World War II."

And speaking of the innovative push of government, Mariana Mazzucato, an economist from the University of Sussex, notes that government will take on risks that private concerns will not.  She says this is especially true as "to what are known as general-purpose technologies (GPTs), which include aviation and space transport, the Internet and telecomunnications, and certain types of mass-production systems."

Madrick expands on this theme.  Private industry hesitates to get involved in risky operations because "the funds needed are unusually large and the payoffs highly uncertain."  It takes the government.  "Organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (an early contributor to the development of the Internet), and the Small Business Research Program are indispensable to the advances---in green technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals, among many others---on which our economy relies."

I would add in another factor.  Private entities are generally profit-oriented.  Their concern is going to always be the almighty dollar.  We know how companies compromise themselves when that happens.  We know why we cannot (although we are because of financial cutbacks) allow the chicken industry to police itself.  To do so, is to put the entire population at risk.  The same is true in education and in the prison industry.  Today's anti-government conservatives are outsourcing our schools and our prisons.  And things are a mess in both cases as money continues to trump integrity and ethics.

This is precisely why proposals such as those coming from Bowles-Simpson, which would limit federal spending, are so "self-destructive."  The challenges of the future, indeed the challenges we face right now, especially in terms of climate change, are immense and to deal with them will require vast amounts of money.  Madrick quotes Mazzucato again:  "We live in an era in which the State is being cut back.  Public services are being outsourced, State budgets are being slashed, and fear rather than courage is determining many national strategies."

Here's the way it plays out:

Jesus is not coming back.  There is never going to be a "Rapture."  The transfer of wealth to the Kings who will reign over the Seven Dominions (a notion promoted by Pastor Rafael Cruz and his son, Ted) will not occur!  

The challenges are ours to face.  But we cannot even determine their magnitude by ourselves.  The fact is we are dependent upon government-funded research to define and then deal with these challenges.  Our hope is not found in some mythical religious nonsense, nor in a mythical Tea Party argument against "big government," but in a progressive move forward to do whatever it takes, which will invariably include providing the government with the necessary funds to assist in the development of technologies and resources.

One of the most immediate and important changes on the horizon has to do with the planet's warming climate.  The latest projections as to what is going to happen to the earth very soon are dire!  Many millions around the world will be permanently displaced as cities gradually sink under the rising waters.  It's "goodbye" New York, Miami, and hundreds of other coastal metropolises.  This catastrophe currently in the making is one example where we desperately need the government and all of its resources involved! 

[Read the entire article by Jeff Madrick in the November 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine, pp. 13-15.]

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