If I were to believe the words of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I would have gone through most of my adult years thinking that government was never the solution, but always the problem. Even the Democratic icon of the 1990s, William Jefferson Clinton famously declared that the era of big government is over. The implication being that the government was not a solution for the problems that face this country, but that these solutions lie with the plutocratic or wealth classes of the nation. The theory of economy trickling down from the top to the bottom had a fairly well worn test run from 1980 through 2008. The results were startling.
What does smaller government or unregulated industry get us? The first question that crosses my mind is does it respond to federal emergency management effectively? Where in the private sector is there a FEMA that would act in the interests of people rather than in the interests of profit? We all praised government in their immediate responses to Oklahoma City, September 11, and Hurricane Sandy and castigated our government for it's handling of Hurricane Katrina. But we didn't turn to private agencies for most of the first response, rescue, and rebuilding that occurred in the wake of these disasters. Yet through the era of smaller government, FEMA was gutted and their ability to effectively respond and coordinate disaster relief efforts have been severely limited. It is not a job that is particularly desired by the private sector, because there is no profit motive here. So much for the government being the problem here....... it looks a bit more like the solution.
The next question about government has to do with pensions and social security. Not to beat a dead horse, but there is a very important point to be made. During a thirty year period where worker pensions in private industry have been shrinking markedly, the importance of social security for many aging workers has become even more important. When company pension plans were the norm, the social security system was somewhat supplemental and there may have been a legitimate argument over whether or not there should be major revisions in that system. What we have seen, however, in this era of smaller government and larger industry, is a massive shrinking of the private pension plan. Even in companies that have maintained their pension plans the yield has become increasingly smaller, placing a greater value for workers on social security benefits. No longer is this a luxury benefit. It is a life savings entitlement that the workers have contributed to all their lives. We see where smaller government goes with pensions and retirement and than understand completely why the era of government cannot end.
Medicare shrinkage and the Affordable Care Act as a way to get government smaller? What a wonderful idea for most 30 year olds who are healthy and can get a basic health insurance policy at decent rates. If I'm an employer, it's a great fringe benefit to offer my employees, with the company paying a percentage and the worker paying a percentage. It's a win/win for everyone and gets government out of the healthcare business. But fast forward to the middle aged man with type 2 diabetes, a heart attack at 54, and slightly overweight who has been self-employed. A $30,000 premium for that man and his family isn't such a wonderful private sector solution. Then think about the senior citizen with failing health and a voucher for a set premium going out to attempt to purchase insurance that will allow that person to continue to live. Not too many private sector companies are going to see issuance of this policy as very good for their bottom line. The problem here isn't the government, it is the solution.
Next we look at education. The mantra of the right since the 1980s has been that the public school education system is irretrievably broken. Since they took up that mantra, the argument has been school vouchers and privatization. There have been two problems with these approaches to education. First, vouchers don't work. The academic achievement of those who receive vouchers are the same as the achievement of those who remain in the public schools. In addition, there are only a limited number of schools who take students with vouchers as full payment for the tuition of the student. Rarely do for profit private schools participate in a voucher system. The system therefore works primarily as a religious school support system. Privatization is an even greater problem. No school who works as a for profit system has ever turned a profit administering public schools. We have learned that children are not widgets and cannot be processed as a profit making entity. Again, so much for private sector growth and the collapsing of government.
When we look at government and private industry with a clear set of eyes, we realize that there are things that the government does better than private industry and there are things that private industry is a better provider of. The problem is that private industry based services are generally optional and we have the ability to purchase or not purchase them. Public services are expensive and don't have a direct dollar return on the investment. The return is human. The return is generational. Yes, we incur debt. Yes, we must look for the most efficient ways to keep that debt to a minimum. No, we do not eviscerate government as a way to end debt. Throwing the baby out with the bath water is short sighted and ignorant. Unfortunately, in today's world of tea party politics, babies don't count, only the destruction of government does.