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Thursday, February 20, 2014

A love letter to big government

The White House, pictured at sunset in Washington.
By Bob Garfield
Slate

As support among US citizens declines, some remain passionate about the state

“Seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the US in the future than is big business or big labour, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question.”

— Gallup Organization, December 13, 2013

You are hulking and awkward, humourless and impatient. You are pathologically regimented and nerdy almost beyond belief. You are penny-wise and pound-freaking-ridiculous. Every now and then your behaviour is simply reprehensible. So maybe this is perverse, because also — ewww — you’re my uncle. But I am so in love with you.

Let me count the ways:

You protect me from terrorists and pathogens and pollution and bigots and foreign armies and racketeers. You enforce a semblance of order in the neighbourhood and in the marketplace. You finance stuff that I use all the time, more or less for free: bridges, dams, GPS, federal reserve banks, crash-test dummies (indirectly), and Medicare (soon).

You deliver my mail, plus the odd cruise missile. Not to mention my land-grant-college education and my graphite and titanium golf clubs — dual-use materials researched and developed by you. Stealth fighter shmealth shmighter, we’re talking 30 extra yards off the tee, baby.

Also you invented the Internet, which is soooo great for global communications and last-minute shopping. Meanwhile, you’ve been ticking off items on the ol’ honey-do list.

“End slavery,” check. “Eradicate polio,” check. “Clean Lake Erie,” check. “Elvis stamp,” thank you very much.

Twice in the past 85 years, from the New Deal to TARP, you saved the world from financial Armageddon. In the 20th century you defeated both fascism and communism — because of, not in spite of, your gigantism. So when the haters mock your size and the size of your heart, it breaks mine.

Truthfully, this was love at first sight. You didn’t even have to offer Big Bird or Obamacare. You had me at the Louisiana Purchase — a huge federal expenditure guaranteeing westward expansion. Fifteen states emerged, in whole or in part, from that budget-busting, tax-and-spend initiative — all 15 of them red.

That was a Thomas Jefferson deal. So much for the modest federal aspirations of the founders. In fact, as historian Steven Conn of Ohio State likes to point out, the very first act of Congress after authorizing itself was an economic-stimulus law, Alexander Hamilton’s pet Tariff Act of 1789 protecting domestic manufacturing and paying off debts from the Revolutionary War.

The Postal Act of 1792 did in the 18th century what the Internet has done in modern times: connected a far-flung world and marketplace. The transcontinental railroad joined the coasts via federal land with federal loans. The Homestead Acts lured settlers to the Wild West, a century-long land redistribution programme conceived by Republicans.

Pretty ironic, eh? Oh, Big Government, not only does conservative dogma ignore the GOP’s proud history, it ignores some bedrock conservative values — such as, just to name one, law and order. The same folks who demand you frisk loiterers want you to leave oil companies and banks unmolested by tyrannical job-killing measures like, whaddya call them laws.

I feel for you, ya big lug. You’re so ungainly next to the sleek and comely free market, but let’s not forget that the captains of industry, with alarming frequency, go all Bligh on us:

BP (manslaughter), Glaxo SmithKline (suppressing bad clinical news and illegally marketing unapproved drugs), JPMorgan Chase (subprime recklessness), Philip-Morris (lying merchants of cancer), Archer Daniels Midland (price-fixing), HSBC (abetting drug-cartels’ money laundering), Enron (megafraud), Comcast (just plain sucking).

Yes, as I constantly say, among the things the free market is free of is conscience.

Dearest Uncle Sam

Now don’t go getting a big head, my dearest Uncle Sam, because in addition to a century of human bondage you have plenty to answer for. Spying on your own citizens is merely your latest outrage. Who can forget the CIA overthrows? The World War II internment of Japanese Americans. The Trail of Tears. The Vietnam War. The Red Scare. Tuskegee. The Amtrak café car.

And yet I’m prepared to be forgiving. Social Security. Yellowstone. The Sherman Antitrust Act. Dude, memory foam! Yes, plutonium and weaponized bacteria aren’t the only things developed in a government lab. Touch-screen technology, too. Whatever number of US$600 hammers went into my ATM and Tempur-Pedic pillow is fine by me.

Anyway, per the corporate crimes and misdemeanours listed above, you have no monopoly on institutional transgression. You do, however, have a monopoly on protecting the public from monopolies. And hostile ICBMs. And salmonella. With all due respect to the rights of individual states, some functions require scale.

New Mexico Division of Antitrust? Arkansas Institutes of Health? Vermont Aviation Administration? Alaska Department of Defence? As somebody once said, thanks but no thanks. Also, some things even private industry isn’t industrious enough for. To whom should we outsource food inspections or air traffic control Blackwater?

But now there’s a Blue Scare, and they’re hating on you. They loathe your debt and your giveaways to freeloaders like the elderly, the poor, the unemployed, the war-disabled, and the just plain unlucky. They want the unregulated economy’s lucre to simply trickle down, like fracking-lubricated ground water, to the disadvantaged. As Florida Senator Marco Rubio says, “Free enterprise makes people prosperous, all people prosperous, and big government makes people poorer.”

Your Generosity

But, gosh, Big Government, one of the things I so love about you is your generosity — not to welfare queens but to free enterprise itself. On top of the bridges and that other infrastructure you built, the stable society you have sustained through your do-gooder entitlement largesse offers business a dependable, educated workforce and vast affluent consumer base more or less entirely unwiped-out by famine, epidemic, civil strife or grinding poverty. In other words, the supposed welfare state your enemies so despise is the ultimate trickle-down corporate welfare.

As for spending, it’s so infuriating when folks like House Budget Committee member Bill Flores start running you down. (“Every American family and 49 out of 50 states currently abide by some form of a balanced-budget requirement. If they can make the hard choices to pay their bills and live within their means, then Washington should too.”) But, dearest one, two-thirds of US families do live with huge debt burdens called “mortgages.” Flores has two of them, totaling about US$1.5 million. Last I checked, he hadn’t been strangled.

At business school nobody calls debt a noose. They call it a lever. That’s why corporations indebt themselves to the tune of trillions of dollars. Gee, Unc, you don’t hear Grover Norquist badmouthing bonds.

Yet he blackmails legislators into signing an anti-tax pledge. Why? Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, you tax us so little. In terms of individual tax rates, you are in the middle of the pack. As a percentage of GDP, at 27.3 percent you are near the bottom, 29 spots below Denmark (48 percent), one above Turkey. In a month or two, I’m going to file my tax return, SWAK.

Think of my check this way: sweets for my sweet. Big Government, be mine.

Garfield is co-host of the public radio programme On the Media and the podcast @lexiconvalley. He is author most recently of the novel Bedfellows.

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