5/21/14

Whose Government are You Calling Big?

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Be careful of what you ask for.
Lately I've been seeing Ronald Reagan's visage on Facebook, complete with his aphorism, "Government isn't the solution; it's the problem." Great sound bite. But that's all it is–a witty little nostrum. 

I get it. Sometimes society seems so big and remote that it makes us feel small and disempowered. If the price of oil goes up, what can you do? Ditto your taxes. This tends  to make people so cranky that they say "no" whenever they can–not necessarily because they actually disagree with what they're voting against, but because the very act of saying "no" makes them feel like they're in charge for a change.

I recall the years I spent as a high school teacher in northwestern Vermont. During those six years, local residents voted down the school budget nine times. Was it because locals hated their schools? Quite a few moaned about teachers, though in the next breath they'd sing the praises of their neighbor, a teacher. Most, in fact, were proud of their schools–a good thing, because there really wasn't anything in the town except its schools. That's where locals went to see plays, hear concerts, attend sporting events, see a movie, hold meetings, take in a lecture, and–in more than one case–attend church on Sundays while their churches were being renovated. Take away the schools and all that was left was a downscale bedroom community of trailer parks and ranch houses. Residents voted down school budgets because it was of the few things in which they got a say. They voted them down even though more residents rented than owned, which made property taxes  irrelevant to them.

That small Vermont town had lots of people who echoed Reagan, who was in office at the time. Do you like irony? I called it a "downscale" community and so it was, though "poor" is better word for it. Seven of ten local residents received some form of assistance. This came, of course, from the government–not churches, families, or private agencies–and certainly not from the wealthy that benefited from Reagan's tax cuts. Locals quoted Reagan even as his henchmen reduced their benefits (via cuts to state aid and federal welfare agencies).   

I suppose if you're getting benefits, any tax increase sounds wrong to you, so you say"no" to "Big Government." Government is big.  So big, in fact, that it contains something for everyone to hate. Let's be honest. Is there anyone who enjoys paying taxes? I'm among those who think they're necessary, but do I turn somersaults every three months for the sheer joy of paying my property taxes? Ummm… no! Could I figure out some ways in which to trim my city's budget to lower my taxes? In a New York minute. The problem is that what I'd butcher is someone else's sacred cow.

That's the real problem, isn't it? Government also contains lots of things we do like. We like it when our streets are plowed and our potholes filled. We enjoy the security of having adequate police and fire protection. (Or perhaps we long for more.) We want a place to dump our garbage and we really like clean running water. We want a place to lock up the bad guys. We don't think about sewers, but we're happy we don't have to dump chamber pots in the family midden. Paved highways? Sure–those are good.

But what about all those welfare freeloaders who ought to fend for themselves? Define welfare. Is Social Security welfare? Guaranteed student loans? Subsidies for the family farm? Insured bank deposits? Consumer protection agencies? Research grants? Clean air laws? Is providing Medicaid for the disabled and Medicare for the elderly welfare? How about the VA and veterans' benefits? (Isn't joining the military a 'lifestyle' choice?) Did you know that the poor receive a mere 2% of the federal budget? Want to know my source for that tidbit? Chuck Colson–and they don't come more conservative than he. Check out these charts and you'll quickly see that the middle class is the ultimate welfare recipient in America: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/18/who-receives-benefits-from-the-federal-government-in-six-charts/

Of course, we don't see it that way. Maybe that's because we're too busy mouthing cheap sound bites to notice. Maybe it's because when we say we hate government what we really mean is that we hate what other people get. Or maybe it's just because–like my former Vermont neighbors–we've not thought it through.

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