Saturday, January 1, 2011

The year of the 'Big Government' (non)debate

In January of 2009, a Newsweek poll found that 76% of Americans favoured spending increases even at the cost of raising the federal deficit in order to make healthcare more affordable and accessible. 75% said the same about constructing and repairing roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and 74% when asked about developing new clean-energy technology.


The same poll suggested that even as 22% of Americans believed that the government was doing too much to stimulate the economy during the recession, 25% believed that it was doing the ‘right amount’ of stimulating, and 42% believed that more government intervention was necessary. During 2010, the President and Congress enacted a new healthcare law and got the ball rolling in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama and a Democratic Congress, seemingly in tune with the national mood, have also pressed for greater public oversight of corporate and financial sectors. Yet at every turn, the Republican Party has fought these efforts vociferously, arguing against oversight, opposing any notion of a collective public good, and steadfastly maintaining that the private rather than the public sector is best suited to oversee people’s lives.


And by November of 2010, the Republican Party made major gains in the Senate and won the House (along with the battle for public opinion) on a platform of rolling back government intervention, whether that is intervention to rein in the excesses of financial sectors or insurance agencies, or intervention to stimulate the national economy.

In the debates about healthcare, about education, about finance and about energy, the Republican Party, at the national, state and local levels, has successfully created a monstrous red herring, and with characteristic blood-curdling, foaming-at-the-mouth-in-mock-outrage histrionics, have christened it Big Government. Playing into the hands of these demagogues, we have all swivelled our eyes ‘round to look at their fantastic Frankenstein creation, and have been debating, with more vigour and passion than common sense or critical thinking, the appropriate size of Government. I say that Big Government is a red herring because the size of government is not, or oughtn’t to be, the issue. What we should be thinking about is what government is doing and how government is doing those things that it is doing.

The size of government isn’t something that you can effectively measure, because its effects can be felt even where it spends but a little money. We should not fall into the trap of thinking, for example in terms of the financial world, that the absence of regulation is the absence of government, and therefore one of life’s Good Things. The absence of regulation is an act that is legislated into being. It is not Small Government, but rather government acting on behalf of certain interests.

We should look at the priorities of government. Reagan, as California governor, began the process of destroying California’s public education system, our state’s greatest social, economic and cultural asset. When president, this so-called proponent of Small Government then ramped up defence spending and military rhetoric, wasting billions on the likes of Star Wars, propping up rogue nuclear states like apartheid South Africa, training death squads to murder thousands in Central America, fuelling the catastrophic war between Iraq and Iran (our involvement in which is coming back to haunt us), and all the while repudiating the responsibilities of government towards its own people.

George W Bush, another Small Government president, waged irrational, immoral and ill-planned wars that have actually imperilled U.S. citizens at home and around the world, and have made the likelihood of a terrorist attack infinitely more probable. (The most oft-cited defence of neoconservative policy, supported by such leading lights of the Republican Party as Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Dick Cheney, is that we have a moral duty to people around the world. The uniformity of their silence over Zimbabwe, the Congo, Palestine and the Philippines, and in an earlier era, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, Vietnam and South Africa gives the lie to their concern.) These wars have and will continue to cost billions of dollars, and the cost in human lives will, as is often the case in these wars, probably never be known.

Let us then step back and scrutinise what is left of the Republican Party’s edifice. Their argument is that government has no responsibility to look after the most basic needs of its citizens, but that its primary responsibility is the waging of war. And yet using the most sophisticated military hardware and information technology in the world, our government has been unable to defeat Al Qaeda. Rather, we have seen a rash of attacks by militants in Bali, Madrid, London, Pakistan and India, and multiple attempts to mount attacks on U.S. soil. Most of these attacks are not carried out by Al Qaeda operatives, but by people who are discontented (often for very legitimate reasons) by U.S. interference within their home countries, or U.S. and European internal policies. Our wars and the backing of authoritarian governments that this has engendered has created ‘terrorists’ in countries as diverse as Britain, Nigeria, Mali, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Far from taking the fight to free people from oppression, to spread democracy, or to engender universal human rights in the world, we have actually propped up authoritarian regimes, who invent Al Qaeda cells in order to receive military or financial assistance from the U.S., which is then turned on their own people who aspire to live freely. This is one version of Big Government: one which prioritises waging unnecessary wars and feeding a sprawling military industrial complex. This is a state that monitors its own people, substitutes torture and military tribunal for what should be our treasured rule of law, and regulates in favour of inequitable economic distribution. This is Big Government as Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich see it.

But there is another version of ‘Big Government’ as caricatured by the Republican Party. It is what is commonly characterised as the welfare state, and is a government which sees for itself not a broader remit in society (for the flag-draped coffins returning from Afghanistan, the unemployment lines that lengthen even as the bottom lines of corporations fatten afresh, reach as deep into people’s lives as any existing welfare state), but a fundamentally different one.

At its most basic, it is a mode of government which recognises that, in the twenty-first century, when all things are supposed to be possible, we—that is, humans—remain captive. Both our imaginations and our actions are geared (by a range of historical contingencies and processes) towards thinking about the health of the economy rather than the lives of the people who create real wealth, actual products or genuine services. It is true that we can draw a connection between economic indicators and the well-being of people, but these measurements seldom take the costs of things like healthcare, education, mental well-being, happiness, or living condition into account. Economic indicators, moreover, examine businesses, profits and losses, industries, manufacturing, finance and a whole range of money- and job-producing sectors. It is only when these are put together and imagined to have a certain ideological coherence, that they become ‘The Economy’.

This thing that we call ‘the Economy’ is the biggest faith-based initiative in history, and the violence and inequality that it has fuelled probably surpasses anything wrought by religious difference. It emerged during a particular historical period, was cobbled together to serve a burgeoning set of interests, and has spiralled out of the control of any nation, class or group of people. It is based not on the real labour done by the backbone of our society--the people who live in it--nor on any material output, or even on a value system that we have all judged adequate to allow people to live decent lives. Rather, it is based on money and services that have little basis in material reality, on speculation and on the exploitation of the marginalised, and on the uncontested ideology of the ‘free market’ which empowers those endowed with wealth and political power.

It is unintuitive to me that a private sector that time and time again has, because of the concentration of power in the hands of massive corporations in select industries, proven itself corrupt and immoral is going to do a better job of providing healthcare, coordinating energy policy, educating children or managing the economy than a public sector that is democratically accountable, and which has as its raison d’ĂȘtre the service of the nation’s people.

So the real question, again, is not whether we want big or small government. because what governments do is govern. And our lives will be governed just as surely by insurance companies, energy moguls, profiteering education investors, arms companies, industrial monopolies and financiers just as surely as they are now by a mix of private and public interests. But I, for one, would prefer to know who holds the cards, who spends my money, who is regulating products, financial practises, the tax structure, foreign policy, and energy use. And I rather like having the power to vote, however indirectly, on these policies. Because that is what the Republican Party is calling for: a ceding of all power over those sectors that profoundly impact our daily lives to people, institutions and structures over which we have not one iota of control. If this perverse version of the free market is the natural state of things, it is a highly undemocratic and hierarchical state of things.

Upon being elected as Florida’s newest Senator, Mark Rubio (feted as an up-and-coming Republican leader) declared that “the natural state of the economy is to grow”. Rand Paul opined that “we’re all interconnected. There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor; we are all interconnected in the economy ... Let’s not punish anyone. Let’s keep taxes low and let’s cut spending”.

There’s nothing ‘natural’ about the growth of economic sectors: they grow, constrict and implode according to political decisions taken by those in power. The financial sector ballooned (unhealthily, we now know) because people took the decision to deregulate it and to avert their eyes to some unseemly practises which have destroyed the livelihoods of many, many people. And it is difficult to argue, if we believe that we are a nation--that is, a group of people with a shared interest of some sort--that asking people with lots of money (the rich, who do exist) to give up a little to help not only themselves through the creation of common services, but also their countrymen, is ‘punishment’.

Our challenge, in the coming year, should be to think a little harder about what government is, what we would like it to do, and what the dangerous, undemocratic and un-egalitarian alternatives being proposed would do to us as a nation, a society and a people.

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