Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Have been ruminating on various...

... opinions about what government is these days, I suppose because of the accumulated dreck emanating from the right wing these days and especially with regard to the Tea Partiers' whining about wanting to "take their government back" and "getting back to what the Founders intended in the Constitution," a document that few of them have read through to the end and even fewer understand.

Some of this nonsense is, certainly, rooted in nostalgia for the `50s, which were wonderful if you were white, male, had credit and a good job, and were utterly conformist, but not very good for everyone else.

But, even then, government was large and growing noticeably larger, so the arguments about smaller government deserve some examination. I think the first misapprehension of the "small government" types is that until the New Deal, government was some tiny entity that required little to no funding, and that just isn't true. WWI cost a lot of money--so much so that inflation was accelerating to the extent that, around its conclusion, Wilson had introduced wage and price controls, and there were additional debts to be paid for the Spanish-American War, some of which was to play the quit claim charges extracted by Spain for them to give up their Caribbean interests, about $20 million, along with the price of an occupation force and government in the Philippines, and then, on top of that, there was the price of Seward's deal to buy Alaska from the Russians, along with the cost of Teddy Roosevelt's dispatching of the "Great White Fleet" around the world as a show of American military might (not to mention the $10 million he paid to rebel groups in Panama for their interests in the Panama Canal). As the country's leaders were realizing, war and imperialism weren't cheap, which was most of the reason why the income tax was created. And, with imperial ambition, a central bank was necessary, prompting the creation of the Federal Reserve.

All that occurred well before FDR came to power and realized that the banksters had put the country in a tub of shit, and decided to do something about it, without overly antagonizing the Wall Streeters and the industrialists, because he was going to need them for the next war, which was looming on the horizon.

And the population at the time FDR was first elected in 1932 was roughly 40% of what it is now. Further contrasts: air travel was in its infancy--the idea of normalized air traffic control was almost non-existent. Commercial radio was less than twenty years old and commercial television, even in rudimentary form, was almost two decades away. The closest thing to a national sense of ecology was provided by John Muir's attempts to preserve some part of the wilderness, and talking moving pictures were about six years old. Weather prediction was guesswork, and there were no weather satellites to help provide accurate weather forecasts, let alone electronic computers to analyze the data. There was a peacetime military, complaining about being underfunded, but, perfectly in keeping with the actual threats to the country (nearly none). Small farmers were still the norm, rather than the exception, and huge parts of the country existed without electrical service (from 1936 until 1947, the only electricity on my grandfather's farm in Texas came from a 6-volt, 200-watt Wincharger windmill, which was enough to provide a lightbulb in my grandmother's chicken coop, a light or two in the house, and enough power to charge the batteries for the radio, which my grandfather saw as his window to the outside world--before 1936, they had no electrical power at all--until FDR's REA program brought reliable electrical power to him).

It's very important to understand that, at the time, big business had neither the money nor the inclination to expand the economy to dig the country out of a depression, but, the aggregate resources of the government did. Big business did not initiate at its own expense the enormous energy projects of the `30s--only government had the resources necessary to accomplish those tasks, some with labor funded by the government that big business would not or could not employ. Big business did not create over 600,000 miles of roads into the backwoods of America, because there was no profit in doing so. That same big business did not build swimming pools for inner-city children or day camps in the country for them, again because there was no profit in doing so.

Government did those things, not just to create make-work jobs, but because those things were necessary if the country was going to, first, escape the economic doldrums which big business had created, and second, acquire and create the infrastructure necessary to keep the economy going.

So, the first lesson that the teabaggers have unlearned is that government is necessary. It's now, like it or not, an integral part of the economy. Even today, the teabaggers have no understanding of what the government does with regard to the economy. Every office in the government today uses computers, printers, network paraphenalia, desks, furniture, and the office buildings, too. From where do those items originate? Tens of thousands of suppliers around the country who employ millions of people. How about the paper the government uses? More thousands of people in the timber and paper industries. Beyond those limited economic effects, the couple of million federal employees get paychecks--supplied by the taxpayers, yes--that then spend that money for their sustenance and shelter, their diversions and the education of their children, mostly in their neighborhood businesses and banks.

Along with all those hard economic advantages, there were other improvements in ordinary citizens' lives that began during the FDR years--a formal end to exploitive child labor, the right of labor to freely organize, to obtain contracts for their work in exactly the same way that CEOs today negotiate their contracts, the initiation of minimum wage laws (however badly administered by Congress in recent decades),the beginning of guaranteed old-age pensions through Social Security, and the result was the economic advantages that accrued to workers in those same `50s teabaggers now fondly remember.

What most teabaggers have no conception of today is that government is a giant engine of the economy, and that it works principally for business, and especially for big businesses. Much of what the government does today is not giving money away to foreign countries as foreign aid, or welfare, or a dozen other activities the teabaggers have been told take away their freedoms and their tax revenues, but, rather, is work for business. The government produces thousands of reams of statistics--on unemployment, on business trends, on exports, imports, GDP, on where government spending goes, economic sector analysis, the debt, the deficit, you name it, the government provides a statistic for it, all of which is grist for the corporate economists, Wall Street, the general business sector, on publicly-held companies and their expenditures, on taxation, on everything of business interest in this country and around the world. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, among many other tasks, does a line-by-line audit of the government's budget every year, separating every minute expenditure into categories useful to business. The Import-Export Bank arranges loans to foreign countries to buy American goods and services, and most of the money in non-military foreign aid is arranged by the U.S. Agency for International Development to go to American companies doing international aid work.

When Calvin Coolidge said, very reductively and somewhat moronically, that the business of America was business, he meant that government was largely in the business of helping business, and that's just as true today as it was in the `20s.

All that said, are there ways in which government has grown too large? Oh, you betcha, as Scary Sarah would say. Ever since the end of WWII, when the United States was virtually the only industrialized country in the world that had remained unscathed by war, the country's leaders have been obsessed with imperial hegemony, and our tax dollars have been used to support that aim, starting in 1947 with the formal codification of the national security state. Within a couple of years of that date, the country embarked upon a plethora of domestic and international campaigns to establish a kind of neocolonial domination of the world, using both military and economic power, which has not abated to this day. And yet, oddly, it is this humungous growth of government which the Tea Partiers and their fellow travellers find normal and acceptable--that government is "keeping us safe," when nothing is further than the truth.

At the beginning of the Korean War, military spending would quadruple from peacetime levels and would never come down again, and those levels, including war expenditures, are now six or seven times the amount necessary for real defense at a time of real peace. On top of those costs came the new demands for extreme secrecy, a CIA free of ethical, moral or practical constraints, and, even after the end of the Cold War (a "war" we furthered and amplified--there's plenty of documentation from the former Soviet Union that they were much more terrified of us than we of them), new enemies in the Middle East had to be found to justify continuing military expenditures.

Add in the debt on such expenditures, the new desires of government to surveil its citizens at will, new technology and the burgeoning roster of private security-surveillance-intelligence corporations eager to feed the paranoia of right-wingers, milquetoast Democrats and the public alike, and military spending is now through the roof, most of which constitutes the means by which the rights of ordinary Americans have been roughly violated, and yet, the "smaller government" proponents never mention these egregious infringements on their liberties, nor do they complain about the huge bite out of their wallets that pay for these excesses, because "big government," which they otherwise hate, is "keeping them safe."

It's a conundrum, isn't it? In truth, many of the complaints about big government are deeply embedded in racist attitudes about foreign aid and welfare (which have always been small percentages of the national budget) and just general whining about taxation. If "big government" were a real problem for such people, they'd be up in arms about their loss of rights, loss of their own privacy, and the orders of magnitude increases in the secrecy of the government in its affairs, because those are the biggest encroachments of big government in the last sixty years, bar none. And yet, the right-wingers, for the most part, blissfully accept that reality as normal, out of partisan idiocy or fear or both.

The very wealthy in the right wing are determined, in the false name of smaller government, to destroy the best parts of government and society, and to keep the worst, and the uninformed great middle are blithely cooperating in that effort. We've seen wholesale efforts at the state and federal levels to destroy public education, unions for public and private workers, end restrictions on child labor, defund programs that have lifted the elderly out of poverty, eviscerate environmental law and a host of other bad, bad, bad ideas in the name of lower taxes and smaller government, the advantages of which will almost exclusively accrue to the very wealthy, and still, people of modest means and opportunity have signed on to these abominations in the name of "shrinking the size government."

What can we ascertain from this thoroughly strange set of circumstances? Perhaps, first and foremost, that we have greatly underestimated the power of propaganda, and second, that there is no underestimating the divergence from logic and reason that occurs during times of desperation. Our chosen leaders know these principles far better than their electorate, which is why they can bullshit their constituents to the degree they do.


  • Montage, this is really well said.
    Excellent post,'well written and thought out. I was
    Talking to some people today who were oblivious to this.
    They aren't right wingers, but they didn't realize just how bad it is. They laughed when I told them about about some programs of the right. "no, I said " These people are serious.

    By Blogger Spocko, at 8:52 AM  

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