Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Problem With the "Big Government" Argument

One of the problems of candidate selection in American politics is that so many potential voters believe there is only one "big dog" on the block to worry about: an over-reaching and big-spending government.  Yet many of these same people support the largest public-private defense establishment in the world and many more take ready advantage of the benefits that past government projects offer, such as safe highways or transfer payments to keep the elderly out of poverty, or grants and loans for public institutions of higher education and vocational training for those who can't afford private universities. 

A conundrum, eh?    

It's true in a sense that government doesn't "create" jobs because in a participatory system government can't exist without the support of at some some measure of the body politic. 


But consider that from earliest days of the American republic, from the Erie Canal Project in the1820's that united the Great Lakes Region with the seaboard metropolis of New York, to the transcontinental telegraph system in 1861 that first united the nation from coast to coast on the eve of the Civil War, to the US Army oversight of the Panama Canal construction starting in 1906, to the build up of hydroelectric power projects during the  New Deal in the 1930s that made it possible for ordinary people in the Deep South to have rural electrification and made the Pacific Northwest a major center for economic expansion thank to the Bonneville Dam and other projects, government has taken the helm.


Want more?  How about the NASA space program of the 1950's-60's thru today that contributed a great deal to the computer and technology industry we take for granted, the ongoing Interstate Highway System, (started under the Republican Pressident Democrat Dwight D. Eishower)  that  makes it possible for trucking commerce to flow unimpeded from all over the lower 48 states, all these projects came through government sponsorship and coordination. 

More recently, it was "big government" under Barack Obama that provided support for General Motors and Chrysler when they needed help to keep the American auto industry viable. It was derided as a boondoggle by some. But it successfully saved an industry and now thousands of people in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana aren't filling out job apps for minimum-wage positions at Wal-Mart or the local delis and coffee bars because they have better paying jobs in the manufacturing and supply industry.   

Yet,  despite all these programs, segments of the conservative American political character have made a fetish of "big gov'ment", as the late Texas progressive Molly Ivins put it. Millions of Americans and several Presidential candidates can't seem to differentiate between a government boondoggle project--like a "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, say, or a defense program to build a war plane even the Air Force doesn't want because it will create jobs in a few Congressional districts (or even the odd disastrous "war of choice" that costs hundreds of billions) --to  a necessary government project like keeping up our interstate highway system, providing public services in cases of economic or natural disaster,  or expanding passenger railways in this nation to boost energy savings.


A case in point can be found in Andrew Rosenthal's  brief blog below. 

"The candidates want to steer the conversation to the abstract idea of excess government, because they cannot acknowledge that government continues to play a concrete role in the daily lives of most citizens. When the Republican candidates pledge to slash federal spending by trillions of dollars, as all have done, they never bother to mention that a huge portion of that reduced spending would have been transferred to states and cities for projects voters actually care about."

Hence the problem with the "big government" argument in my view; you have to be careful and precise when you determine what public spending can be cut, and what price people will pay for the loss of needed expenditures.   

See link for full article:



In other words it's not a win-win game, knee-jerk conservatives like the born-again Reagan-naut Mitt Romney would have us believe.  If you want low taxes, fine.  But what do you do when you're driving on roads covered with potholes, or all the other developed nations in the world have comprehensive health care program while United States citizens pay more out for pocket for the same or worse overall results in disease control, medical care and life expectancy? 

To see America continue to invest in its own public infrastructure and economic progress (and we need to if we are going to keep up with the emerging economic powers from northern Europe to Brazil to East Asia) we are going to have to do some nation-building right here for the general health and safety of our own nation.    


Yes, we need to keep an eye on the big dog on the block. But not lose sight of the full condition the neighborhood is in.   


  1. So true Doug, they all, the ones running for President want to cut all of the government spending but I am sure once in, they will only cut what the poor of us need, like the SS payments, or Medicare for the elderly or medicade for the poor, yup they hate big government but only for the poor of us in this country. And like you say, who will fix all those holes in our roads once they gut the government spending and put it into more wars that arent necessary to keep our country safe. Without the government, how would Hoover Dam been built? The govt has to be involved but to help, not hinder.

    They are a bunch of blowhards in my opinion and say things that dont mean squat to the regular person out there who is in desperate need of help from government programs....all they want to do is make their rich funders richer at the expense of all others in this country.

    The government isnt the problem, its those that have run it to the ground in past years. Instead of putting more rail in so we can get from one part of the country to the other quicker and cheaper, they want to wage war on Iran or Pakistan or some other country because they love war and keeping those defense contractors rich. We need to get on track and spend some bucks on utilizing this country into competition with China, Japan and so many others that have those speed trains to get congestion off the roads and help with the air quality.

    There is so much our government can do for us, the people who pay their salaries should have a say in what their salary is and how long they stay in office and rather than bicker about the debt ceiling and how much it is going up, Term limits and getting those in office to recieve the same health care and other perks like the regular joe instead of enriching their lives and pocket books off of our backs.

    And I think we should get the best insurance we can offer to all of us, and if its socialized medicine so be it, at least it would be fair for all and the same out of pocket expenses for everyone...instead of the big insurance companies gouging the hell out of everyones pocket.
    But this is just my one opinion so dont give me hell for it if anyone has objections on insurance like Europe and Candada have...but to me that would be a good alternative to any other care, Obamacare of Romneycare. Insurance for all at a reasonable price.

    Ok did my rant, loved your blog Doug, and now I am done....lol

  2. I think that's why in the end the majority of Republican presiential hopfuls running today are sowing the seeds of another economic disaster if one takes their rhetoric at face value, Marty. An under-regulated, domestic-side decimated budget would be a cruel trick on all of us in the working world and those who have left it late in life.

    Hoover Dam is another excellent example. That's something where government made a huge difference in having a mega-project overseen by the government. Imagine it being put together on a shoestring budget by local businesses, hoping to make a profit right away? You can't and neither can I.

    The Amtrak rail system in the part of the country we live in is a joke. If we ever really lost foreign oil, what would people do to get around? Pay through the nose at the pumps. What allternatives do we have for mass transportation in the Pacific Northwest if cars andtrucks were too expensive to drive from Portland to Sacramento, say. Bicycle caravans? Horses and wagons? Camels?

    Where are the high speed trains people in Japan, France and China take for granted?

    The importantthing is that medical care should be affordable. Medicare should be something all Americans can buy into. And, no, it couldn't be cheap for younger people I don't imagine, but it wouldn't be as onerous as the profit-driven private insurance system we have now. And Medicare paperwork is much less expensive than Aetna or Blue Cross produces.

    "Insurance for all at a reasonable price." If anybody dismisses that, they need to walk inthe shoes of the average family in this nation trying to make ends meet.

    Thanks Marty.

  3. Oh you are not kidding about amtrack here in Oregon, it goes no where. It should be clear thru the whole northwest and into california so people can go anywhere without having to drive themselves. And clear thru to all parts of the US....down south and way out east. Yup, we in this country have lots of catching up to do to the Asian countries and some European ones too with all their speed trains going everywhere at the speed of light.

    My grand daughter was in Italy this past summer with a friend, and she took those speed trains all over the country and she said it was great. WE NEED THEM HERE TOO!!!!!

  4. Um... do you know of a "segment" of the conservatives who HAVEN'T, or were you just being polite?
    ; )

  5. It truly IS an "abstract idea," since this is one of those classic situations of "be careful what you wish for ..."

    A government as diminished as ... who was it that said "small enough to drown in a bathtub?" ... they claim they want would put us in real mortal danger of enemies, foreign and domestic.

    Of course the most salient sentence in Andrew's blog was the last...

    "... a huge portion of that reduced [federal] spending would have been transferred to states and cities for projects voters actually care about."

    ... with this important coda: They also care about federal programs, too... they're just not man enough to admit to it.

  6. I had friends who visited Italy and other parts of central Europe---that's pretty much exactly what they said, too.

    There's proposal for high-speed trains in Florida. Of course the usual suspects are trying to holdit up.

    Maybe someday we'll get better Amtrak service when they put a Disneyworld in Klamath Falls. ;-)

  7. Indeed, Chuck. Wonder why more people don't think that one through--if something exists for public use, it has to be paid for to be maintained. Not that hard.

    That's also true about the dangers of underfunded public sector I believe.

    Guys like Gingrich, Grover Nordquist (the "bath-tub" guy) don't care if the unemployment rate gets so high that we have domestic acts of violence hitting people on all fronts. Those guys are safe in some gated community.

    The thing is more people than these super-conservatives care about public programs and institutions, and I think the Occupy Movement is just one example of an organized movement from the Left. The tea party had their fun in the last election, but the GOP dog-eat-dog economic programs are gonna bring a lot more people out for the next vote.

  8. Is "boondoggle" a real word? I have never heard it before now. lol

    (in NZ regional government is run by councils with mayors at the helm and we all pay property-related "rates"). A few years ago, some money-counter guy campaigning for mayor argued that our Waimakariri rates were to high and if he were elected he would make sure the rates were slashed. Well they voted him in and it was highly amusing reading all the angry letters to the local papers when people realised that cutting rates meant cutting projects dear to their hearts, like the new pool at Rangiora for example. Eventually that pool got built but oh what a performance it was. was it worth an extra couple of dollars per week for each ratepayer? No.

    Your point is entirely correct. Government is supposed to be by the people, for the people. If money is not spent on infrastructure and that infrastructure is allowed to run down, then its only going to cost more to put right in the long run. Most of the argument for "less government" and "less government regulation" comes originally from corporates and big business where they are only about making bigger and bigger profits at the expense of ordinary people, and ordinary people get swept up in the rhetoric wothout realising that most of the time it is they, and not the big business people, who will be the most hurt by lack of infrastructure and/or social spending.

  9. Yes, it is Iri Ani, "boondoogle" is a word. Sounds alarmingly Australian. ;-)

    Actually, according to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary it was first coined
    by an American Boy Scout master in 1957.

    From Answers.com:
    "A boondoggle started out as something young people would do--go away from civilization and have a party. Nowadays, companies have gala events, conventions where just the basic business is taken care of for a tax break, and the rest is partying. Websters shows it as a wasteful or impractical project or activity, often including graft."

    Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_definition_of_boondoggle#ixzz1jAeLx9bl

    Yes, there are many examples here to your Waimakariri "rates" point. My father-in-law managed the school budget for a district here for over twenty years. He told about back in 1980 or so the good people of Medford, Oregon,, USA, decided to cut property taxes twice in two years, despite the fact that the school officials told everybody they would have to cut off bus service for kids to get to school because they were still adjusting to the first round of cuts.

    His phone rang off the hook for a few days: people saying "how is my child going to get to school?" Finally they got some temporary money from the state to keep the buses going. But that cooled down the tax-slash fever.

    What you said in that last paragraph can't be improved upon. Thanks for adding so many important ideas and examples to this blog.

  10. I can't anything to this blog Doug, save to say that I am amazed that the sheer common sense of it all seems to be completely wasted on the loony right!

  11. Thanks Jim.

    I think "loony" is about as precise a word as one can give to what we are seeing over here in the plitical process. The sheer counter-intuitive illogic millions have to vote to give the powers who got us in this mess free rein to do it all over again boggles my limited imagination.