January 24, 2009
Government does thousands of things right and thousands of things wrong. On balance, I would rather live with it than without it. That is not to say that I accept it as it is or that I think all taxes are fair, but to rail against tax indiscriminately is a waste of time.
There is a list circulating the Internet purporting to itemize all of the taxes we pay and there are hundreds. It doesn't scare me. It annoys me because it doesn't do anything constructive. Okay, there were far fewer taxes 100 years ago, but what can we realistically do about it? It's not only government that's bigger than ever, but corporations, banks, insurance companies, media, airlines, sports, this list also goes on and on. I think that those big private organizations are more of a problem in my life than government is. The biggest difference, of course, is that we cannot choose to be governed or not while we can choose to use private companies or not.
Or can we? Do we even want to?
Can we go uninsured? Can we live without telephones? Internet? Automobiles? Media? Banks? In the culture we have built, we are wedded to the industries who prey on us most. Government is our best collective defense against the inherent inclination of these organizations to perpetuate themselves at our expense.
What is government? At its best it is our representative, our tool to cope with the enormous forces that are aligned against us, the army that defends us, the facilitator of communication and travel, the safety net that catches us when we are alone and otherwise defenseless, the arbiter of law and the keeper of order. At its worst it is another force aligned against us, it dehumanizes us and treats us as its possessions. At its best, it is an organized expression of the values we hold in common and most dear. It is an educator. It is no substitute for family, nor should it be a force unto itself, yet it ought to provide when families are absent and be forceful when our safety is threatened. At its worst it is profligate and narrow. I think we ought to pay taxes, but I think we should follow how that money is spent and who is spending it.
In the past 30 years or so, due to a growing dissatisfaction and disillusionment with a government that lost its way in the early 60s, we have dismantled many of our own safeguards in favor of giving behemoths the ability to be behemoths and a freer hand to make money. We moved almost all of our trust in government to private industry. The failed attempt by the Democratic party to eliminate poverty and create a "Great Society" also created a deep distrust of government in general. Republicans took advantage of that distrust to further their own agenda which further eroded our trust in government. Government gradually became the tool of idealists, people who claimed a moral superiority over their brethren, and in the process of being tossed back and forth between ideologues it has become ineffective and unrepresentative of most Americans. Obama was elected because of that erosion. He has inspired an old idea: government of, by, and for the people. Participatory government. Practical government. Capable government.
I think we all believe in that idea. I don't think that the answer is to throw everything out and start over. We simply cannot do that. We rely on the services that government provides. I think the answer is to engage in government. Participate in the most direct way. Join campaigns or at least get to know the politicians who we elect, particularly the local representatives. Tell them about the ways in which government fails us personally and the ways in which it succeeds and then help them make the decisions that create the widest possible good. If that good doesn't benefit us directly, we'll at least be able to recognize how it is best for the most people. Additionally, we must take private industry to task, stop shopping as entertainment, stop consuming wastefully and when we do consume, be wary and demanding. A lot of this will happen now because our industries are crashing. Rather than throw money at them, we should insist on splitting up the biggest ones so that their smaller parts can fail without taking us all down with them. We ought to insist that the government stop giving our money to the men and companies that have created the mess. We ought to insist that people who have mismanaged their companies and profited all along the way be held accountable for their failures. Individual executives ought to pay with their jobs, their cash, and in some cases their freedom.
The truth is, I think that generally we do many of the right things, some of us in government funded industries and some of us in private industries, but as we have seen recently, doing the right thing isn't enough. We have to lead. We have to teach other people how to do the right thing. We have to volunteer. We have to use our abilities to the extent that we have more than others. In his inauguration speech, Obama's call to take personal responsibility, a traditionally Republican ideal, was the exact antidote to what ails us. How do we do this? For me, it is twofold. It is private and it is public. On the private side, I am going to recommit myself to staying healthy, and look inward to continually question my assumptions, I am going to shut up and listen and I am going to speak the truth to myself. On the public side, I am going to get to know as many people in my community as I can, particularly the people who have committed their lives to influencing a lot of other people and I am going to attempt to influence them to do the right thing, even if it hurts.
I hesitate to say this because I don't know anyone's individual circumstances, but I'll say it anyway. You should do these things, too.
My next interview will be with Rob Consalvo, city councilor for district 5 which includes Hyde Park, Readville, Stony Brook, and Forest Hills.