A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Government isn’t the problem; government is us

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 25, 26 or 27

Hearing that 1,500 workers rallied on Capitol Hill, demonstrating to protect government programs, some people might roll their eyes and scoff: “Government! Bah!!”

However, mention Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits and other popular programs, of course, and many such cynics will calm down. Remind them of the $210 million increase in loans going to Illinois community banks and other hometown companies through a $4 billion federal program, and more will quiet.

“Community banks participating in the Obama Administration’s Small Business Lending Fund [SBLF] have consistently increased small business lending over the past two years, resulting in increased access to capital for thousands of small and family-owned businesses across the country,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Neal Wolin. “With the help of lending supported by SBLF, these small businesses continue to grow and create jobs in their neighborhoods.”

The SBLF, established as part of the Small Business Jobs Act that President Obama signed into law in 2010, encourages community banks to increase lending to small businesses, helping them expand. Nationwide, SBLF participants have increased their lending by $7.4 billion overall, Treasury reports.

That effort is one of many government programs, programs that – as a whole – have been generalized as inefficient and unnecessary.

That’s not illogical. The only experiences most people have with government aren’t fun: dealing with licenses or paying taxes, waiting in line at the post office or for a driver’s test; contacting some agency when a problem comes up. Oddly, similar contacts with lousy service in the private sector (Cable TV? Warranties? Repairs?) don’t lead people to conclude that all commercial enterprises are incompetent.

Further, right-wing radio, Fox News and extremists for decades have exaggerated government’s woes so that government – which U.S. citizens ultimately control; it’s US, after all – is depicted as the problem, if not the enemy.

The result: Government does good things, and people don’t realize it or appreciate it.

“Without government, we would all – rich, poor, Republican, Democrat – live in a filthier world,” says Rhode Island sociologist Joan Retsinas. “Thanks to federal regulations, everybody breathes air that is cleaner. Environmentalists might complain that the myriad of regulators are not zealous enough, but without government’s oversight, we’d all be coughing. Tea Partiers should search for blue skies in a city without air emission controls, maybe in Mexico or China.”

Government ensures clean water, too, and it funds research into new medicines (from which private corporations profit), demands transportation safety, and provides protections for kids, everyday people and, again, Social Security and Medicare for older Americans – in addition to food stamps, Medicaid and assistance to the needy.

In Mount Holyoke College professor Douglas Amy’s recent book “Government is Good,” he shows what government can be when it’s at its best and – maybe more relevant these days – how anti-government propaganda can adversely affect public programs.

“Our current political dynamic will not change until someone puts forth a thorough, well-conceived and articulated (and financed) long-term plan to defend the functions of government in principle and to show the American people that government in practice does in fact do many things well,” adds Newsweek correspondent Michael Tomasky, writing in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. “It has cleaned thousands of rivers and lakes, and improved air quality everywhere. It has invested in and helped make possible thousands of projects in cities and towns that look like private developments – hotels, convention centers, civic centers, parks.”

As it stands, no government employee or public official will have an easy time proposing that government – town or township, school or county, state or federal – invest in something, whether bridge repairs or a jobs program, when too many people think the very structure of the spending in that investment is inept, wicked or both

But government is people, and though no one’s perfect, working together through our programs, we’ve helped each other and still do

“It has helped thousands of small businesses find markets for their goods,” Tomasky said. “Its scientists, inspectors, extension agents – and, yes, its regulators! – have limited or prevented public-health calamities and they spend every day working on making the future safer.”

Retsinas, the sociologist, added, “The hallmark of a humane, progressive country is a government that improves the lot of citizens. We all depend upon that government.”

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