Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Are You Better Off?

Robert Steinback in the Miami Herald wants to know.

It has been 25 years since Ronald Reagan declared war on the federal government, and five since President Bush and the extremist neo-conservatives took power intending to finish the job.

Is America better off? Are you?

The ranks of the poor are growing. Good jobs are fleeing overseas. Real wages have stagnated, personal debt is climbing and bankruptcies are soaring. Millions more Americans — children in particular — are without health coverage. Public schools are gasping for air. The rich are vastly richer — but sharply higher fuel, tuition, insurance, health care and housing costs, to name just a few, have crippled middle-class progress.

The federal budget — finally balanced just a few years ago — is hemorrhaging red ink by the trillions, a burden we’ve callously dumped on our grandchildren.

Yet the only option on the discussion menu seems to be more of the same: More privatization, more tax cuts for the rich, further cuts in government services, regulation and oversight, more sell-offs of public land, more drilling in pristine seas and wilderness, more Halliburtons freed of the need to account for lost billions.

It’s time for Americans to rethink this ill-conceived experiment with trusting corporations alone to run the nation. We need to revive our expectation of effective, efficient and socially responsible government.

I know, I know. Fan yourself; sit down. Breathe deeply into a paper bag.

The Right has thoroughly brainwashed an entire American generation against believing that such a thing as good government is even possible. All government aid recipients are depicted as cheats, all government workers are slackers, all taxation is wasteful.

Grover Norquist, a chief architect of contemporary neo-con philosophy, said a few years ago, ”My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” And many Americans have come to accept this without blinking.

The neo-con justification for emasculating government is founded on two dubious assertions: first, that helping people actually hurts them by making them dependent on the assistance they receive, and second, that only the profit motive produces value in society. A nugget of truth is present in both concepts, but they are not absolutes: Helping people often inspires them to independence, and some worthwhile social goals can’t be achieved by profit-lust alone.

This summer’s hurricanes brought the debate into focus.

We watched in horror as a deliberately emasculated Federal Emergency Management Agency dawdled while distraught New Orleanians begged for aid after Hurricane Katrina.

In South Florida, thousands of low-income residents living in substandard housing were rendered homeless after Hurricane Wilma ripped through flimsy roofs and windows. A strong government hand could have forced landlords to keep residences up to code. And we’re discovering, as local real estate prices soar and thousands of gleaming new high-rise condominiums come to market, that there aren’t enough reasonably priced housing units to accommodate the displaced people. A responsible government might have insisted that every developer seeking to cash in on yet another 40-story glass palace earn the privilege by also building a certain number of affordable housing units — for the good of the community.

I regard the needy and poor not as a dependent class, but an untapped resource — human capital. Any brainpower, talent, creativity or enthusiasm left undeveloped is a double loss: Society loses what they would have contributed, and becomes burdened with an underproductive asset — someone more likely to commit crimes, do drugs, bear children who won’t be supported, and so on.

Typical neo-conservatives are willing to accept this waste; indeed, they get positively outraged if social investments — read: taxes — are devoted to developing human capital. Productivity is the Achille’s heel of neo-conservative philosophy: There is little near-term profit in helping the poor, the elderly, disadvantaged children, the mentally ill and other distressed classes become productive — so the philosophy just discards them. Quick: Name one Fortune 500 corporation that identifies such a mission as its primary business.

Still thinking, aren’t you?

This isn’t a call for socialism, though the knee-jerk alarmists will spin it as such. Rather, it’s a call for a restoration of the balance that kept all the players honest: The business sector, government, labor and consumers.

The neo-con economic model has already failed. The only question is how long it will take us to realize it.