By Richard Schmitt
In a recent guest column in InCity Times, Harvey Fenigsohn wrote wisely that after eight years of George W. Bush we are entitled to have some fun at the expense of the former president but, more importantly, we need to learn from the failures of the previous administration.
They did a pretty terrible job because from President Bush down many bigwigs in the government were incompetent. But they also did a horrible job because they believed a lot of things which are plainly false.
One of those falsehoods is the dogma that government cannot do anything right and that if you want something to be done properly you need to allow private enterprise to do it. For the Bush people this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. They underfunded government agencies; they deregulated whatever they could. On their watch the government was therefore not able to do many of its jobs.
But before we go and badmouth the government, let’s ask ourselves what the government does. It turns out the government does many different things and it does so at many different levels. Some things it does well; others are more difficult tasks.
To get a sense of all of the different things the government does, think about your day. You get up, you take a shower. Don’t worry that the water might be polluted; you know that the city takes care of that and they do a pretty good job of it.
After your shower, you dress. These days, the odds are that your clothes were made in China or in some other sweatshop in Asia. Some of the Chinese goods are not good for users, and the U.S. government does not do a perfect job protecting American consumers. Some foodstuffs have been polluted with melanine; a lot of toys tested positive for lead in their paint.
But don’t forget that private businesses are importing these harmful items, and we rely on the government to protect us against American businesses importing food stuffs and toys that are harmful. One of the roles of the government is to protect citizens against unscrupulous private businesses — the people who process salmonela-ridden peanuts, or tomatoes, or spinach, or the people who import food and clothing. Private business is not doing a good job in protecting the consumers. The job the U.S. government does is not too bad. It would have done a better job if the agencies charged with supervising private business not been underfunded.
The government definitely did a poor job preventing the economic crisis: private businesses took excessive risks. Your bank, for instance, may well have made risky loans to people who were unable to pay back their mortgage. The government — headed by people who don’t believe in government — did a terrible job making sure your bank avoided excessive risks. The last so many governments, being buddies to the big banks and financial institutions, deregulated whatever they could. Government supervision of the nation’s financial institutions became weaker to non-existent. As a result you may already be out of job. But the bankers are laughing all the way to their off-shore secret bank account.
The goal of a business is to make money. As a consequence, private enterprise does not try to meet human needs which are not moneymakers. There have been some attempts to run schools for-profit but the effort is not an overwhelming success. Education is by and large not for-profit and education for middle-class people is paid for and run by the government. In the present economic crisis, with more people short of money, college students flock to public institutions. If we left education to the private sector most of us would be illiterate because there would be no schools that we could afford to go to. For profit education would be too expensive for middle-class parents to send their children to.
Health care costs a whole lot — especially in the United States. Most people cannot afford to see a doctor regularly if they do not have health insurance. Many employers used to provide health insurance for their employees. More and more employers refuse to do so. Without serious investment on the part of the government, the health of Americans would deteriorate rapidly. Here, once again private business leaves us in the lurch and the government does the job, but could do it a lot better. But George Bush and his Wall Street friends do not have problems paying for their health care and they never cared for middle class Americans.
Think of some other ways in which private business is not treating us so well. I have yet to talk to anyone who does not complain about the poor quality of television entertainment. (That is not to say that the government would do better.) In the entertainment field we are not in good hands with private business.
More seriously: the newspaper industry is failing. Some major newspapers have already closed; the newspapers around are thinner every week. But without newspapers will we be able to be good citizens? The crisis in journalism is very serious for our democracy which clearly demands that citizens be well informed about the condition of the country and its problems. But private business is not helping.
We take it for granted that the city government takes care of our parks. No one, even the free market fanatics of the last 30 years (and that includes Bill Clinton), have advocated that we privatize our parks. Imagine taking your kids to the playground in Elm Park on Saturday morning and having to pay at the gate. Imagine the whole park closed off by a tall fence topped off with barbed wire to prevent anyone from using it who had not bought a ticket. The government is spending all its money bailing out the banks. There is no money left over to keep the swimming pools open in Worcester in the summer, where our kids can have fun and be safe.
Government supplies security — nationally through the police; internationally through the military. Our police has faced a lot of questions in recent years about excessive use of force and that problem is a familiar one in many localities. Running an effective police force that does not do violence to citizens is a difficult challenge that cities do not always manage very well.
But do we want to abolish our city police force and substitute a private security service which protects only its subscribers? Who will protect middle-class Americans? What guarantee is there that private security firms will not also abuse their power? The private security firm Blackwater was kicked out of Iraq when its members where is said to have used excessive violence. They are now defending themselves in Court.
If the Bush era has taught us anything, it is that we should stop saying that private business can do all things well and government can’t do anything. That is being simpleminded where we need to be very careful . Private business does some things well, some things badly, and many more things not at all. Government does something well and other things not. How well it does, obviously depends on the leaders of the government. It also depends on whether the government tries to be a government of all the people. The Bush, and to some extent the Clinton governments were governments of, by and for business. There was no money to protect consumers against business who only cared for their bottom line, no matter that people got sick and pets died. The government deregulated whatever they could. The result is an airline industry that is barely functioning, an automobile industry that threatens to go under, and a job market that has shed more than 2 million jobs in the last year. That is something we take away from the Bush years.