Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Government is not a "business"

A columnist for the Seattle Times recently tried to explain why the paper was blowing out of proportion the issue of $1.8 million in small business contracts to minority contractors that were not “properly” accounted for over the past several years by saying the $560 million a year school district was a “business,” and should be run like one. The current situation is nothing compared to the scandal of 2003, when there was $35 million in unaccounted money. The unspoken issue is that school district is just looking for a way to unload superintendant Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who was an unpopular choice with teachers from the start, who didn’t want to be saddled with performance “standards” and preferred to maintain their autonomy--meaning, of course, that their "needs" come before the children. The position of school superintendant is one of the most thankless jobs in the city, as the previous superintendant, Raj Manhas, found out; back-stabbing by backstabbing school board members and name-calling tends to wear down people with good intentions.

But back to the point of whether the public schools—and government in general—is a “business.” The purpose of government is not to make a profit but to provide the best services to the most people, and find sufficient funding to perform that function. Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker doesn’t seem to thinks so; like any “businessman,” his “plan” is to hurt as many people as he can get away with. He has just announced a “plan” to cut $900 from what he and the media is calling “aid” to public schools; since when is government responsibility for providing for a educated public “aid?” Walker is also trying to force municipalities to reduce property tax levies by $550 per student—an contemptible effort to stymie local governments’ ability to maintain their own services. Meanwhile, Walker’s plan to make the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus independent of the rest of UW system seems designed to divide, disrupt and eventually destroy the remaining campuses. Walker tells us that all of this cutting will create 250,000 jobs in four years, which the state should do anyways with a natural increase in economic activity if Walker did nothing at all. His tax breaks for businesses are a political shibboleth, since they only amount to a few dollars per new hire, while cuts in education and another $500 million in health care will be job losers. Like all Republicans, he wears that American flag lapel; why is beyond me, since like all Republicans and their Tea Party supporters, he has no idea what it stands for.

The purpose of government, just in case no one knows, is to provide services to the public, like education, transportation, law enforcement, etc., and to provide these services to everyone in need of them, not just those who can afford to pay for them. Because it is in it for profit, the private sector cannot effectively provide these services, because inevitably those most in need are left out. Not everyone needs public services at once, but at some point they do, and they need to be available when they do. This is not about “big government,” this is about adequately funding needed public services, which the private sector is either unwilling and unable to do. We have often been told that the private sector is better able to provide services more efficiently, but this is clearly not true, as we have often seen when private contractors are involved in construction projects, costs generally explode over original estimates; when private contractors are tasked to provide “services,” costs and inefficiency also go up, whether it is contracting Blackwater in Iraq or private companies mailing out tax refund checks. If the private sector was allowed to “run” services for the jobless or the hungry, the profit motive would only insure more pain and suffering.

Meanwhile, I was listening to CNN blowhard John Cafferty making a self-righteous and self-important stand that the federal government was a “business” that should get its house in order and cut everything in sight. What the Caffertys of the world do not understand is that the private sector and the public sector are two entirely different entities with entirely different sets of responsibilities. The private sector’s purpose seems to be the generation of profit, which is antithetical to the purpose of the public sector. The private sector could not care less about the welfare of the population at large; when people are laid-off, what happens to them is a matter of indifference to them. If the private sector does not provide health coverage, again that is a matter of indifference; they and their children could be lying in a gutter for all it cares. We have already seen the effect of privatized health care in the guise of the health insurance industry. The private sector depends on a healthy and stable education and transportation system—and it doesn’t care if there is proper funding to maintain those services? Apparently so.

The long-term cost of neglect of public services spells nothing less than disaster, and yet many people will blame Democrats. The finger should squarely be pointed at Republicans who feed voters the shibboleth that cutting taxes and diminishing the federal government’s ability to fill in the gaps caused by the failures of the private sector will solve a multitude of problems, when in fact it makes only the more inevitable and more dire the next round of hardships. The problem with Republican “businessmen” and women in Congress is that their slash and burn ideas do not take into account need; instead of finding ways to serve the public welfare is their responsibility, they seek ways to skirt their responsibilities. The real problems of this country—crumbling infrastructure, maintaining support structures for a civil society, regulating an environment that won’t kill us, insuring an educated population that can make educated voting decisions and not stupid ones—is the responsibility of government. Instead, Republicans seem to think that their “responsibility” is to make the world the law of the jungle prevails, and every man or woman for themselves.

The Right has kept up the pressure on the foolish mind by continuously pushing the deficit issue, although as long as the debt is held in dollars there is no immediate danger, and as long as spending is used to employ people and create consumers, its effect has at least short-term positive effects, especially in these economic hard times. If the private sector would cease from sitting on its profits and hire people, there would be less incentive for people to refrain from spending and the economy would inevitable return to “normal” levels—and government spending would naturally fall as well. But that all makes too much sense for Republicans and their corporate masters to understand; all they wish to do is slash and burn without a single thought to what they are doing. The answer to the debt problem has always stared us in the face—raising the marginal tax rates back to historical levels on the people allowed themselves to be fortunate enough that they won’t be hurt. Remember when Bush told us that we didn’t have to worry about ballooning deficits because of his tax cuts—because tax cuts create jobs and fill in the tax gap? Of course, he did hedge his bets by allowing the cuts to sunset in 2010. Well, no jobs were created, the fortunate people merely filled their pockets, and we were saddled with an ever more massive federal debt that made it a more expensive proposition to bail the country out when Bush’s shit hit the fan. In the pre-Reagan years, even Republicans would have had enough common sense now to know that government has to step in when the private sector is not fulfilling its obligations, and the people who have sheltered themselves from the gross effects of their greed needed to pay. Today, all we have is imprudence and stupidity from them and their Tea Party allies.

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