Monday, September 17, 2012

Good government, bad government--"everybody's confused"

Before beginning the next paragraph, please click here and listen to Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy performing "Only the Lord Knows." If you haven't already bought the whole album - it came out two years ago - you really should. Especially during this acrimonious election season. (I commented on it here.) Mavis and Jeff knew what was coming in 2012...
I pick up the paper, I put down the paper,
Turn on the TV, I get confused.
People on this side say the people on that side,
They lyin', say they lyin'--everybody's confused.
OK, now imagine taking a dozen or so suburban Catholics--some of them staunch conservatives, others committed liberals--and making them talk to one another about public policy for two and a half hours every Wednesday evening during the two months leading up to the election. Give the group a sexy name, like "Living Solidarity: Government, the Federal Budget and the Common Good" (such a name keeps a group's size manageable). Ask them what they think the government does well, and what it does badly. Try to keep them from killing each other.

Actually things went surprisingly smoothly at my parish's adult-ed group last week. The moderator told us repeatedly and in manifold ways that we must be polite to one another, and we were, even when talking about government successes and failures. And then we learned that one of our assignments would be to strike up a two-minute conversation with a stranger, each week on a different topic. This week's homework: "Ask someone you don't know: What is something you appreciate that government does? What is something you hate about what government does? Be specific."

Oh, right. If someone standing in line behind me at Trader Joe's tried that on me, I'd ask him to watch my cart while I dashed back to the produce department to pick up more broccoli rabe. No way am I going to let some political nut turn my peaceful shopping expedition into a shoot-out. And no way am I going to turn myself into an agent provocateur either.

So I put my questions on my Facebook page, Madame Neff's Salon, and discovered that some people hate speeding tickets while others appreciate them. Other than that, here are the answers I got:

What is something you appreciate that government (federal, state, or local) does?
Emergency services like fire, police, and ambulance. The Post Office, which--unlike FedEx, UPS, or the Pony Express--is required to serve all areas of the U.S. Schools. A good legal system. Enforcement of laws and rights: property rights, religious rights, right to protest, freedom of speech. OSHA. The FDA drug review. Health care. Programs that help poor people and those who experience disasters. Programs that guarantee clear air, water, safe food, safe buildings, etc. Roads, transportation,some communication. A state program for at-risk children that offered subsidized physical, occupational and speech therapy for our son. Medicare.
What is something you hate that government (federal, state, or local) does?
Picky laws: Prohibiting plastic bags. Outlawing marijuana. Banning large sugary drinks. Banning smoking outside. Subsidies to private enterprise (tax breaks, funding research and development, etc.) without demanding repayment or a share of profits. Unnecessary war. War without the approval of Congress. The salaries of elected or appointed government officials. Torture.
If I got back in line at Trader Joe's, broccoli rabe in hand, and still had to answer the questions, I'd probably tell the pushy stranger that I really like--or would like--excellent public education, universal health care, Social Security, interstate highways, food security programs, regulations to protect the environment, regulations to keep financial institutions honest, family health-care leave, paid maternity leave... well, by the time I got to that many points here in Republican DuPage County, I expect my interlocutor would have scooted into another check-out line, as far from me as possible.

But if he stayed to listen, I'd also tell him that I really hate the way our government--federal, state, and local--promises so many of these good things but then refuses to fund them. On a more personal level, I hate the way so many Americans think we should have more services but lower taxes. Read, for example, Greg Sargent's article in the August 2 Washington Post, "Americans hate government, but they love Medicare, Social Security, and environmental regulations."

I'm looking forward to hearing my classmates' opinions. I think we can manage not to throw overripe fruit at one another, especially if we keep in mind Mavis and Jeff's call to humility:
What to do, what to do now?--
Only the Lord knows, and he ain't you.
Listen to them!

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