With fewer than 90 days now left before this nation can finally put our latest presidential election behind us, it might be useful to examine the central question that is at the heart of all the vitriol which has spewed from both sides over these past few months - i.e. just what is the role of government in our lives? On the right you have the popular position that was advanced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980's that government is the problem and needs to get out of the way of private enterprise. That spawned "Starve the Beast", "Trickle Down" and "Compassionate Conservatism" policies which I think have been abject failures. On the left you have the position that government is the solution to our many problems and needs to be even more active in framing policies that improve our well being. "The New Deal", The New Frontier" and "The Great Society" come to mind, but they came with great financial costs. While this basic divide is not new, as even the framers of our constitution bickered over the same issue, what is different now is the total polarization of both sides that has created absolute gridlock and inaction at the very time we need our congress to be addressing full time the many profound issues that currently face our nation. Instead they decide to take a five week recess.
While I do not pretend to have the ultimate answer to what the role of government should be, some very qualified individuals have provided us with a prism through which we might at least begin to rationally examine this question. In this regard perhaps the best place to start is with David Wessel's July 31st interview on NPR's Fresh Air program discussing his new book Red Ink about the federal budget debate. Go to http://www.npr.org/2012/07/31/157610155/facing-the-fiscal-cliff-congress-next-showdown and listen to the entire discussion, but his main thesis is that unless something is done before December 31st of this year we face a "fiscal cliff" of higher taxes and draconian spending cuts that he likens to pulling the trigger on a loaded gun. Furthermore, he blames this potential crisis on the fundamental impasse on the role of government emphasized by the central question posed in this blog - one side wants less government, one side wants more. While we all are aware of the recent events that have led us to this precipice (e.g. two unfunded wars, reduced taxes, prescription benefits not paid for and a horrible economic crisis unlike any since the 1930's), some either do not understand or do not care about the true consequences of the political paralysis which has gripped our national legislative process due in large measure to a new wave of congressmen who are willing to risk everything just to advance their ideology. And now that one of those ideologues, Paul Ryan, has been chosen as Mitt Romney's running mate, this divide is now going to be made even more prominent because, in effect, Mr. Romney has now made Mr. Ryan's proposed Path to Prosperity budget his. As such, it becomes the centerpiece of Mr. Romney's agenda and, therefore, his vision for the role of government.
For those who may not know, Mr. Ryan wants to essentially gut Medicare as we know it, transfer Medicaid to the states; severely cut spending on programs that help the poor; do away with subsidies to agriculture, education, transportation and scientific research; revise the tax code to benefit the rich; and abolish many other programs that make this country great, including earmarks he once used to great advantage to resurrect the economy around his own hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. Included in that government aid, which he seems to so despise, was a water treatment plant, funds for a technical college to retrain GM workers, improvements for a bus system, expansion of I-90 and creation of the Janesville Innovation Center to provide space from which entrepreneurs could launch their business innovations, facts well documented in an article by Ryan Lizza in the August 6th edition of The New Yorker magazine. All of these government benefits illustrate precisely the point President Obama made on July 13th when he proclaimed in part that "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help" and that "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges". What Mr. Ryan ultimately plans to do about Social Security is a little more murky, but he was the main architect of the privatization plan that George Bush abandoned in 2005, even though Mr. Ryan himself apparently survived on those benefits after the sudden death of his father (per article in the August 12th edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette). So how disingenuous is it for someone to ridicule and want to
dismantle the very government programs from which he so personally and politically
benefited over the years? In short, some of his ideas, which came from his ardent attachment to the writings of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, are so severe that even Newt Gingrich labeled them "right-wing social engineering" during the Republican primaries. Read even more about Mr. Ryan's thinking from a New Republic article dated August 11, 2012 at http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/106029/ryan-romney-vp-budget-cuts-medicare-medicaid-voucher-tax-cut.
So, what exactly is the proper role of government? Frankly, I think the answer to that question lies somewhere between the two extremes alluded to above, but government policies that further enrich the rich and only increase funding for the military but ignore the needs of the poor, elderly, infirm and disadvantaged are totally misguided, wrong-headed and bad for this country as a whole in my view. Surely, we Americans deserve better than that.