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Quillen’s Corner: If Government Is a Business, What’s the Product?

By Martha Quillen

In recent decades, political machinations have gotten so combative that a second civil war seems more likely than having Congress develop a decent, mutually acceptable plan for health care, immigration, or anything else. Talk about a house divided… America’s fighting spirit is aroused and stirring.

Yet here at home the weather is glorious, the dust is down, the grass is green and people are a lot less testy than they were just a few weeks ago when the wind blew and the hail pounded.

So sometimes I get to thinking that Americans are far more content than the headlines indicate. At which point, I start wondering whether all the recent fuss is worth worrying about – except that the issues being bandied about concern my healthcare, Social Security payments and neighbors; and whether my taxes go up; or my country goes to war.

Donald Trump hasn’t been in office six months yet, and he’s been accused of colluding with Vladimir Putin; leaking classified information to the Russians; conducting foreign affairs badly; and appointing dubious characters to high office – plus irresponsible Tweeting; constantly lying about his opponents; and playing too much golf.

But such allegations don’t tend to sway Trump’s fans, who usually dismiss complaints against him as sour grapes.

[InContentAdTwo] One defensive tactic that Republicans frequently deploy to derail Trump’s critics is to claim liberals were worse. According to them, the Clintons’ investments were more suspect than Trump’s; Hillary’s email problems were worse than Trump’s; Obama’s drones were more troubling than Trump’s foreign policies. And maybe the Donald lies, but Bill Clinton lied under oath.

That sort of defense is, of course, common on both sides, and between spouses, and when dealing with your kids. But think about those arguments. What are they really saying? That people can keep messing things up because other people already have?

Clearly this sort of blame game is ridiculous, counterproductive and way too addictive. Political discourse shouldn’t be about who was worse. It should be about finding a better course. But what course would that be?

During the last four decades, Americans have been encouraged to view government as a business, but the American people clearly don’t agree on what business our government should be in. Democrats tend to think governments exist to provide health care, education and infrastructure for the people. Republicans tend to think governments should manage commerce, trade, immigration and international relations for the sake of business, and let people fend for themselves. And Libertarians generally favor keeping government out of things except in emergencies.

So it’s little wonder Americans are dissatisfied with their federal government. In the United States we expend more effort trying to overturn legislation than we do presenting it – and it seems likely that we will still be going back and forth over Roe versus Wade, the Affordable Care Act, school prayer and Social Security in another forty years.

In the interest of good governance, it seems obvious that citizens should hold their political favorites to the same high standards they apply to the opposition. Yet that is almost never the case, and never will be – since losing your guy may translate into hurting your cause. (And I, for one, would be inclined to let the devil keep a seat if he’d vote to preserve benefits for the poor and elderly.)

But the citizens’ tendency to excuse malfeasance in their own ranks likely contributes to lying, bullying, and despicable behavior on the part of their public servants, and also rising distrust, resentment and fury between the factions.

At this point, discord is so partisan, unwavering and routine that gridlock frequently prevails, slowing action on issues great and small.

Yet that may be for the best. In a recently televised conference, U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, contended that Congressional gridlock “is not a bad thing” because there are real differences between the parties that shouldn’t be dismissed or downplayed. As an example, Ellison cited attitudes about money: Democrats, he claimed, think rich people have too much money and poor people don’t have enough, but Republicans think it’s rich people who don’t have enough money.

I pretty much agree with Ellison, but suspect it might be fairer to summarize the Republican position as a conviction that wealthy people earn and deserve their money and status, and are essential to our system because they contribute so much to America’s public assets and financial dominance. Whereas Democrats doubt the fairness of current wealth distribution and pay scales and whether minorities and the poor get equal treatment.

Clearly such matters should be considered and debated, and have been since the release of the Federalist Papers. So why does political discourse seem so futile and thoughtless today?

Perhaps because modern discussions tend to be all about money and not much else.

In a discussion about her book, The American Sickness, Elizabeth Rosenthal made it clear how devastating it can be to focus on money first and foremost. Rosenthal talked about how destructive it has been to let market forces distort our national health care system, and relates how hospital administrators now determine costs, treatment protocol and patient services, not to achieve excellence or to serve people better, but to cut costs, standardize care and bring more money into the system.

And the current trend to focus on costs (and thereby increase administrative budgets) must be transforming other public institutions as well, including schools, police departments, courts, emergency services, utilities …

Our governments (city, county, state and federal) have generated resourceful bureaucratic systems bent on cutting expenditures, increasing revenues and expanding operations. And that has made American health care and higher education exorbitantly expensive.

Republicans insist they can lower costs by cutting regulations and reducing government, but that’s a hollow promise, to be sure. Most first-world countries offer health care that’s far less costly than ours, and they do so by providing highly-regulated, government-controlled systems.

Due to bipartisan faith in capitalism, the United States has increasingly let markets guide policies. And now growth is regarded as a venerable ideal, and having the highest GNP in the world is the goal. But despite our nation’s bountiful GNP, the American people are not the richest in the world, nor the healthiest, best educated, smartest or most free.

Why? Because we are not building better systems; we are funding bigger bureaucracies. And the Republican party’s attempt to shrink big government merely aids that process, because corporations are often bureaucratic, over-sized, over-administered, greedy and self-serving, too. Think back on the 2008 financial collapse. Private banks, insurance companies, brokers, financial experts, and industries brought on that fiasco.

The antidote for huge, impersonal, ineffective systems – whether they be public or private – is not over-managing or under-funding them. It’s infusing them with goals and a sense of purpose that inspires workers and customers alike.

American politicians concentrate so much on money, jobs, deficits and spending that they seem to have forgotten the most important guiding principle of democracy. Democratic governments are of, by and FOR THE PEOPLE. Our leaders should not be characterizing citizens as expenditures and liabilities, or categorizing them as deadbeats, yahoos and anchor babies. Nor should they be turning Americans against one another in order to garner votes. Our leaders should not be serving the government, profits or themselves first; they should be serving the people, all of them – regardless of their race, religion, creed, gender, class or political affiliation.

Martha Quillen lives in Salida, where she runs on occasion, but not for office.