Big government: it works
cremick at rlmnet.com
Tue Mar 9 07:53:35 PST 1999
Nice column by Joe Conason, in today's Salon:
The cultural imperative of the moment is to honor our elders, whose
achievements during the past half-century are now being celebrated in
bestselling books by network anchormen Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, as
well as in essays and columns and television specials. When it comes to
values like ethics, patriotism, and sacrifice for the common good the
generation that overcame the Depression and won World War II looks
pretty good especially in contrast to the baby boomers now in power.
Implicit in this chorus of praise for Mom and Dad (or Grandma and
Grandpa) is a conservative parable for America at the end of the
American Century, a stark morality play about hard-working, self-denying
citizens as opposed to their lazy, narcissistic offspring. Yet within
this same fable lies another very different message that contradicts and
subverts the conventional wisdom of our time. The venerable generation
now passing into history knows something critical that we are being
taught to deny.
In their dotage, older Americans understand that their generation's best
friend has been big government, which has saved so many of them from
poverty, insecurity and medical bankruptcy. They know, from their own
experience with Social Security and Medicare, that government can do big
things and do them well.
To say this sounds almost shocking in the present political climate,
when the corporatization of pensions, health care, schools and even
prisons is so fashionable among Republicans and Democrats alike, that
the suggestion of any new federal program encounters almost automatic
derision. The old faith in public institutions has been discarded, and
we are advised every day to bend our knees instead before the great
Golden Bull of the Market, from which all blessings supposedly flow.
The sustained rise of the Dow Jones index has validated this new
idolatry -- and now, in an irony few seem to appreciate, we are told
that the systems of social insurance devised by our venerated elders
must be dismantled. If only we will place our faith in Wall Street and
turn our faces from Washington, then we can all be rich in our old age.
All we have to do is "privatize" Social Security through individual
investment accounts (and turn Medicare over to the managed-care
Heroic media images of the World War II generation subtly reinforce
those arguments, urging us by example to emulate the rugged
individualism of a more upright and self-sufficient era. But even a
glance at the real history of postwar America demolishes that
free-market myth. Our parents and grandparents did work hard and
sacrifice, but they also relied heavily upon the state to help them earn
a better life. Government provided the G.I. Bill that educated them, the
home loans that sheltered them, the highways that transported them and
the student loans that educated their children.
And, unlike their parents, they had little fear of old age because
government had helped them provide for themselves and each other,
collectively, through Social Security and Medicare.
It may seem sentimental to say so, but the result is a powerful
testament to democratic progress. Among the lasting achievements of the
generation lauded by Jennings, Brokaw and the rest is the virtual
elimination of poverty among the aged. They reached this milestone
despite the dedicated opposition of corporate conservatives who tried
for decades to kill Social Security, and who fought to prevent the
passage of Medicare.
While only a few of their generation actually set out to create or
expand the federal apparatus that guarantees their security now, they
became nearly unanimous in defending it. Not so long ago, before the
current nostalgia took hold, the World War II generation was regularly
slandered as a gang of "greedy geezers." All kinds of data were cranked
out by budget-cutters and privatizers to demonstrate that the elderly
were bankrupting the country for their own comfort, at the expense of
future generations. But that wave of nasty propaganda didn't last long,
in part because the political muscle of the geezers thumped any
politician who uttered such slurs. (By the way, that's another bit of
wisdom handed down from the aged: "Vote!")
Sometime in the next century, after the last of this generation has
departed, Social Security may reach the point of fiscal deficit. Nobody
really knows, because nobody can predict how fast the economy will grow
decades from now. Medicare's future financing seems more uncertain
because of rising health-care costs. The contentious debate over reforms
and revisions has scarcely begun to engage the consciousness of those
who will be most affected by its outcome.
Seductive chatter about individual retirement accounts will undoubtedly
grow louder -- as will demands to increase the retirement age, cut
benefits to the disabled and leave Medicare patients to the mercies of
the managed-care executives. Experts will materialize on television to
warn that government cannot be trusted to protect our economic security.
By then we may no longer be quite so preoccupied with the generation we
now glorify in books and movies; amnesia, not memory, is more our normal
state of mind. But if we mean to show respect, then we should honor them
as they really were: a people who used government to improve their lives
and their nation.
SALON | March 9, 1999
As a postscript, I happened to see a documentary on the History cable
channel last night about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. The
program spoke of the community spirit that existed in San Francisco
during the Depression -- with area homeowners and commercial property
holders voting to offer their property as collateral to finance the
building of the bridge, not to mention the fact that the *entire
community* went on strike to show solidarity with the longshoremen's
union. The past isn't a foreign country; it's a different planet.
More information about the lbo-talk