Published on January 20th, 2017 | by Zachary Shahan0
Do Americans Understand What Government Is For?
January 20th, 2017 by Zachary Shahan
I keep telling myself to focus on other matters — a big EV report I’m in the midst of, our series on cleantech actions cities can take, my next US electricity reports, the dozens of stories I collected during my cleantech megaweek in Abu Dhabi, etc. — but I keep getting thrown back in disbelief at the American public and many of the politicians
they we elected.
I keep trying to understand the core problems in American awareness that have led to such politicians being able to take office (and even sometimes hold office for years). After all, it’s hard to solve problems without understanding their deeper roots.
I don’t expect every American to take a course in political studies, public policy, government, or social theory, but I think there are two simple functions of government that most citizens should understand … but don’t seem to. A third function, national defense, is apparently tribalistic and simple enough that it’s obvious to everyone — though, Republicans have even departed from common sense on that topic and have been siding with Russians over our top defense forces in recent weeks and months.
We Don’t Have A Free Market, No One Does — Time To Wake Up
First of all, the idea of a “free market” without government influence is a farce — that idea needs to be walked to its deathbed.
We have government rather than anarchy for some sensible reasons. If you don’t have governmental bodies that are carefully, thoughtfully, and independently regulating the market, you will get vast market abuse by corporations. This abuse of the market distorts the market, which makes the market biased and expensive, not free.
There is no such thing as a “free market” in practice. It’s like purple & turquoise unicorns, or beautiful & carefree mermaids, or con men who simply have your best interest at heart — nice ideas, but they don’t exist in this universe as far as I’ve seen.
Without government, or with weak government regulation (oversight), corporations excessively pollute your life and my life (the cost of that pollution is “externalized” instead of being priced into the cost of the product as would ideally be the case in a “free market”). Without government, some corporations won’t pay a living wage, which means that “families working in low-wage jobs make insufficient income to live locally given the local cost of living.” This is a problem in the market that needs to be corrected by government, strong and independent government.
In simple terms, the Secretary of Labor shouldn’t be a person who has made a fortune as CEO of a company that doesn’t pay a living wage and doesn’t believe corporations should have to pay a living wage; the EPA administrator shouldn’t be a person who has repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of pollutes.
Without government, or with weak government regulation (oversight), insurance and healthcare companies can make the cost of insurance and healthcare completely unaffordable for a large portion of the population. It is because of weak government regulation that tens of millions of Americans haven’t had insurance for decades and the cost of healthcare is so much higher per GDP than it is in other developed nations.
In a general sense, the government is like a referee. It should try to keep the competition between corporations and citizens at a certain “fair” equilibrium in order to have a functional match.
There are other places where the market is distorted by externalities and corporate greed if the government doesn’t step in and control the game well, but that intersection of poor regulation of polluters and poor regulation of insurance and healthcare industries is a striking one, in my humble opinion. It’s a gigantic invitation for premature death and human suffering.
Putting the Mafia in Charge of the Criminal Justice System
The simple phrase “putting the fox in charge of the hen house” didn’t seem to cut it when looking at Donald Trump’s nominations for extremely powerful cabinet positions. I will touch on the deep irony and concern of a few of them below, but let’s first recognize that Republicans have long been running for election on campaigns to essentially put the mafia in charge of the criminal justice system. This is the ongoing message they hammer home day in and day out (in different words).
They argue that not regulating or very loosely regulating corporations is a recipe for success. It is perhaps a recipe for short-term and short-sighted financial success for those corporations, but it is also a recipe for societal disaster as the true costs of their business reach more people and as these corporations are able to hoard more and more of their money (or send it to top executives) rather than pay their workers a living wage and take precautions to not cause them premature death.
In an extreme year in politics, looming disasters are staring us in the face. Donald Trump has nominated:
- for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): A person who has repeatedly sued the EPA in order to try to weaken pollution regulations. He has done from his high-power role in Oklahoma, where “every single county has been rated an ‘F’ in air quality from the American Lung Association.”
- for the Department of Energy (DOE): A person who has said he wanted to demolish the DOE.
- for the Department of Education (ED): A person who has never attended a public school, whose children have never attended a public school, who has no history working in the public school system, and who seems to have generally weak understanding of how that system works and common theoretical debates about how it should be improved.
There are plenty of others, and as pointed out many times, this would all be funny due to the massive irony … if it wasn’t so concerning. Fran Shor summarizes well:
“Whatever the motivation, it is depressingly clear that these nominees are either spectacularly unqualified, right wing zealots of the worst sort, or, in Simon Schama’s words a ‘cesspool of crony capitalism,’ or, in some cases, all three at once. A regular Trifecta! The Speaker of the California Assembly has provided another triadic and alliterative description: “Bullies, Billionaires, and Bigots.”
There are some obvious cases of cronyism, but I think the heart of the choices is simple for Trump (like many things): Put corporate elites in charge of regulating (well, hugely deregulating) their industries. Trump seems to be as brainwashed as everyone and almost certainly thinks this is a good idea.
The concerning thing, for me, is that more Americans haven’t figured out that this common Republican talking point is deeply, horribly flawed. We have tried this. The results have been obvious and terrible: financial deregulation led to financial collapse, energy/environmental regulation led to tremendous damage to human health, lack of CO2 regulation is burning up the world.
Yet, Republicans continue to put the mafia in charge of the criminal justice system, and enough Americans seem to think that’s a good idea. After all, we do have Republicans in top US political positions — a lot of them. (Well, that’s also in part due to gerrymandering, but that’s a story for another day.)
A Social Safety Net
Many of us are convinced that government’s second main role is to provide the public with a “social safety net.” In other words, even if people fall into “the worst of times,” they shouldn’t fall out the bottom of society and should retain a decent life. The government should ensure that every citizen has absolute basics in quality of life and healthcare in able to ensure that.
I will leave this topic alone for now, but it is again one where many Americans don’t think we should join the rest of the developed world in providing this for our citizens, and it is bewildering to me due to the lack of compassion and foresight.