My Big Fat American Government

UnknownHey, props to Boston! Taxachusetts, I heart you. Gimme some B-I-G government!

O big/bloated/corrupt government-shunners, O bombastic, ignorant Tea partiers, O federal trough-slopping hypocrites… come on, just admit it. Didn’t we all see this week what robust public investments in health, safety, and education really look like?  For those just tuning in, loss of life at the Boston Marathon was dramatically minimized on Monday because Boston’s security and medical teams and other first responders were so superbly prepared for a disaster. The EMTs knew how to use tourniquets to prevent catastrophic blood loss and were able to triage the patients expertly so that everyone got the necessary care. This saved countless lives, as we’ve all read; people were moments from death and would have died had they been languishing, even for a couple extra minutes, waiting for medical care. (Remember Princess Diana stuck in that tunnel for 30 minutes? Never woulda happened here in Boston.)

Unknown And how about those amazing teaching hospitals? I hope no one is stupid enough to think they’re the best in the world merely through the kindness of private donors. On the contrary – very much ‘on the contrary’ – Boston has top-ranked hospitals because of massive, ongoing public investments in basic and applied research, in education, and in training. (Not to mention its universities and colleges – all publicly supported to varying degrees – that feed into the medical system and, below that rung, its top-ranked K-12 schools that likewise provide the backbone of excellent labor in this city, and for visitors across the globe.) Kaching!$ It’s expensive to run such a tight ship. But the costs pay huge dividends, not only in our comparatively higher salaries and health statistics, but, as we saw this week, literally in ‘life and limb.’

Sara Palin can laugh all she wants about federal funding for fruit fly research, but how many of us would even be here today if it weren’t for our illustrious history of public investment in medical research. It’s scandalous that Congress has decimated the budgets for the National Institutes of Health. Forget obesity; this is the real silent epidemic! Imagine the consequences – decades from now – of just folding up the tent on medical research. Do we really want the soft drink industry filling the breach? (Maybe we should hedge our bets and go vegan.)

imagesAnd surely the freak show at MIT and in Watertown, which I heard unfolding out my window, would likely have been much worse with a less skilled, less comprehensive response. Anyone listening in to the live police feed, as I did, would have been impressed by the professionalism of the Boston law enforcement apparatus. They were pretty cool customers.

Unknown-1Big government has a bad rep for some good reasons. Fine, I get it. But can we be honest for a second? What kind of government do we really want? A puny, enfeebled government? Hello, New Orleans! How do you think things would have gone down this week in one of those red states that doesn’t like to invest adequately in its people? Florida? Mississippi? Nevada? Take your pick. I’m not trying to bash other Americans, just stating facts here. We all need big government and it’s a fiction to pretend otherwise, though plenty of people do, as this handy graphic will illustrate:

According to the  Tax Foundation, take a look at which states (in red) benefit from federal tax and spending policies, and which states (in blue) foot the bill.

US 50 States Map“The report shows that of the 32 states (and the District of Columbia) that are “winners” — receiving more in federal spending than they pay in federal taxes —  17 of the 20 (85%) states receiving the most federal spending per dollar of federal taxes paid are Red States.”

But I don’t want to get too political about this. It’s a human issue, not a conservative or liberal one. It’s not about red states and blue states. It doesn’t have to be. All societies need public investments to spur growth. And in case we need a reminder, our handy constitution tells us so:

We the People  of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America (emphasis, mine).

It’s right there, but we get so focused on the personal liberty stuff that we sometimes forget the “general welfare” and “common defense” parts of the equation.

But Bostonians didn’t forget, not this week. Not our doctors and nurses and emergency responders. Not the Marathon organizers. Not the runners. Not the patients in their hospital beds who woke up surprised to be alive, not dead. Not my frightened students who were hunkered down all night with their laptops and phones, checking the latest developments.

“We the people” is so much more than a call for individual freedom. It’s a reminder that where liberty is concerned, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. Some of our most prized freedoms are supported by the scaffolding of government. It’s awfully nice to stand on a soap box, like our spineless politicians did earlier this week, and shun the trappings of big government.

Some of us don’t have that luxury.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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9 Responses to My Big Fat American Government

  1. Lorelei says:

    It’s not an accurate map in the case of my state, Hawaii. Hawaii receives massive funding from the federal government, most in support of our large military presence. We pay our taxes, but the imbalance is fairly vast. Perhaps that particular study excludes the military? I’ve never seen one where we were on the “feeder” side of the balance sheet. Otherwise I am all in agreement!

    • That’s an interesting point you raise. I think Hawaii is an unusual case in many respects. (And I LOVE Hawaii, having been there only once but wanting to relocate immediately.) It’s one of the most isolated geographic locations on the planet, so I imagine it doesn’t fit into easy characterizations. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Dave says:

    While I don’t think Pairs or New Orleans suffer from a lack of government, you do make some other good points. For example the way we fund higher education through a voucher system is very effective, but paying ever increasing amounts to the Mississippi unemployed, Florida retirees and Nebraska farmers is a dumb use of money. But careful, some may think that your praise of Massachusetts might infer that you feel the rest of the country would be better off with it’s demographics.

    (The graphic is about a decade old)

    • Paris is a special case; they just don’t (or didn’t) handle medical emergencies well so I could have omitted that example, I suppose. New Orleans suffered from an overwhelming failure of federal government. Period. I think that was made more than clear at the time. The graphic is old but there are newer ones that prove the same pattern; I didn’t take the time to track them down. As for demographics, I like the whole country! But, yes, I think it’s great when we have lower teenage pregnancy rates and lower rates of divorce and higher rates of literacy and high school graduation and whatnot. Everyone wants their children to lead a better life than they did but there are conditions that make that more or less possible depending on where you live. (And you can read some of the issues I have with Massachusetts elsewhere… ) It’s more than tedious to hear the endless distortions about Massachusetts in every election cycle. For example, “Taxachusetts” actually has relatively LOW taxes when calculated as a percentage of income. When people get richer, they want and choose more services (better roads, better hospitals, better schools, better snow plowing…). So it’s not a straight comparison to look at taxes in isolation of the income that average citizens are earning in a particular state. When we do that, Massachusetts is on the low end of the tax scale (though it’s probably somewhat higher now due to our successful Romney care.) You never hear that argument in all the debates about keeping taxes as low as possible. Most people don’t actually choose to have shitty public schools. Hey, thanks for writing! Wish we could spar over taxes in person some time soon. I actually started writing this before I realized who I was responding to. I should have been more ferocious. :) Kidding…

  3. Hi Erika,

    You are from this area so you know what is going on. I am not. I hail from Seattle, WA. I don’t know much about these Tea Party people but I agree with “waste” in Government and fraud being confronted and ended big time. Welfare and Medicare fraud of which there is plenty. But, I never balked one bit for cops or firemen/women or medical care. My Dad was a cop after WWII and I have a soft spot for cops and when there is a fire or medical emergency I want those people here on the double. I like Sarah Palin because she is a tough woman. Born in Sand Point, ID, in 1964, not far from me, moved to Wasilla, AK in 1972 when she was 8 years old, shoots her own meat and gets her own fish and is no nonsense. I like an independent woman who when faced with a Down Syndrome child while in office as Governor of Alaska had the guts to have a child she knew would be born with disabilities. Tough. STrong. Independent. I think America is better for having women like Sarah Palin. But the message of Government “waste” gets lost. A lot. And of course, Conservatives, like me, Compassionate Conservatives are all supposed to love God, Guns and Jesus in that order. I don’t have any guns but I am thinking of getting a fishing pole? Ha! So, yeah. Fund the cops. Fund medicine. Medical schools. Isn’t Harvard a private university? I thought it had beaucoup bucks from tuition and endowments and private donations? These Government Universities better let the Conservative students have their disagreements in class and on paper. Or else there is going to continue to be a ruckus. As their should be. When “minority” viewpoints are suppressed, graded down, and denied their degrees or expelled out right. Have a nice day. Love, Liz+

  4. P.S. the visual of Prince Diana in the tunnel waiting for 30 minutes dying with no medical help is super painful. I thought France had better medical care than that. Makes me not want to travel there.

  5. Totally agree with you on free speech and minority viewpoints. Read Greg Loukianoff’s book, Unlearning Liberty! Harvard is a private university but, like all universities, both tenured and non-tenured medical faculty researchers have to get their own funding – -including their own salaries – through the National institutes of health or private sources. And that funding is drying up to pay for unjust wars and other ‘waste.’ It’s a myth that tuition and big endowments are funding biomedical and other scientific research – they fund a lot but it still doesn’t come close to supporting what is needed. I don’t think most Americans have any idea (and I wouldn’t either, if I weren’t married to a researcher and worked at a university) how enormous the public investment in research needs to be — and has been historically, even under Republican administrations. It’s a new phenomenon in the last decade that we see such contempt for science and scientific research. Even with med school tuition being more than $60,000 per year, it doesn’t even cover a fraction of the ‘real’ cost to educate and train one doctor or medical resident. There’s a whole infrastructure of teaching hospitals that needs funding to produce these doctors – health insurance and medicaid/care and private patient revenue don’t begin to cover it either. I wish we could have a really honest conversation about the costs of running an industrialized country!! Anybody travel on I-95 recently from Boston to NYC? The roads are a joke! Potholes everywhere. It looks like a developing country. Eisenhower (Republican) invested in roads, infrastructure. He understood the need for certain kinds of public investment. Most conservatives did; it wasn’t just a ‘liberal’ viewpoint. This should be a bi-partisan issue: investing in our children’s future. Even if we got rid of all the “waste” and corruption — which of course is a drain on society and should be addressed dispassionately — we’d still have huge costs that can’t realistically all be supported by individual donors not acting in concert with mutual goals. Sometimes government has to do that. The devil is in the details. Sometimes it’s hard to tease out what is fraud and what is just differences in priorities. I think you have to break a lot of eggs to make an omelette. My point is that sometimes something may look frivolous (like those poor maligned fruit flies, which turn out to be the backbone of most medical research) but on closer inspection it is quite necessary in order to live in the world we want. People always say, “I want police and fire trucks and hospitals and let’s throw in an army – but not much else.” But it’s not so simple. We need a healthy society that produces a work force that can fill those functions. It aint cheap, alas.

  6. And now I have to get to work – my real life, I mean, even though I love chatting on this blog. Many thanks!

  7. I don’t like big govt. but you make a good point about respose times and the availability of properly trained professionals. I live in Massachusetts too. http://bythemightymumford.wordpress.com/

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