"An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." --Plutarch
As Ian Haney Lopez warned in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, "In the last 50 years, dog whistle politics has driven broad swaths of white voters to adopt a self-defeating hostility toward government, and in the process has remade the very nature of race and racism" in American politics .
Exhibit A: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” –Ronald Reagan
If you’ve ever doubted that branding or advertising works, then you’ve likely been thinking in too narrow of terms.
The majority of our political opinions today have been packaged, marketed, and sold to us with a specific goal: to influence our thinking. If we are bombarded with messages enough times, we will believe them, regardless of their veracity.
Like the Reagan quote above. Did you find it humorous because it resonated?
Congratulations! You’ve just proven my point.
You see, this anti-government rhetoric was scripted for the sole purpose of fomenting dissent with those who are helped most by government services. And it works.
Reagan performed this stump speech with the confidence of a professionally trained performer, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
Good thing no one informed the Roosevelts.
It’s easy to laugh at such a cynical statement until you need FEMA to provide shelter after a hurricane wipes out your livelihood. Or until you get old and sick and need Medicare to stay alive. Or your house catches fire and you need to call a fire department for help. Or you need to walk your dog to a public park to poop. Or you need the courts to settle a dispute with your landlord. Or to know your toddler didn’t just suck on a lead-painted toy. Or to know you didn't just consume salmonella-seasoned tri-tip. Or you need to copyright a work of art. Or you need a patent on an invention. Or you need legal protection from someone infringing on your patent or copyright... You get the picture.
As journalist Steven Johnson explains in Future Perfect, "The progress made in preventing drunk driving or teen pregnancy or juvenile crime isn’t coming from new gadgets or silicon valley startups or massive corporations. The progress instead is coming from a network of forces largely outside the marketplace, from government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes, and the wisdom of life experience shared across generations. Capitalism didn’t reduce the number of teen smokers. In fact, certain corporations did just about everything they could to keep those kids smoking. Remember Joe Camel? The decline in teen smoking came from doctors, regulators, parents and peers sharing vital information about the health risks of smoking. We don’t hear enough about this type of social progress for several reasons. First, we tend to assume that innovation and progress come from market environments, not the public sector. This propensity is no accident. It’s the specific outcome of how public opinion is shaped within the current media landscape. The public sector doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its success."
Thus, it's easy to discount all of the ways in which the government works, especially when only examples of incompetence and disgrace linger in our minds.
It’s not dissimilar to how the only news that makes headlines is bad news. There’s no nightly news story when the traffic is good. There’s no problem when our schools are safe. There’s no newsflash when it's sunny and 72 degrees.
We’ve heard these rebranded talking points so many times, we believe them, even though they are not entirely accurate. This is a confirmation bias – the result of years of paying attention to information that confirms what we believe, while ignoring information that challenges preconceived notions.
When we are primed to think of government as inefficient, we remember only examples that reinforce it, at the expense of contradictory examples.
Here, I’ll prove it.
Which would you rank higher on incompetence: United States Post Office, or United Airlines?
You likely picked the Post Office. After all, how many times have they lost a package?
Now by comparison, how many times has an airline lost your luggage?
Despite the rate of missing baggage being close to that of missing packages, you probably think the Post Office is more incompetent.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that you’ve likely had thousands of pieces of mail reliably delivered to you in your life, for free, around the same time, every day.
Yet you’ve likely only flown a couple dozen times, and have only checked your bags a couple dozen times at most.
But yet the Post Office, despite having successfully delivered packages to you over your lifetime, is viewed as more incompetent than the airline industry.
And it’s simply because that’s how we’ve been primed to think, then reinforced by the confirmation bias, discounting all examples that would suggest otherwise.
Let's try another: Which would you rank higher on incompetence: United States Post Office, or United States military?
This may seem obvious, but consider how many people die when the military makes a mistake compared to that of the Post Office.
And yet, no one would dare question the competency of - and faith in - the armed services.
Nevertheless, more than 20% of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed not by enemy combatants but in “non-hostile” circumstances, including friendly fire, suicide, illness and accidents.
According to the U.S Department of Defense, 45 died from friendly fire, and 757 soldiers died in accidents. The number of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan is even higher: 132,000 innocent people.
Yet instead of politicians trying to defund, destroy, or demonize the military, we got deflection.
When former football player Pat Tillman left his professional career to enlist in the army, he was accidentally shot and killed by his fellow soldiers. However, the Bush Administration covered up the gross negligence, claiming he had been shot by enemy fire.
My aim is not to trivialize these deaths or defame the military. The point is to illustrate the inconsistency in government derision, and to question the purpose of highly-specific anti-government rhetoric.
Our conservative leaders drill into us how inept our goverment is - but only in the departments providing provisions for the poor and minorities.
And these are NOT departments that result in unnecessary deaths.
When do people die?
When you take away healthcare, welfare, public hospitals, and weaken veteran affairs. When you cut school lunches and nutrition programs. When you defund stem cell research and scientific studies. When you allow our mentally ill to roam the streets homeless.
Or in standard military operations.
But hey, at least we aren’t wasting money on the undeserving poor, right?
"Our cynical political culture devalues social welfare programs and snickers at communitarian impulses, and most of us trust neither our neighbors nor the public institutions that are meant to serve us," writes Rosa Brooks in How Everything Became War, and the Military Became Everything. "The distrust is unmerited; the more we devalue public programs, the less we fund them – and the less they can offer us, the less we trust them, and so on. The military is all that’s left: the last institution standing.”
"The suspicion of the public authorities, periodically elevated to a cult by Know Nothings, States' Rightists, anti-tax campaigners and - most recently - the radio talk show demagogues of the Republican Right, is uniquely American," writes historian Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land.
"It translates an already distinctive suspicion of taxation (with or without representation) into patriotic dogma. Here in the U.S., taxes are typically regarded as uncompensated income loss. The idea that they might also be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation (roads, firemen, policemen, schools, lamp posts, post offices, not to mention soldiers, warships, and weapons) is rarely considered."
Perhaps the primary reason for public policy’s failure over the last quarter century is because we no longer trust the government to solve our problems. And why should we, when as long as “public officials are and remain inefficient, the public will sicken of incompetence and rely exclusively on corporate enterprise,” stated a former president of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. “That means less competition and more profit.”
The decline in our faith in the government can be traced back to the Vietnam and Watergate scandal. The American public was wary with corruption and mismanagement. Conservative leaders and capitalistic opportunists seized on this growing discontent.
Reagan tapped into the raw nerve of Americans, and he exploited their anger, frustration, and vulnerability by targeting the government. He repeatedly dished out what Tamara Draut calls a trifecta of conservative philosophy:
1. The government is the problem (myth)
2. Tax cuts and free markets are the engines of growth (myth)
3. Individual responsibility is the cornerstone of democracy
Tamara Draut writes, “A well-funded network of radio talk-show hosts, newspaper columnists, and TV pundits created an echo chamber for the conservative movement.”
The result? A generation who came of age viewing the government’s institutions with distrust, and blaming their economic struggles on their own missteps, brainwashed that a free market is the “best tool to deliver opportunity, even though the market has failed to deliver adequate child care or health care.”
This disinterest in our own government has led to a massive checking out by the public. While we weren’t keeping tabs, the government decimated college financial aid, let the minimum wage fall to historic lows, and reengineered the tax code to tax income more than we tax wealth – meaning those who work hardest are most penalized, while trust fund kids reap the benefits of their investments – and utilize the country’s resources without investing back into their country.
What’s particularly disheartening about the Reagan evolution is that his parents were huge supporters of both FDR and his New Deal. And well they should be as FDR’s programs gave his entire family work – his father headed a federal agency to provide work for jobless Americans. Reagan’s brother Neil also worked for the same agency.
It was this foundation that allowed Reagan to prosper into the adult he became. Only when he became a millionaire in Hollywood did he suddenly adopt a greedier view of government. When he was on the receiving end of government works, he was a Democrat. When he no longer needed assistance, and was rolling in the dough, he felt no obligation to continue supporting programs that gave his entire family their livelihood and him a leg up.
Reagan allied himself with corporations and political interests that sought to hoard their income and discontinue investing in their country.
William Kleinknecht writes in The Man Who Sold the World, “[Reagan’s] constant attacks on the inefficiency of government, a rallying cry taken up by legions of conservative politicians across the country, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more money that was taken way from government programs, the more ineffective they became, and the more ineffective they became, the more ridiculous government bureaucrats came to be seen in the public eye. Gradually, government, and the broader realm of public service, has come to seem disreputable, disdained by the best and brightest…and the image of government has been dragged down even further by the behavior of politicians, who, imbued with the same exaltation of self-interest that is the essence of Reaganism, increasingly treat public office as a vehicle for their own enrichment.”
Continues Kleinknecht, Reagan “disenfranchised the average citizen by inventing the soft-money machine that made large corporations the real power in Washington. He weakened the enforcement of labor laws and inspired union busters across the country by firing the more than 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers and breaking their union in 1981. He empowered corporate executives to abandon the concept of loyalty to employees, shareholders, and communities and weakened the bargaining power of labor…Instead of public policy’s influencing the corporation to fit the needs of society, society is shaped to fit the needs of the corporation.”
Following Reagan's lead, even the DLC went further right and radically rebranded "earned benefits," like social security and welfare, to "entitlements," suggesting something for nothing.
But the idea that government can’t do anything right is a myth.
As Hedrick Smith writes in Who Stole the American Dream? “American history is replete with examples, from the Eerie Canal to the transcontinental railroad to the Apollo moon project to the Internet and the GPS, where the government has backed economic and industrial projects to build the nation’s transportation backbone or to create new technologies to enhance America’s competitiveness and than has handed them off to the private sector.” From laying telegraph lines to nationwide highways, to building the atomic bomb.
Continues William Kleinknecht in The Man Who Sold the World, “The postwar leaders of the United States…were unafraid to use the resources of the federal government to fulfill the nation’s potential. Within months of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, the government poured enormous sums of money into the funding of scientific research, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1959 and landing a man on the moon a decade later. In the same era, the Eisenhower administration began work on the interstate highway system, the largest public works project in the history of the world, eventually encompassing more than 46-thousand miles of highway… Medicaid and Medicare have brought medical care to hundreds of millions of Americans. President Johnson steered federal aid to local school districts for the first time and made higher education possible for millions of poor and working-class students with the help of federal grants and loans. Public broadcasting, funding for the arts, environmental enforcement, Head Start and child nutrition programs, millions of acres of national parks, and the National Institutes of Health are all part of the Great Society legacy.”
The government that created the atomic bomb is not a government of incompetence.
The government that created the Internet was not one of wasteful spending.
The government that sent the first human being to the moon is not one of lesser minds.
The only thing different is our national attitude and our leadership's commitment to these pursuits.
Tamara Draut explains in Strapped, “Government is nothing more or less than the vehicle for advancing the shared goals and purposes of the nation. There is nothing inherently “bad” about the idea of government stepping up to the plate and doing things that otherwise would go undone by the private sector. By pooling the resources of over 300 million people, we can get a lot more accomplished than if we all tried to patch together our own system of schools, roads, drinking water system, or libraries, as a pure free-market ideology would require.
“We have been socialized to believe that our government is ineffective, wasteful, and nothing but an unnecessary evil, and that is no accident. Conservatives have worked diligently over the last three decades to undermine our trust in government. Government became the bungling idiot that could do nothing right. Government was the spoiled child that took your money and blew it on baseball cards and lollipops. It’s time to shed this tired old view and create the government that we want. If we want to live in a society where healthcare is a right, not a privilege, where college is affordable, and where parents get a helping hand, then we’ll need to push our government toward setting new priorities, rather than starving it of resources and dismantling it.”
We have made a choice, albeit a coerced one, that business should be the progenitor of all commerce, technology, and innovation, and this is historically not the case.
In The Wrecking Crew, author Thomas Frank explains that as long as government is perceived as incompetent, more reliance will be placed on corporate enterprise, which is exactly what the corporate-controlled politicians want.
As entrepreneur Nick Hanauer has said, “Incompetence is endemic. You find as much incompetence in large private enterprises as you do in large public enterprise.”
Thus, government is little different from the corporate sector. The only difference is that big business can't prosper from government-run agencies.
You can see why politicans via their corporate sponsors push for privatization. Because if private enterprise had created the internet, the rich would have faster service, and the poor would have less access. And we would pay a la carte for each site we visit.
Just like when pharmaceutical companies fund research on a new drug, you better believe the study will result in the most positive outcome for the drug company. They have a vested interest in determining the outcome of the trial.
But when the government funds scientific research, they don’t stand to profit or debit from the study, so they do not affect the outcome.
There is no greater argument for government-funded research.It’s the only way to ensure no bias.
And there is no greater poster child than Martin Shkrelli, the pharmaceutical CEO who raised the price of an HIV medication from $13.50 to $750 overnight, a 5000% unwarranted increase, even though the pill costs only $1 to produce. This price gouging is capitalism at its worst. As of today, the drug price has not been lowered.
Jeffrey D. Sachs explains in The Price of Civilization, “Scientific discovery needs to be promoted in ways other than the pure profit motive. This is done through status (Nobel Prize), financial support from philanthropists, government grants (National Science Foundation), government prizes, and other nonbusiness approaches.”
This is why when Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he refused to patent it, and refused to control and license it. Instead, he turned over the patents to the US and UK government to make it available for free to the world for the public good.
In other words, he chose the betterment of society and human health over his own greed.
Martin Shkrelli has not.
Fortunately, the majority of the public was outraged by this and attacked him on social media. However, the sentiment wasn't unanimous.
It became clear that as a people we have been so indoctrinated with capitalism and free market propaganda, that we no longer question if it’s working for us.
Something’s wrong with a country if when discovering a cure for a life-threatening disease, the question isn’t how many lives are saved, but how much money is to be made.
The drug douche broadcasted his capitalistic tendancies loud and clear in one singlehanded gesture that marks our nation's ethical lapse first initiated with Reagan.
If that’s capitalism, it’s little different than oligarchy.