HETRICK: No, Mabel, government is not a four-letter word

September 26, 2009

Last weekend, I dined with some friends who’d traveled to Indianapolis from all over the country. The company was delightful and the conversation pleasant—until the topic of health reform came up.

I sat at the end of the table, listening to the points and counterpoints. Then the person on my left said to the person on my right, “Well, you don’t think government could get it right, do you?” The “ew, ick” in my friend’s voice said that she didn’t think government could get anything right.

About that time, someone at the table cut off the conversation. “We all get along great,” she said, “as long as we don’t talk politics.”

The next morning, I watched Meet the Press on NBC. Host David Gregory interviewed President Obama at the White House. Gregory asked the President whether some of the criticism of his health reform initiative was, as some have asserted, racism.

The president said no.

“This debate that’s taking place is not about race; it’s about people being worried about how our government should operate,” Obama said.

“It’s an argument that’s gone on for the history of this republic,” he said. “What’s the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look after one another?”

This debate, Obama said, “always invokes passions … it was a passionate argument between Jefferson and Hamilton … Andrew Jackson built a whole political party around this notion that somehow … there is populist outrage against a federal government that was over-intrusive.”

Consequently, Obama said, “Every president who’s tried to make significant changes along these lines, whether it was FDR or Ronald Reagan, elicits very strong passionate responses.”

We drive on roadways and walk on sidewalks plotted, paved and maintained by government.

We obey stoplights and speed limits established by government.

We pray and protest under the protection of government.

We drink water provided by—or with standards set by—government.

Our garbage and sewage disappear because of government.

We flip a switch to enjoy light and heat regulated by government.

We deposit our money in banks with insurance provided by government.

We breathe air that’s cleaner because of government.

We enjoy social and human service safety nets (including health care and health coverage) because of government.

We battle diseases that would run rampant were it not for government.

We live in relative safety and get emergency help quickly because of government.

Every child can go to school because of government.

We can freely publish columns like this one and openly complain about them because of government.

So as citizens who benefit from government every minute of our lives, why do so many Americans—even those running for office—seem to believe government is evil, every tax dollar wasted and every public servant a bumbling idiot?

Are there bad eggs in government? You betcha, just as there are nincompoops and crooks in the private sector. But the vast majority of public servants do more with less than you’d ever tolerate in your own job.

Is there waste and fraud in government? Yes, just like the business and not-for-profit sectors. But with purse strings tight, scrutiny high and zero profit required, most governments deliver tremendous return on investment.

The key difference between public and private shenanigans and shortcomings is this: In government, they’re swept into the headlines. In the private sector, they’re more often swept under the rug.

So is it the cost of government that irks us? Big time. After all, what else do we see deducted from every paycheck?

But get this: The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, reports that “U.S. taxes are low relative to those in other developed countries.” The center reports that in 2005, among the 30 member nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, “only Mexico and Korea had lower taxes than the United States as a percentage of [gross domestic product].”

That leaves the biggest rap on government: Because of our long-held sense of entitlement, government’s everyday services and protections—and the people who provide them—are simply taken for granted.

If government has helped us “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”—why the automatic “ew, ick” when considering government as one of many competing payors for health care?

Further, why are free-market capitalists—people who presumably believe government agencies should have to compete with private companies to deliver public services (read: privatization)—so afraid of private health insurers having to compete with a government alternative (read: public option)?

It’s worth a civil discussion over dinner.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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