Monday, September 13, 2010

Not Always a Fool

I know following the title you are probably expecting an autobiographical piece, especially if you are my always overly proud mother. I am, however, talking about our own federal government. I realize it is fashionable of late to kick the American Congress, Bureaucracy, Presidency, and Judiciary for their various foibles and, true enough, there are many of those. Who hasn't had an apoplexy after reading another story about the corruptive influence of lobbyists, corporate dominance of politics, or the sloth-like inactivity of our legislators?
I would like instead though to take some time to remember some aspects of our country's government that have helped our nation to achieve and thrive for so long. Maybe there are some things that we have overlooked in our urgency to condemn the bad that is done up in Washington D.C.
1. The World's First National Parks: We have a national park system that is unmatched in the rest of the world. President Theodore Roosevelt, quite an outdoorsmen himself, established the first national parks in the early twentieth century, while also passing the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to establish "national monuments" protecting land from development and making certain the land would belong to the American people in perpetuity.
Crater Lake was one of the first five national parks created and the Grand Canyon was one of the earliest national monuments. Today the National Park Service administers 392 separate parks and monuments around the nation, giving Americans the right and opportunity to see beauty that might have been obliterated by development and mining if our government, led by President Theodore Roosevelt, had not taken positive action. I spent some time last weekend enjoying the Blue Ridge Parkway, an addition to our National Park System built by the Civil Conservation Corps (a public works project built in the 1930s courtesy of Theodore's cousin Franklin).
2. The World's best Interstate Highway System: Our national highway system is a great example of how government spending can have positive unintended consequences. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as the American Interstate System was originally known, was created as an important component of a national defense network. Eisenhower, heavily influenced by his experiences with the impressive Autobahn in Germany, thought a much more thorough system of roads was necessary to protect the United States against the Evil Empire (the USSR not the New York Yankees).
Although Franklin Roosevelt is often accused by commentators of being a liberal spender, it is Republican Eisenhower's Interstate Project that logs in as the most expensive public works project in American history. As of today, the various highways created in 1956 by Eisenhower and Congress have grown to an amazing 46,000 plus miles in length. That is more road than any other country on Earth can boast. The added infrastructure was a great boost to American competitiveness in the global market, bringing down greatly the cost of getting goods to market. The distribution of almost every product you buy involves the National Interstate System (and if not it has surely traveled through an airport or seaport built mainly with federal funds).
The benefits for America don't end there either. With more and higher quality highways, its a lot easier to travel to all those wonderful national parks as well!
3. Electricity: Of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did spend impressive amounts of federal funds in his attempt to haul the faltering American economy out of the Depression (he was unsuccessful as only a much larger amount of government spending and government employment caused by World War II was able to do the job).
One of the Roosevelt administration's most enduring acts was the creation of the TVA or Tennessee Valley Authority. The American South was suffering the brunt of the economic downturn, as over-farmed and over-grazed land, no electricity, and little industry had resulted in crushing poverty for the region's inhabitants. The TVA helped turn their struggles around by "developing fertilizers, teaching farmers how to improve crop yields, helping replant forests, controlling forest fires, and improving habitat for wildlife and fish." (TVA website)
The main impact of the TVA, however, was brought by the dams the project built. These dams were hydroelectric in nature and with their construction light came into a land of darkness. People who had never experienced the joy of electricity were now on the grid.
Later federal projects brought the joy of televisions, microwaves, and computers (arrival time in your area may have varied) to places like my home state of South Carolina. In fact, almost all of the state's power is generated thanks to federal funding and construction know-how (the US Corps of Engineers are responsible for Lake Hartwell for example). Did you know that there are no natural lakes in South Carolina? Lakes Jocassee/Keowee (a state project), Hartwell (Truman), Murray (FDR), and Santee Cooper (FDR again) were all the result of federal and state government plans to develop hydroelectric power.
Even the largest corporations simply do not have the resources do enact these vast projects. Only through taxes and central government are we able as a society to put complicated projects like dams and interstates together. Their existence is of great assistance to private business, however, providing low-cost electricity for industry and a road system that allow for goods to get to market in a much cheaper fashion.
And don't forget, our man-made lakes are also great areas for recreation and most have large areas open to the public year round. So get out there and put your tax dollars to work by riding a jet ski drunk. (Editor encourages jet ski riders to stay sober even if it is a lot less fun)
4. Protection. Over the last century our nation's bureaucracy has grown by leaps and bounds as numerous agencies have been founded, most of whom go by three letters and seem to devote most of their time to spying. Whether they spy on the average American citizen or our country's enemies we don't know, as their activities are kept mostly secret. There are some three letter agencies, however, that are intended to work for the American people, to keep us safe and to defend us from the abuses of others. I will speak briefly about two in particular, the FDA and the EPA.
The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, was founded by Theodore Roosevelt after Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" provoked horror from the American people. "The Jungle," was intended to show the horrible working conditions among the meat-packing facilities in Chicago. Instead the book's accounts of disgusting items like human fingers and rat entrails being included in the meat that was sent out to the general public for ingestion caused an outcry for the federal government to take action. "I meant to hit the American public in the heart, but I missed and hit them in the stomach," was Sinclair's witty response to the furor his book created.
President Teddy Bear and Congress acted quickly, with the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, which was designed to protect the American public from misbranded foods and quack medications, in addition to the finger-food being produced by the meat packers. Advances in science around this time also allowed chemists hired by the government to better discover whether a product really produced the magical effects claimed on the label.
The FDA (which was first called by the name in 1930) was the first government agency designed specifically to protect the American citizen's health. The organization oversight authority expanded in the mid 1930s after the Elixir Sulfanilamide disaster resulted in the deaths of over one hundred Americans. Apparently antifreeze is not a good thing to ingest.
Various other frauds have been uncovered over the years as pharmaceutical companies that stand to make millions of dollars from various miracle drugs have not always proved to be the most scrupulous folks. Thanks to the FDA I don't have to worry about whether my Viagra will work or that I will be getting a Handburger the next time I go through the Wendy's drive thru.
I am getting kind of hungry after all that food talk, but let's take a minute to look at another government agency that delivers us from evil, the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, as this lazy author will refer to it from now on, also owes its formation to a stunning work of prose, in this case Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." The United States faced a huge pollution problem in the 1960s as industrial pollution was unregulated and out of control. Rivers were actually catching fire do to the amount of chemicals they contained, a function I do not believe God originally intended them to have.
Carson's 1964 description of an environment bereft of life as the result of the overuse of pesticides such as DDT awakened a movement that resulted in the EPA, formed in 1970 by none other than President Richard Nixon ( I hope most of the readership avoided a heart attack after that revelation - yes the environment was not always a wedge issue).
Since that great day the EPA has fought to keep America from turning into one big toxic waste dump. Our nation's symbol, the bald eagle, which was on the verge of extinction as a result of DDT, has made a comeback. Our air and our water are much cleaner than they were in the 1960s. I hear a lot about how regulation is a burden on business and hurts our economy, but I don't want to live in a country like our corrupt neighbor to the South, with their cities soaked in smog and their water even less drinkable than their tequila. No wonder so many of their citizens want to move here.
5. Employment: Our federal government is the largest employer in the country. Its not even a race unless you consider a sprint between Usain Bolt and a tortoise to be compelling theater. Fourteen million plus citizens work for Uncle Sam and another seven million or so toil for various state governments. That is well over ten percent of the adult work force (a total of 155 million or so).
These facts bring up many questions. How much worse would the recent recession have been without these jobs? What is the optimal number of government employees for our economy to run at its smoothest? Is there even such a number? How many government jobs are vital to our nation and how many are superfluous make-work positions or needless bureaucratic layering?
I don't know the answers to these questions and I have argued against some government employment, like our vastly over-sized military, in the past. I do know, though, that many of the people who work these jobs are thanking God, Buddha, Satan, or whomever that they have a steady income during these tough times.

I could continue on, talking about Social Security, Medicare, OSHA, etc, but I think you get the point. I leave you now hopefully with a better impression of the good things that government is capable of when the right people are in charge and motivated to push the forces under their command in a direction that brings positive change to the American people. We sure as hell deserve it for all the other crap we have to put up with...


Jim Fisher said...

When are you running for office Alastair?

Alastair McCandless said...

Couldn't do it Jim, I am no good at lying to people.

R. Mera Velásquez said...

I do love national parks. Smokies+Tetons+Yellowstone+Glacier, all in 9 days. Amazing. Glacier, especially. ... I think of Robert Frost... for destruction ice is also great and would suffice,