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Things are getting better, slowly, because of government

Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker’s new book is “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.” That’s also a pretty good summary of his talk.

Jacob Hacker speaking during Thursday's Westminster Town Hall Forum.
Westminster Town Hall Forum/Pablo Jones

From Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker’s talk on Thursday at the Westminster Town Hall Forum:

“The headline that you’ll never see is: ‘Things are getting better, slowly, because of government.’ But it’s actually the truth.  And if we use government more, things will get better faster.”

If I didn’t write another word, you’d have Hacker’s main argument. His new book, with co-author Paul Pierson, is titled: “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.” That’s also a pretty good summary of his talk.

The United States is neither a capitalist nor a socialist country. The economy is best described as “mixed.” Private businesses, which can make their owners and executive far wealthier than they would ever get under an all-socialist system, coexist with elements of government intervention, like taxes, regulation, and safety net programs that are designed, in part, to take from the rich and help the poor but also to promote the general welfare and general prosperity.

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There’s nothing new there, although the inclusion of the word “amnesia” in Hacker’s title is surely meant to suggest that some people have lost sight of this basic element of our system, and have declared a “war on government,” based on the premise, or at least the rhetoric suggesting that government activity should not be viewed as a balance against the potential excesses of capitalism but as an inherent subtraction from freedom and liberty.

If that sounds like an overstatement of just how anti-government the “liberty wing” of the Republican Party has become, I would remind you of what Grover Norquist, one of the leading anti-government campaigners of recent decades, told National Public Radio in 2001: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

The “amnesia” part of Hacker’s title seems meant to suggest that those who crusade against government have cleansed their memories of anything positive that has been accomplished in U.S. history as a result — at least; in part — of government activity.

Hacker says that America’s rise during the 20th century to become the richest and, in many respects, most advanced nation in the world was undoubtedly due in large part to entrepreneurial activity in the private sector that made possible a massive expansion of prosperity that benefitted America in general, but that entrepreneurial activity was undoubtedly built on foundations built by a strong government.

At the beginning of the 20th century, three in 10 children in urban centers died before their first birthday and the life expectancy of ordinary Americans was about 45 years. Now it’s approaching 80 years. Have government programs to clean up air and water contributed to that? Have massive government investments through government agencies like the National Institutes of Health led to improvements in health care practices and in the creation of new vaccines? Do the estimated eight million lives that have been saved by regulation of the tobacco industry owe something to government action?

Hacker thinks so and he argued in his talk on Thursday that leaders of American business once understood the positive role that government could play and helped these programs along. He did a riff Thursday comparing the father and son team of George and Mitt Romney to illustrate the point.

George Romney started out poor and never graduated from college but worked his way up to the presidency of American Motors (then one of the Big Three U.S. auto companies). According to Hacker, he once turned down a raise that the AMC board wanted to give him because he didn’t think he should get one when the company’s workers weren’t getting one. George Romney became governor of Michigan and used his national influence against the drift of the Republican Party to the right, criticizing and opposing the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater because of Goldwater’s far right agenda.

Hacker read aloud a quote from George Romney, in that context, that seems awfully prescient about the coming age of partisan polarization, thus:

“Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.”

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Mitt Romney didn’t start out poor (thanks to his father’s success) and was able, as a consultant (in, fundamentally, the financial sector that doesn’t manufacture anything like father Romney’s company did) to become a lot richer than his dad ever did.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Mitt Romney led the right-wing faction of his party. But he did – notably in his infamous off-the-record disparaging remark about the bottom 47 percent of Americans – identify himself with the “makers and takers” analysis that is connected to the current thinking of the current plutocracy.

Of course there’s a long-running American argument about how much government is too much. But, Hacker said, “the new idea that government is parasitic on a very small creative elite and the rest of society is mooching off of that elite is new to me and troubling.”

Fed into the political process, Hacker said, this argument and the tactics of the right to not only criticize government but to prevent it from functioning have created what Hacker called “a doom loop of dysfunction,” where right-wingers prevent the government from doing things that most of the country considers useful and “most Americans see that and are pretty unhappy about government so they turn around and reward the party that is attacking government — that is the Republican Party.”

Uttering words and phrases that are sure to horrify the drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub crowd, Hacker summed up, thus:

“The thing that I think we tend to forget, amid the barrage of negativity about government, is that we actually have used government effectively in the past, and because we’re not using it effectively enough now there’s a lot of money on the table. There are a lot of places where fairly straightforward things like investing in our infrastructure or the research and development that would yield a big return.”

Hacker’s Westminster talk (MinnPost was among the sponsors) was broadcast on MPR if you want to hear the whole thing.