In his weekly address last Saturday, President Obama said, “What’s being tested here is not just our ability to solve this one problem, but our ability to solve any problem.” Obama’s speech was about health care reform, but his point goes to the heart of the debate underway in this country – a debate that the Tea Party movement has given a sharp edge.
American’s have lost their confidence in the basic institutions of our democracy. It’s not just the President’s rating that is down in the polls, it’s Congress’s, the United States Supreme Court, even the college system.
There is more than ample justification for this stark collapse of trust. As I wrote last summer, I believe it all begins with the crash of the Money Industry after years of deregulation by federal officials who, quite simply, sold out – and then showered billions of taxpayer dollars to save the speculators while the rest of the economy, along with millions of people’s jobs and savings, went into the tank. Even now, the Wall Street execs whose greed and speculation caused the crash continue to call the shots in D.C.
After that pitiful performance by our government, who can blame people for distrusting Washington’s plan to fix the health care system?
Lately I’ve been pondering two other disasters that might have been averted had government done its job.
An appendix (PDF) to the 2004 report of the 9/11 Commission describes in agonizing detail how our government was unable to mount a defense of the nation that day despite trillions of dollars spent on defense and the military in preceding years. That morning, there were only fourteen jet fighters guarding the country. Flight controllers couldn’t connect the dots as the multiple hijackings unfolded; FAA officials failed to follow procedures to communicate with the military; scrambled fighters were too far away and sent to the wrong locations; the military never even knew how many or which commercial airplanes were involved until all four were down. A fateful order from the White House to shoot down any commercial planes that refused to land never even reached the fighter pilots who by then were flying combat cover over the East Coast.
On that horrible morning, it was only when individuals took matters into their own hands – the passengers of United 93 who fought the terrorists as their plane headed for a strike on he nation’s capitol, or an FAA manager who ignored protocols and unilaterally ordered all planes in the air to land – that more lives were spared.
Or, consider the case of Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama professor who shot six colleagues a few weeks ago. As rendered by the New York Times, her profile now, after the deed, reads like the description of “angry loner” we have grown familiar with from previous mass murders, but no one ever connected the dots of her obviously deranged life. In 1986, she killed her brother but claimed it was an accident and got off, perhaps due to political connections; in 1993, she was questioned in connection with a pipe bomb sent to one of her college professors; in 2002, she punched a women in the head at a House of Pancakes for taking the last booster seat.
What to do, then, about such profound failures by government? Do we follow the suggestion of Glenn Beck, who over the weekend blamed progressivism – the philosophy of engaged government championed by Theodore Roosevelt – for our nation’s ills?
I’m not one of those people who is offended by the eruption of angry Tea Party organizations around the country. To the contrary, the TP’rs are raising questions, pointing out problems and demanding answers from elected officials – just what an active citizenry is supposed to do.
But I disagree with their premise, which is that government is responsible for all that is wrong with our country, and that the solution therefore is a castrated federal government or no federal government at all.
We need police. We need the military. We also need a cop on the corporate beat in the executive suites of Wall Street. And we need rules and regulations to prevent health insurance companies from ripping us off or condemning us to death.
When our government institutions fail us, as they have, through incompetence and corruption, the answer is not to get rid of government, but to make it work better. How to do that? Read my next column.