In normal times, I fantasize that something I see or say might help save the world. I’m aware of the grandiosity of my ambitions—and their psycho-spiritual roots—but what can I say? “An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own,” wrote Shakespeare. But when the current pandemic hit a triple (virus, climate crisis, and response to violence against Black people), the locus of my anxiety shifted. I wasn’t worried that whatever ideas I might offer wouldn’t get a hearing. I started to worry instead that I had run out of ideas. But I see now that I temporarily succumbed to confusion: too many trees, not enough forest.
Our collective situation is what the policy wonks call a “wicked problem,” something so complex, so layered with multiple interdependent causes and effects, that no single solution can be found. All by themselves, the current triplets are wicked problems. Who has the one-liner that can solve public health, racism, or global scorching? I vote for The Golden Rule, but how exactly does that translate into practical solutions?
The question I’m asking now is summed up best in the book of Hosea in the Hebrew Bible, when the prophet declares, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
What is the whirlwind we are reaping now?
The answer seems sadly obvious, and despite the wicked complexity of our challenges, pretty simple. We are coming up on more than forty years of systematic sabotage of the public sector, a multi-part campaign to commandeer the public interest, bringing us to this pass. Our essential task now is to uplift and support the public interest, because a robust, democratic, accountable public sector is what can save us.
Core to the anti-government campaign has been sowing the idea that the public sector is vastly inferior to the market economy in competence and effectiveness. Almost exactly 34 years ago at a press conference Ronald Reagan, focusing on the farm economy, laid out the key campaign theme: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” Reagan’s words rested on a foundation laid more than a decade earlier through the concerted effort of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to discredit government (a campaign well-explained in the 2011 film Heist: Who Stole The American Dream?, which I’ve recommended before).
Actually existing U.S. government is badly flawed, no question. So the campaign has been helped along by government’s failings. The U.S. government, well before #IMPOTUS showed up to deliver the coup de grace, squandered far too much of our commonwealth on war and punishment, acted too slowly and too little on climate crisis, pushed housing policies that enforced segregation, and appallingly much more. The history—slavery, genocide, predatory capitalism—set things in motion, and each era brought fresh reasons for outrage.
At the same time, government provided a social safety net for many people, achieved more employment diversity than the private sector, both military and civilian; and (depending on the particular administration) maintained public oversight and accountability for sectors that would have preferred self-management by maximum predation (and are getting their wish now).
Neither government’s sins nor its successes cancel the truth that most of the things a large and complex society must do to protect life and livelihood are intrinsically social goods, part of our commonwealth, that must be supported by and accountable to all. Private sector initiative counts for a lot. We see a tremendous amount of volunteerism, social enterprise, self-help, and collective support mobilized every time there is a crisis: for example, feeding people unemployed due to COVID, organizing locally based energy and transportation to reduce climate impact, or organizing to protest structural racism and demand essential change. But private initiative can never be adequate to the need to husband and distribute fundamental social goods such as clean air and water, safe food, workplace health and safety, environmental protection, education, cultural development, and public safety. These needs are so massive and all-encompassing that to meet even minimum standards, they must be overseen by public entities.
Right now, during the triple pandemic, the federal government is not close to meeting minimum standards. In some places, states and counties have stepped in to good effect. But overall, the world’s worst case load, the phenomenal death rate, the escalating environmental harm as the current administration undoes regulation and invites exploitation, the daily toll of Black lives at police hands, of skyrocketing unemployment, of impending homelessness as government proves itself unwilling to act—all these and more are the symptoms of long-term poisoning of the body politic.
How has big capital sabotaged the ship of state? Why? The simple program was to convert things that must be social goods, sustained by and sustaining our commonwealth, into profit centers. States and municipalities should provide water and power at rates reflective of costs, but these essential services are increasingly privatized, especially in ways that end up penalizing taxpayers (look at the Enron-driven California power crisis, for instance). The horror stories of prison privatization are legion. For-profit healthcare provision and the obscene profits of Big Pharma are everyday headlines (the vaccine fiasco just being the latest case in point).
If one truth can stand in for the whole of this insidious campaign, consider one that Wade Davis highlights in Rolling Stone. In the Fifties, he notes, “The salaries of CEOs were, on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees. Today, the base pay of those at the top is commonly 400 times that of their salaried staff, with many earning orders of magnitude more in stock options and perks. The elite one percent of Americans control $30 trillion of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets. The three richest Americans have more money than the poorest 160 million of their countrymen.”
All of these phenomena, in which public interest takes a far back seat to private profit, were enabled and driven by cynical, lying promotion of the falsehood that the market is the best guardian of the body politic. In truth, however, the market’s incompetence trumps the public sector’s any day—the executive compensation scandals, sexual harassment scandals, unfair business practices, and business failures far outnumber government’s failures in the pre-#IMPOTUS era—and as government has failed quite a bit, that is saying something. The rise to the presidency of a self-dealing liar whose vaunted business success includes (to date) six corporate bankruptcies, an avalanche of nuisance lawsuits, and resistance to financial disclosure requirements observed by every previous officeholder is only the cherry on this poop sundae.
If you’re anything like me, you do not worship government or bow unthinkingly to its authority. You will always be working to hold government accountable and make it better. But to save the world now, we have another mission. This country cannot weather more massive crises without a public sector that has is accountable to the people, has our active support, and fulfills its responsibility to protect, nurture, and fairly distribute social goods without profit distorting the process. Restoring, revitalizing, safeguarding our commonwealth, living up to our stated principles: any hope of doing these things must be conditioned on exposing the anti-government campaign and its consequences, and putting an end to it.
I am most hopeful because the new crop of progressive legislators elected in recent years sees this and is working to make it real. It may not take many more to tip the balance. Take a look at Justice Democrats, Bold Progressives, and the Movement Voter Project to learn more.
We are facing wicked problems that can’t be solved by voting alone, although voting is essential. They require public action, public accountability, public trust. Are we helping? I encourage you to answer three questions I’ve been asking myself:
To what extent, even unconsciously, have you been seduced by the anti-public sector campaign and its drive to maximize profit? Think about what you say and do that concerns government. If you haven’t been pointing out the importance of the public sector in nourishing and distributing social goods, now’s a good time to start.
Have you been seeing what has happened to the public sector under #IMPOTUS as something unique to his administration? If so, take the time to understand how he is simply the culminating gesture in a decades-long (and so far remarkably successful) campaign to replace the public interest with private profit. Then tell the story.
Amidst the confusion of our triple pandemic, have you thrown up your hands and decided that these wicked problems yield to no solution? The moment is frightening and confusing, especially because stoking fear and confusion is how the right tries to fulfill its mission of obliterating the public interest. Don’t be distracted. Our essential task is to uplift and support the public interest, building the robust, democratic, accountable public sector that can save us now.
A love song that opens my heart every time I hear it. We all need that now, right? Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms.”