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The High Price of Mediocrity

According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, the top issues for Democratic voters are: war, Iraq, universal medical care (not necessarily health insurance) and torture/detentions. Next tier, in constantly changing order: power of the President, politicization of justice and abuses of Constitutional rights, energy & environment, education, jobs, poverty. Terrorism is there somewhere, largely in the form of speculation that Bush's belligerent foreign policy causes it.The top issues for Republican voters in the same poll are abortion, homosexuality, and tax cuts. Second tier: universal health insurance, the economy (mainly as protection of US wealth and living standards from foreigners, immigrants, energy shortages and the unworthy poor). Peripheral issues include education, freedom to carry concealed weapons, not teaching evolution, controlling stem cell research.

The war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are major issues for Republicans too, but it's not clear what priority they have. We hear glib recitations of "We have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here," dogged assertions that Iraq will be chaos if we withdraw, and patriotic declarations of loyalty to Bush, none with much conviction.

Underlying many Republican concerns is a general presumption that anything government can do the private sector can do better: free and unregulated markets can address all needs and wants and solve all problems, public and private. Despite the spectacular failure of the private sector to provide efficient health care for everyone, we are continuously barraged by propaganda about how bad government is and how wonderful is privatization.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer this week had an article suggesting that government workers freeload on hardworking taxpayers because public pensions systems are better and are protected against inflation and raiding by shareholders or executives.

Underneath this story, however, is a bigger story: The private sector isn't providing decent retirement or health benefits for the workers who have made them rich. In 2006 the Chairman and CEO of Goodyear received compensation of $17.3 million; in March 2007 Goodyear announced it was freezing its pension plan for salaried employees and increasing medical costs for salaried retirees.

The PD article also noted that school districts try to save taxpayer money by offering early retirement buyouts to older, experienced teachers, replacing them with cheaper, younger, less experienced teachers.

This raises the question: Who decides what level of mediocrity is acceptable for schools, in order to reduce taxes?

Republicans also labor under the myth that everything would work better if we "starved the beast" of government by cutting spending and reducing taxes on the wealth. But suppose we actually killed the government beast: no city water or sewer systems; no public roads, public parks, or public schools; only private police and fire protection, private postal service, and private air traffic control (except there probably wouldn't be airlines, either, without government subsidy).

The government beast built the interstate highway system, hydropower plants, our space program, the Internet. The return on investment for those programs has been enormous - jobs, home ownership, more access to college, recreation, opportunities for businesses - small and large. Indeed, where would Wal-Mart be without the interstate highway system?

Cutting taxes for the wealthy may cause some money to "trickle down" but mostly allows it to leak over into the pockets of the already rich, or drain out of the US economy entirely. Cutting taxes for wage-earners while taxing the rich, however, keeps the conveyor running. Wage-earners have money to buy things, stimulating production; money circulates, returning to the wealthy, who pay taxes that feed back into the system for public services.

We've seen the quality of health care delivered by private insurance companies. We know how well private oil and coal industries regulate energy and environmental policy. We've allowed a government that doesn't believe in government to botch disaster relief and foreign policy, and we've tuned out while elections are privatized by large corporations enjoying tax cuts. We don't yet know the full extent of the damages done to our Armed Forces, our veterans, and our standing in the world by the privatization of war in Iraq, though we are beginning to see what it is costing us.

These issues are now rising to the top, and there are signs that Presidential hopefuls and Congress are listening. Consider these polling figures:

  • Half of all respondents said they would pay more taxes for universal health insurance; Democrats - 63%; Republicans - 33%; Independents - 51%.
  • Most Americans think our involvement in Iraq is unacceptably mediocre: Things are going: very or somewhat badly - 69%; very or somewhat well - 29%.
  • We should remove or decrease US troops - 56% Increase or maintain troops - 39%.
  • Yet we are conflicted: generally speaking, government should do more - 41%; government is doing too much - 52%

How do we decide just what level of mediocrity will be adequate for our schools or for our health care system? How do we calibrate taxes and government spending to give us the outcomes we want for our nation? Should we, can we, privatize the common good?

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