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Government Works Fine, Just Not For You

John Atcheson

Recently, Bob Schieffer ripped into “Washington ineptitude.” Not long afterward, Ted Cruz wowed the crowd in Iowa with an extremist anti-government rant. And Rand Paul is trying to make bad-mouthing government the key to the White House. Nothing new here -- by now this narrative is a familiar and well-established lament – government  cain’t do nuthin’. 

The fact is, government works just fine.  Throughout history, government has pretty much done exactly what we asked of it, and done it extraordinarily well. 

For example, for the last thirty years, we’ve asked government to concentrate wealth at the top, strip away New Deal protections for the rest of us, and generally turn increasing amounts of power and wealth over to the rich and the corporations.

And guess what?  Government has done precisely that.

Let’s start with income disparity.  Between 1950 and 1968, income increased by about 80% for everyone.  That is, the richest 10% and the rest of us all prospered as the economy grew.  Since then, wages have essentially flat-lined for 90% of us, but not for the uber rich.  Between 1979 and 2007 household income rose by 275% for the top 1%, but barely budged for the bottom 80%.  The picture gets even worse if we look at wealth, instead of income.  The top 20% hold some 93% of all wealth, while the bottom 80% controls just 7%.  

David Cay Johnson points out that following Bush’s Great Recession, inequality has accelerated.   The vast majority of Americans earned just $50 dollars more in 2011 than they did in 1966.  If that  $50 gain were represented by 1 inch on a bar graph, then the gain by the top 10% -- $116,071 -- would measure 163 feet and the gain of the top .01% would take 4.9 miles to graph.  Yeah, that’s right – miles.

The same is true for corporate income vs. labor’s share of income. Today, corporations take a larger share of the nation’s economic pie than at any time in history.

Viewed from this perspective, government has been spectacularly effective at accomplishing its goals. 

Oh, and those two decades of shared prosperity from 1950 until 1968?  They were a function of government success, too.  Back then we were asking government to curb the excesses of the private sector – excesses that led to the income disparity that caused the Great Depression.

In fact, the list of government successes is long and distinguished.

Government took us to the moon, won two world wars, created the internet, GPS, the miniaturization that enabled the computer age; it funded and designed the green revolution; it created the modern aerospace industry; funded or discovered most of the fundamental medical advances we’ve made; made most of the advances in energy (including the technology that enables directional drilling)… etc. etc. etc.

So, yeah, government works just fine – it’s just that it’s no longer working for us.  That’s because it’s been taken over, lock, stock and barrel by a collection of self-interested fat-cats, corporations and plutocrats, aided and abetted by their Republican lackeys and Democratic enablers.

Basically, Republicans have been on a 35-year jihad against government, with the explicit purpose of rendering it incapable of delivering the goods for anyone but their constituency, and destroying people’s faith in government to represent the public good.  In one of the most astounding acts of legerdemain in US history, Republicans have convinced people that government -- the only force capable of protecting us from the power of disproportionate wealth -- is in fact, their enemy. 

Bottom line: the fat cats have conducted a silent coup using a three-part strategy to neuter the people and empower themselves while remaining largely invisible.  Step one was to impoverish government and destroy people’s faith in it; step two was to increase plutocratic power by increasing their role in the political process; and step three was to take over the media to make this explicit takeover of government largely invisible. 

Step one was accomplished by a massive investment in pseudo think tanks spewing counter-factual theories like “trickle down;” the strategic use of wedge issues; the creation of massive government debt by giving tax cuts (mostly to the rich); and a concerted effort to block any and all attempts to accomplish anything constructive.  Doubt that?  See the trends in filibusters or simply take Republican leaders at their word.

Step two was achieved by eliminating common-sense limits to campaign contributions and increasing corporate claims to personhood.  Citizen’s United was the capstone of this effort.

Step three was accomplished by eliminating the Fairness Doctrine –which required a station to present opposing points of view – and buying up media until it was largely controlled by mega-corporations.  As Bernie Sanders points out, in 1983, 90% of the media was controlled by 50 corporations, but today, just 5 corporations control 90% of the media outlets.  So now we have Fox-fixed news and a journalistic monoculture, and things like truth, accuracy and context have taken a back seat to “balance” and bi-partisanship.  And while Republicans spearheaded most of this shift, Democrats are complicit by their silence, muzzled, no doubt by their abject slavery to the moneyed interests. 

At the end of the day, the only force that can trump this power of money is the power of people.  Too bad we’ve been duped, fleeced and fooled into believing that government is inept, taxes are a curse, and an uber-free market our salvation.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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