Seeing the devastating effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and of wildfires out West, one cannot help but think about the crucial role that government plays in our lives. But while we accept, even celebrate, the role of government in the wake of such disasters, we are largely blind to the need for government to mitigate these kinds of crises in the first place.
Ever since President Ronald Reagan, much of the United States has embraced an ideological framework claiming that government is the source of our problems. Reagan famously quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Reagan argued for a retreat from the vision of an activist state and advocated instead a strictly limited role for government, one dedicated to core functions such as national defense. Outside of these realms, he believed, government should simply encourage the private sector and market forces.
Reagan’s worldview grew out of the 1970s — a period marked by fiscal mismanagement, government overreach and slowing growth. It might have been the right attitude for its time. But it has stayed in place for decades as a rigid ideology, even though we have entered a new age in which America has faced a very different set of challenges, often desperately requiring an activist government. This has been a bipartisan abdication of responsibility.
For decades now, we have watched as stagnant wage growth for 90 percent of Americans has been coupled with supercharged growth for the richest few, leading to widening inequality on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. It has been assumed that the federal government could do nothing about this expanding gap, despite much evidence to the contrary.
We have watched China enter the global trade system and take advantage of its access to Western markets and capital, while still maintaining a massively controlled internal economy and pursuing predatory trade practices. And we have assumed that the U.S. government can’t do anything about it, because any action would be protectionist.
We watched as financial institutions took on more and more risk, with other people’s money, effectively gambling in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose system. Any talk of regulation was seen as socialist. Even after the system blew up, causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the calls soon came to deregulate the financial sector once again because, after all, government regulation is obviously bad.
In this same period, technology companies have grown in size and scale, often using first-mover advantage to establish quasi-monopolies and quash competition. The digital economy was supposed to empower the individual entrepreneur, but it has instead become one in which four or five companies utterly dominate the global landscape. A new technology company today aspires simply to be bought by Google or Facebook. And we assume that the federal government should have had no role in shaping this vast new economy. That would be activist and bad. Better for government to simply observe the process, like a passive spectator watching a new Netflix drama.
And then there is climate. These hurricanes have not been caused by global warming, but their frequency and intensity have likely been magnified by climate change. Particularly calamitous hurricanes have their names retired, and in the last 20 years there have been about as many names retired as in the preceding 40 years. California has had more than 6,400 wildfires this year. The 17 hottest years on record have all taken place in the past two decades.
And yet, we have been wary of too much government activism. This is true not just in tackling climate change but in other areas that have contributed to the storms’ destructive power. Houston chose not to have any kind of zoning that limited development, even in flood-prone areas, paving over thousands of acres of wetlands that used to absorb rainwater and curb flooding. The chemical industry has been able to persuade Washington to exercise a light regulatory touch, so there is limited protection against fires and contamination, something that was made abundantly clear in the past couple of weeks. And now, of course, low-tax and low-regulation Texas has come to the federal government, hat in hand, asking for more than $150 billion to rebuild its devastated state.
We are living in an age of revolutions, natural and human, that are buffeting individuals and communities. We need government to be more than a passive observer of these trends and forces. It needs to actively shape and manage them. Otherwise, the ordinary individual will be powerless. I imagine that this week, most people in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico would be delighted to hear the words “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
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