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October 17, 2013 7:29 am

We hate government — unless we need it

Written by Don Amend

It’s been interesting — well, maybe that’s not quite the right word — to read about the protests people have raised over the current government shutdown.

Locally, for example, the closure of Yellowstone Park has brought people out to protest the loss of untold dollars in tourist trade, dollars that may mean life or death to some small businesses that depend heavily on that trade.

In neighboring South Dakota, many ranchers were hit hard by last week’s freak storm, losing many cattle to the snow and cold, and are receiving no assistance from the Department of Agriculture due to the shutdown.

Soon the game being played in Washington could have an impact on companies that fill government contracts, Social Security recipients (of which I am one), and government workers who, like air traffic controllers, are required to work but may not be paid for weeks or even months if the impasse isn’t halted.

All of a sudden, lots of people are realizing the big truth with regard to Americans and their government: we don’t want big government except when we do want big government. We like National Parks, safe air travel, safety nets in case of personal or community disasters, and many other things the government does, but we have trouble paying for it.

I’ve seen this sort of anguish before. Many years ago, after Californians passed an initiative drastically cutting property taxes, I watched as a TV reporter interviewed a Californian who said he had, in fact, voted for that reduction.

Well, the reduction had forced school districts to cut back, and one of the cuts they made was the elimination of summer school. This guy’s son had run into some discipline problems during the school year and had been expelled. He was counting on making up the credits during summer school, and the guy was pretty upset that it wouldn’t be available.

Well, I said to myself, what did you expect would happen? Did you think summer school was a freebie? How about all those other government activities — law enforcement, prisons, roads and bridges, air traffic control, border security and dozens of others? Are they performed by elves or what?

So, with all due respect and sympathy to those hurt by the Yellowstone Park closing, I have to ask the same question. What did you expect when you voted for our current representatives? And even though we sent a bright red delegation to Washington, Democrats (one of them is this writer) can’t be let off the hook, because the problem is bipartisan.

There are lessons for both sides of this debate. First of, contrary to what the anti-government crowd thinks, when you pay your taxes to the government, the money doesn’t just disappear down a big hole. It circulates through the economy by paying people to keep air travel safe, supervise parks and build infrastructure. Those tasks in turn attract people to national parks where they spend more money.

They may also allow whole communities to support private industry, as a certain Bureau of Reclamation project carried out more than a century ago does for the Powell Valley.

On the other hand, government can become too big, and therefore, too expensive. It can take on tasks not really suited to government action and persist in them too long. It often fails to eliminate programs that have outlived their usefulness or simply aren’t working.

Bureaucracies tend to grow and become bloated and inefficient — they do in private business, too — and government often fails to do the necessary streamlining.

The fact is, neither liberals or conservatives are blameless when it comes to spending money. They just want to spend it on different stuff, and they both play the language game I referred to in my last column. In that game, my government expenditure is vital to the economy and creates jobs; yours is an unnecessary expenditure that will kill jobs and possibly turn the U.S. into a socialist state.

Just listen to the protests from congressmen (liberal or conservative) when the government moves to end a defense contract that impacts their respective districts, even when it’s for a weapon the military doesn’t even want as just one example. Or listen to demands for a larger border patrol from the same people wishing to cut the size of government.

And both sides claim “the people” are on their side, and maybe they are, right now. But the American public is notably fickle, and even the least bit of inconvenience can cause them to change their opinion.

In any event, the political stalemate has reached the point where people are being hurt, and, this being a republic, it is up to Congress to resolve the problem. Rather than the meat ax method of sequestration, they should make intelligent decisions.

They should look at every program to see whether it is working or not and whether it’s cost is worth continuing it. If it is working, look at how it might work more efficiently whether by reorganizing the program or by eliminating tasks it shouldn’t be performing. Also look to see if there are people benefitting from a program who don’t need the help. 

Should huge corporations and land owners who aren’t dependent on farming for their income benefit from farm subsidies designed to help farmers who make it their livelihood? Should seniors with adequate incomes pay a premium for Medicare? Do we really need more border patrolmen, or that army of Transportation Safety personnel at airports? Should retirement ages for Social Security, including the early retirement option, be raised? The list goes on and on.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, is our tax system really fair and how should it be adjusted?

Then make the necessary cuts and, if necessary, tax increases, and do so by practicing honest politics, not by playing political games.

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