Government is a Tool

Step one: Break government.

Step two: Complain that government doesn’t work.

Exploiting the people’s natural distrust of government in order to control government, and by extension, ironically, the people, is not a new concept.  It has existed in politics since at least the time the Greeks invented the word, “politikos”.  Even this tactic’s modern iteration goes back about four decades, disguised as supply-side Reaganomics.  Those trickle-down tricks hadn’t worked before, didn’t work then, and don’t work now, yet they remain popular enough to win elections. 

Having recently been proven disastrous yet again in Kansas and Wisconsin, they are now being applied in Iowa.

It is a popular old one-liner that Republicans want to shrink government until it is just small enough to fit in your bedroom, and like most humorous political rhetoric it’s both funny and scary because it holds more than a grain of truth.  Yet the goal of today’s conservative movement is not so much to use government to control the American moral code as it is to use the levers of governmental power to destroy our faith in the institutions of government, and thus destroy government itself.

Indeed, it was that Republican patron saint, President Reagan, who famously quipped that “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem,” which is stump speech gold, to be sure, but it misses the point entirely.  Government is not the problem. Government is not the solution.  Government is a tool, like a hammer.  And like a hammer it can be used to build things up, or it can be used to tear things down.  It depends entirely on who is using it and why.

The Republicans are winding up their second year of having “the trifecta,” control of both houses of the Iowa legislature and of Terrace Hill, this after some six years of controlling two of the three.  In that time their budget decisions have turned what had been a roughly $900M surplus into about a $200M deficit.  They blame low commodity prices.  I blame tax cuts and the resulting lack of investment in the needs of Iowans.

Instead of taking Kansas and Wisconsin as our models for how government should be run, wherein we slash budgets, pretend to improve water quality, revoke workers’ rights, decimate public education funding and turn what’s left of that funding over to the private sector, perhaps we could take a moment to look at Minnesota and California.

Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota raised taxes on the wealthy and raised the minimum wage.  He invested that money in education and the environment.  Unemployment remains well below the national average, new jobs continue to be created by the tens of thousands each year, and farm fields have 50-foot buffers on each side of all waterways.

In California, an executive considered so Liberal they once called him “Governor Moonbeam,” Jerry Brown, is about to retire leaving a $6.1 billion-with-a-B surplus and a booming economy.  And oh by the way, their statewide minimum wage is $11.00, and in San Francisco, it’s $14 because the state still allows local control, unlike Iowa.

Also unlike Iowa, both states have invested heavily in education, K-12 and post-secondary, while Governor Reynolds has just clawed back $11M – from the current fiscal year – from the Regents’ universities because the Republican legislature cannot meet the budget the Republican legislature wrote, for the second year in a row.  Oh, plus another $24M cut from other budget lines.  All this shifts the burden to your property taxes, or forces needed local services to be slashed.  And don’t get me started again on what they did to Medicaid.

So when you find yourself buying into the idea that “Government doesn’t work,” ask yourself why.  Does that hammer on your workbench pound in nails or break windows all on its own, or must it be wielded with intent?

Government will always work for someone.  Lincoln said it should be of, by, and for the people.  He meant all the people, not just the ones in distant corporate boardrooms.

As the primaries approach and the midterm elections near, we are looking hard at candidates from county supervisors to the legislature to the governor and Congress.  As you choose your candidates, ask yourself who wants to use your government as a tool to invest in the futures of Iowa’s people, and who wants to use it to tear down our institutions. 

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