By John Burbank
The Koch brothers are oil tycoons from Wichita. They inherited their oil company and initial wealth from their dad. They are multibillionaires intent on financing multimillion-dollar campaigns to elect politicians who want “less government.”
Sometimes our mutual reliance on government becomes most clear in tragedy. The whole nation is waiting in shocked anguish with the folks in the Stillaguamish Valley, where the Oso mudslide buried family and friends, homes, businesses, and Highway 530. In times like these, we thank the volunteers, and we thank the first responders, geologists, firefighters and other government employees on the ground. In the end, it is government that organizes the search for the living and dead, funds the trauma center at Harborview where the rescued are treated, clears the mudslide and rebuilds the highway. That is what we pay our taxes for. So when you talk about less government, think about what that might mean … How about a delayed 911 emergency call system? How about understaffing EMT and fire departments? Or how about not paying any Social Security benefits to the surviving children of the mudslide who have lost their parents?
This is the underlying problem with the mantra of “less government.” When you break it down, we don’t want “less” of the services government provides to its constituents. Take roads, for example. After the winter storms, and the roller coaster of freezing and thawing, our roads are a mess. Who’s going to fix them up? Not Boeing, and not Microsoft, and not you. Or maybe yes, you, in the form of taxes that go to the cities, so they can fix up the roads, and to the state, so that we can rebuild our transportation network for the 21st century. So with less government, what do we get? More potholes, more traffic jams, more time lost in commuting, more road rage.
Who suffers when we have less government in higher education? Our state has been a case study of that in the past decade. Less government means less public funding for an education at Everett Community College, UW Bothell, Shoreline Community College, and all the other community colleges and public four-year universities in our state. If you are a student at one of these places, or a parent helping to pay the tuition, you know the impact of less government. You pay directly, with tuition doubling while your paychecks are stagnant, or shrinking. UW tuition by itself is almost a quarter of the typical family’s income. Students are leaving school with a ball and chain of student debt that averages over $20,000. That’s a lousy way to start out as a working adult: deep in debt. That’s thanks to less government.
Some “less government” advocates would like to take on Social Security and Medicaid. They promote cutting benefits and shifting more costs of health care to the elderly. Of course, seniors as a group all have fixed incomes, and the vast majority of them are dependent on Social Security from one month to the next, meaning that they couldn’t come up with the money to pay for non-government private health insurance. With less government, we’d be setting them up to live and die in poverty.
With less government basic scientific research would be shifted to the back burner. When Bill Gates and Paul Allen started fooling around with computers, they weren’t doing it at their private high school. They spent their afternoons at the University of Washington’s computer center. That was funded with state and federal tax dollars. We would not have had the computer revolution with less government.
Less government translates to bigger class sizes for your kids in elementary school. It means fewer classes in arts, music and physical education. It means fewer choices in sciences. It means closing down vocational training. It narrows the pathways of learning and advancement from childhood to adulthood.
Less government means less help for families with children with lifelong developmental disabilities. No corporation is going to make a profit providing care for the severely disabled. That is a task that depends on taxes and public budgets.
So next time you think about less government, think about what you want to cut: police, fire departments, your parents’ Social Security, or your kids’ education. hat question helps to cut through the Koch brothers’ rhetoric and their political ads.
John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). Email firstname.lastname@example.org