Keep in mind government’s good works

This past week I flew out to visit my 94-year-old dad in Vermont. We drove around a large part of the state, taking in the Green Mountains, the old towns chartered before the revolution, the pastures and forests and hills… Then I flew to Minneapolis and drove back to Seattle in a two-day, 1,700-mile marathon with my son.

The entire trip was pretty safe and seamless, thanks, in large part, to the federal government. Every time you fly, you are dependent on the federal air traffic control system. You don’t think twice about being up at 35,000 feet, because you don’t have to, as your airplane has been licensed and inspected through the Federal Aviation Administration. You are safe from terror attacks, thanks to the Transportation Security Administration. We may grumble about waiting, and taking our shoes off, and missed connections, but really, flying coast to coast in five and a half hours?!

Fifty years ago the Interstate Highway system didn’t exist. It took the leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican, by the way), to get the ball rolling. Now our country is crisscrossed with 47,000 miles of these high speed highways, thanks to the federal government. The cost was a little under $500 billion. We could never have built highways, or the FAA, if Congress had sequestered the money. And we’re crazy to think we can keep those systems running without funds.

Driving across Interstate 94, we wondered how far we had to go to Bozeman. So we looked that up on our cell phones. We think of cell phones as being the domain of Apple, Nokia, Samsung. But how do these work with global positioning? Courtesy of the federal government. Another initiative launched under President Eisenhower was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. DARPA developed the global positioning satellite system. GPS is maintained by the United States government and is freely accessible to anyone.

Vermont, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington … all across this country I got the sense that we are recovering from the great recession. It may be slow, but we are going in the right direction. Part of what enabled us to stop the economic freefall was the federal stimulus in 2009, 2010, and 2011. That stimulus focused on infrastructure for the future and created jobs for the present. Money went to re-paving and re-building interstate roads, including I-94 in Montana. So we got a two-fer. People got back to work and their work benefited transportation for the next decade.

Unemployment insurance wasn’t around until the New Deal. Now it is a key cog for economic stability. Without it, tens of millions of households would have lost all income in the great recession. Their purchases in the local economy would have tailed off, creating a spiraling-down effect that would have benefited no one.

The minimum wage was another New Deal legacy. When workers are unemployed, they have no bargaining power. So they are easy to take advantage of, and employers can hog more of the money coming in, instead of sharing it with their employees. At least the minimum wage puts a floor on that behavior, again enabling employees to maintain some purchasing power. Our minimum wage in Washington state is higher than the federal minimum wage and geared to inflation, thanks to the people voting for a minimum wage initiative in 1998. Without it, low-wage workers would be toast.

Before the New Deal, when you got old, you got poor. With Social Security, when you get old, you maintain some economic security and a decent quality of life. You are insulated from the economic rollercoaster. So when the recession hit in 2008, my dad still got his Social Security check, month in and month out. But if you had a 401K retirement account, you might have seen it drop down to a 201K account. Social Security provided the stability to weather the recession.

We tend to whine about our government, looking at only the faults and not the benefits. But that attitude ends up reinforcing attacks on the very programs we value. Do we really want to cut Social Security benefits? How about cutting 57,000 kids off of Head Start, thanks to sequestration? Instead let’s celebrate our government this Labor Day. And then get to work rebuilding and refunding public services. That’s what government in our democracy is.

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute ( He can be reached at

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