Like it or not, the financial crisis is quickly reshaping the last weeks of our national election. It would be great if that shift were producing incisive and specific ideas about what either candidate would do starting day one in office. Instead, we’re hearing about regulation and reform (Reform is what, exactly? Legislation? A spanking?), and both regulation and reform indicate expansion of government involvement in the ebb and flow of money in America. In fact, with the bailouts, that involvement is happening as we speak.
The election was previously about change, and at least as far as Republicans go, change usually implies a perception of less government rather than more. But the money crisis finds John McCain talking about government getting more into it, not less. McCain on Tuesday, September 16: “We cannot have the taxpayers bail out AIG or anybody else.” On Wednesday, he had changed his mind. Palin, if she’s ever pressed about anything at all, would probably want government to be more magical and enchanted like it is in Alaska. There, you can do one thing and say you’ve done another and nobody ever uses the words “big fat liar” in a sentence about you.
A reach for more government isn’t just happening at the level of Wall Street machinations or solely in the U.S. If you lean toward having our government step in with a big stick on gas prices, you should sample some of what’s happening around the world with the privatization of water. That’s right, paying a corporation for clean drinking water. Of course water rights have always been an issue in certain parts of the world, but scarcity pushed by global warming and pollution are creating water wars everywhere and shaping a kind of “hydropolitics” in places as diverse as Bolivia and Las Vegas. Imagine someone from Alaska telling you God had a plan for providing water for you and your children. You’d want more details on that, wouldn’t you?
Then there’s China. Big, populated China with its zingy, kooky, out-of-control capitalism and its filthy air and its poorly improvised human rights. The authorities in China (government) are promising to crack down on those responsible for tainted milk. The government has recalled dairy products from 22 companies after discovering that processors were adding the chemical melamine to dairy products as means of inflating the reading for protein content. The melamine has caused several thousand babies in China to suffer acute kidney failure, and there have been deaths. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo has called for dairy companies to show more “social responsibility,” but before that wish comes true it looks like China might expand the scope of its State Food and Drug Administration. They run a tight ship; in 2007 they executed that agency’s top official for taking bribes.
So while there are advocates of less government who remain noisy and staunch, what we’re hearing globally right now is a yell for more government. Even from rebels or “reformers.” And it seems logical that even the most isolated log cabin-dwelling survivalist nut job would still expect to enter his bank and find that his savings were being protected by the promises of the FDIC.
A Washington Post cartoon earlier this week showed a man being carried to safety by a (city government maintained)fireman, then asking to go back into the burning building so he could retrieve his “Government isn’t the solution, government is the problem” wall hanging. Not exactly a rib-tickler, but the point was clear: We want government in there, working, when we want and need it. When we do all of it ourselves, the human tendencies toward avarice (Enron/Home Loans) and sloth (don’t work to make the milk nutritious; just add chemicals) eventually foul us up. And then we go looking for Dad… or Uncle Sam… or whatever characterization the Chinese have for their government.
Unless China becomes Uncle Sam. In times of regular meat recalls and pharmaceutical company wonder drugs killing us, I’d still take our FDA over any Chinese regulatory agency. But if the U.S. defaults on the estimated $1.4 trillion in debt it owes China, maybe China buys the U.S. and we’ll be at the mercy of their government oversight. These are the guys that couldn’t get the air and water clean for the Olympics and brought you such hits as “Kids Love Lead Paint” and “Antifreeze in My Toothpaste.”
Government is never a finished tool of perfection, but rather an ever-evolving design with flaws and overruns attempting to help humanity achieve shared goals and accomplish tasks. Possibly we’ve come to believe that as our planet draws closer together with computers and capitalism, so will we also have parity and sameness in our governments, especially on shared economic goals such as rich people getting really rich and some rich people dictating what government does. In this current moment, where we are acutely aware that the U.S. not only contributes to global economic disparity but that the machineries our wealthy utilize to make money fall apart and make pain for millions of innocent others, maybe we can frame the new century with a deeper learned wisdom. One indication of that wisdom would be not returning to office the very people that have proven that they can’t run the government at its current size, let alone a bigger one.