Just Above Sunset
March 13, 2005 - Make it All Private

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Last weekend in Just Above Sunset in a discussion of what government is for the left side of things was summed up this way -


The idea is this - some of us believe Government is the preferred method to advance things.  And that was always the idea – from Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals alike, for most of our history.  Government – by the people and for the people and of the people and all that – was something we used to make things better.  Then the basic idea changed.  That is not the consensus now.  And where my conservative friends and I part ways. 


A lot of that was about social programs and the general welfare of citizens.  Is the welfare of the citizens the responsibility of government – with things like Medicare to assure no one suffers from lack of medical care, and Social Security so we aren’t swamped with elderly folks starving in the streets – or a matter of personal responsibility?  The lines of the argument have been drawn there.


Then via Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly I came across this -


Off Track

America's economy is losing its competitive edge and Washington hasn't noticed.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, March 2005


Drum sums it up this way: today's free market fundamentalists are coasting on the success of a previous generation's government interventionism.  These free market fundamentalists, then, who claim prosperity depends on keeping the government out of the way of business so the invisible hand of competition can fix everything, are ignoring how we got to be as successful as we are.  Government intervention made our prosperity possible.


Could that be so?


The Wallace-Wells evidence?  Some of it is here -


The land grant college system, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, provided the nation's farmers with expert guidance on the latest agricultural techniques to improve their crop yields. No entrepreneur could figure out how to mass produce cars profitably, writes Harold Evans in his excellent new book They Made America, until Henry Ford fought an aggressive bid against restrictive patents. The pharmaceutical, financial, and airline industries blossomed thanks to the creation of the FDA, SEC, and FAA, which gave customers some assurance of safety when they popped pills, traded stocks, or boarded flights.


... These investments and regulatory changes aren't merely tools of the past; it is impossible to imagine the '90s boom emerging without them. Early investment from the Pentagon helped nurture the Internet. The algorithm that powered Google was developed when co-founder Larry Page, then a Stanford graduate student, won a federal grant to write a more efficient sorting and search engine for libraries. The innovative new medicines that have driven the expansion of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries arose from university research largely financed by the National Institutes of Health.


Say what?  These weren’t rugged individuals who shunned anything that had to do with the government?  Do I dare raise this with my conservative friends?  Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, may recall a few years ago arguing with one particular conservative friend who insisted that the National Institute of Health (NIH) should be abolished because private medical/pharmaceutical companies would stop epidemics and end disease far better – if they were free to make a profit.  The idea was the government just slowed things down.  Rick was not impressed.  Recent problems at Merck and other of these firms – profitable drugs being suddenly withdrawn from the market when it seemed the profit generating drugs actually killed people (oops) – is evidence privatization of everything has its dangers.  I don’t think our conservative friend would change his mind even now, in spite of that.  He has faith in the market and that invisible hand that is always right, and no faith in government.  It’s a variation on faith-based initiatives, I guess.


Wallace-Wells says too that we pay a price for such faith -


For decades, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of its GDP devoted to scientific research; now, we've dropped behind Japan, Korea, Israel, Sweden, and Finland. The number of scientific papers published by Americans peaked in 1992 and has fallen 10 percent; a decade ago, the United States led the world in scientific publications, but now it trails Europe.


So Wallace-Wells calls for government having a new big roll in things like broadband, wireless, alternative energy, and healthcare IT (where I spend my daylight hours five days a week), combined with “a bipartisan commitment to policies that broadly encourage innovation.”


That’s not going to happen, is it?  The private sector is better at all that and having government involved would ruin everything?  The government should have no role in the economy – as that would just mess things up?  I guess.  I’ve heard that for years.


Kevin Drum then links to two items from CNN -


This - the United States has dropped from first to fifth in "making the best use of information and communications technologies."


And this - high tech CEOs' are real worried about our lagging broadband capability.


Will the private sector save us if we keep the government out of the business of business?  The evidence says no.  The country says yes.  Faith, indeed.






Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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