Government is Bad. Capitalism is Good.

Or is it the other way around?

Either way, we need more nuance.

Government (federal) has never been as Bad as it is right now. And back in 2008, Capitalism was never so Bad — not since the 1920s and ’30s, anyway, when Government stepped in and proved how Good it could be. 

But in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, we decided Government was Bad and Capitalism was Good. Regulation? Bad. Taxes? Bad. Free Market? Good. That’s been the prevailing mindset for the last 40 years. Virtually the entire country, it seems, has been drinking the Kool-Aid for two generations.

“In this present crisis,” Reagan famously said during his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

In a subsequent speech he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” 

 Ratcheting up Reagan’s rhetoric, the relentless trash-talkers of conservative media turned the American people against their government. In the four decades since, most Americans, I suspect, have bought to some degree the notion that “Government is the problem and the Free Market is the solution.”

As a result, by 2008, the Free Market had become far too free. Government wasn’t regulating effectively, and unregulated Capitalism, as it always does, grew reckless, then wrecked the economy. Part of the federal government’s job is to protect us from Capitalism’s worst inclinations. Economic inequality is the tell-tale sign when things are out of whack. Back in 1980 when government was officially declared Bad, the economic inequality gap was at its narrowest. Forty years later it’s at its widest and getting wider. 

A relatively free market can be Good. A completely free market is Bad. Effective regulation is Good. Excessive regulation is Bad. That’s the creative tension. That’s the dance. The same goes for taxes, which are, at their best, a necessary reinvestment in our people, using the people’s dollars, though hardly anyone seems to view it that way anymore.

We learned during the Depression that government could be Good. It happened again under Clinton when more efficient governance turned a persistent, pernicious budget deficit into a historic surplus. Under Obama, government action saved us from another Depression and led to years of uninterrupted economic growth. But the financial industry (and its main ally, the Republican Party) never learned the lessons of the Great Economic Downturn of 2008: The need for effective regulation by good government never ends.

But we no longer believe in good government. This is the fundamental contradiction of our national character: We claim to love our country, but we hate our government. Trump voters have been hurt by economic inequality. They feel left out of the American Dream. But instead of blaming bad capitalism, they blindly support the poster child of bad capitalism (and now bad government), the first president to embody both. 

The first step toward restoring our faith in government is educating ourselves because Americans, by and large, don’t know squat about it. And too often that includes the people who get elected to run it.

That kind of ignorance is dangerous, says author Michael Lewis in his new book The Fifth Risk, which serves as an inside guide to what our federal government does, thanks to the unsung, genuinely inspiring people who do it — or did until the willfully ignorant and incompetent took over in 2017. The book also chronicles how the new regime puts us at risk in ways no other administration ever has. 

But we put ourselves at risk by not understanding how our own government functions and its vast potential for improving our lives.

“One day,” Lewis says, “someone will write the history of the strange relationship between the United States government and its citizens.”

This book could serve as the first three chapters of that history. Here’s an example: Food stamps. You know, the program Republicans are always trying to cut or kill altogether? The average benefit is $1.40 per meal and 87% of the money goes to households containing children, the disabled or the elderly. Able-bodied adults are required to work or attend job training in order to get benefits, but the vast majority of recipients are not able-bodied adults. 

Private food banks distribute roughly $8 billion worth of food annually across this country. The food stamp program, meanwhile, provides $70 billion to feed Americans, which compensates for free market capitalism’s (and private charities’) insufficiencies. Since the private sector can’t — or won’t — raise all boats, government has to wade in.

Did you know food stamps are administered by the Dept. of Agriculture? If not, that’s partly because our frequently misnamed federal departments don’t promote what they do, so we don’t know it’s happening. We honor our military at every turn but we dishonor the other two million federal workers — many of whom are currently furloughed while Trump uses them as bargaining pawns.

Need more examples? According to Lewis, “A guy in the Energy Department (Frazer Lockhart) organized the first successful cleanup of a nuclear weapons factory, in Rocky Flats, Colorado, and brought it in 60 years early and $30 billion under budget. A woman at the Federal Trade Commission (Eileen Harrington) built the Do Not Call Registry, which spares the entire country from trillions of irritating sales pitches. A National Institutes of Health researcher (Steven Rosenberg) pioneered immunotherapy, which successfully treated previously incurable cancers. There were hundreds of fantastically important success stories in the United States government. They just never got told.” 

If you want to learn more about how much good the awful, good-for-nothing, always-to-be-blamed federal government has done, Google the “Partnership for Public Service.” 

You might be pleasantly surprised.  

Join the discussion on social media!