Government: the problem, or the solution to the problem?


Last week I went to the “Thinking Forward, Thinking Big” progressive wonkfest hosted by the Economic Policy Institute, Demos, The American Prospect, and the Institute for America’s Future.

The predominant message of the day was that an effective, activist government must function to enhance the common good. Having seen the self-destruction of free market theory, the unregulated, unrestrained financial chaos of capitalism, the implosion of those housing bubbles, credit bubbles, stock bubbles, and every other bubble, it’s clear that government has a very specific and crucial role to play. The function of government is to buffer the extremes of inequitable wealth distribution, fulfill common needs like universal health care and education of higher quality and lower cost to all citizens, and see to it that all get a share in our collective productivity. Government should be seen as an active participant in our individual and collective goals, uniquely situated to provide certain goods and services that the free market can’t or won’t. The timing of the conference at the very beginning of the Obama “Change!” administration was propitious, as everyone seemed to be infected with a sort of “anything is possible” kind of glimmer. Not your typical political talkfest.

The speakers portrayed the GOP as committed to destroying government. Their message is that government is bad, and more government is even worse. Anything government touches turns to dreck, everything should be privatized, and anyone who expects their government to deliver anything is a free-loading, shiftless, lazy, socialist, muckety-muck. By ceaselessly demanding that taxes be cut, the “beast” of government is effectively starved and its ability to deliver undercut. The reputation of government as the impediment to success, the thief of opportunity, lower than a snake’s belly, is bolstered. Free enterprise may be unleashed, and the consequences be damned.

Many speakers mentioned the social contract, the notion that we can collectively protect each other as a society from known perils, such as old age, injury, and unemployment. The social contract, they say, must now be repaired and enhanced, to include health care, education, pro-family labor standards, and some sort of income stability. Through well-designed government, where the conscience and the values of the governed are at the core of every policy, all of us, individually and as a nation, can achieve our utmost potential.

Here are some quotes from the Demos site, to give you a taste:

“The fundamental challenge facing this country is whether or not we make the structural reforms needed now to ensure that the new economy works for working people,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Institute for America’s Future. “This conference was the first step in what we anticipate will be a continuing campaign to describe and push for those structural reforms.”

“Today’s conference made the case for an expansive vision of activist government rather than the use of the stimulus as a temporary one shot,” said Robert Kuttner, founding co-editor of The American Prospect. “While the stimulus bill is surely necessary, it should be understood as a down payment on increased federal spending for social and economic needs that have been deferred for four decades.”

“The economy was broken long before the recent meltdown because we failed to improve living standards corresponding to our ability to produce more,” said Lawrence Mishel, President of the Economic Policy Institute. “As we work to extricate ourselves from the current mess, we must also focus on how to build an economy based on good jobs and shared prosperity.”

“What our economy needs is a substantial investment, now and for a sustained period, which will ensure growth, and restore the social contract that has so badly frayed the last eight years,” said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos. “A real change of course– not just a stimulus–is desperately needed.”

Considering the criticism leveled at the stimulus plan by its opponents in Congress, wholly contrary to the sentiments above, bipartisanship appears to remain an elusive goal indeed.


  • GoodReason

    I believe that the demonizing of the GOP by this Institute is exhibit one of why bipartisanship is failing. McCain won 46% of the popular vote; demonizing those voters means demonizing many “regular” Americans that the Institute would like to “help.” Or perhaps all those voters were just too stupid or venal to realize where their best interests lie? Maybe the philosopher-kings of these institutes should rule instead?

  • Joannie


    I live in Australia, but I just got notification that Obama is looking at serious early childhood intiatives, along the lines of the UK

    see: more info at:-

    this is all well and good, but, critics of the UK model have brought attention to the lack of gender equity focus in the policies, which are tending to reinforce gendered family patterns see:

    Family life and family support a feminist analysis, Brid Featherstone

    I am sure there is important and relevant work happening in Europe along these lines.

    best, Joan G