First published by The Hill on 1/18/2021
A new Biden administration could make government effective again after 40 years of Republican ascendency that deliberately made it ineffective.
Such swings have occurred before in American history. Theodore Roosevelt’s administration from 1901 to 1909 and Woodrow Wilson’s administration that followed used government effectively to weaken the grip of “Gilded Age” monopolists while strengthening the position of American farmers and workers. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal used government for the same purposes. The New Deal put millions to work on construction projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration, laid the foundations of Social Security and a social safety net and then financed the mobilization of the country’s vast unutilized resources to win World War II.
The New Deal approach, the effective use of government to help ordinary people, kept successors to FDR in power for almost 50 years from 1933 until 1980. Since then, Ronald Reagan and Republicans who do not believe in effective government have worked steadily to undermine it. Biden’s win and the retaking of the Senate could mark the end of 40 years of anti-government ascendency that deliberately prevented government from doing what polls show that Americans want it to do.
The country in 2021 is not unlike the country in 1933. It has under-utilized labor and resources that could be used to deal with the country’s problems. Effective government could deal better with the Covid-19 epidemic and recession, putting 13 or 14 million people back to work. Effective government could deal with the financial abuses revealed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and the rapaciousness of corporate bosses who essentially set their own outrageous levels of compensation. Effective government at all levels could make progress in dealing with the racism revealed by George Floyd’s killing.
Effective government also could make progress in dealing with the grievances of the white middle class. Employment in manufacturing is declining, and government needs to help the middle class as well as the poor adjust to unsettling changes related to the on-coming digital age. Effective Democratic administrations helped Americans retool themselves for the manufacturing era with programs like the G.I. Bill, and it could do similar things to facilitate economic and social adjustment today. Effective government also could modernize our infrastructure, improve our costly and dysfunctional health care “system,” provide life-long educational opportunities for everyone and create a full employment economy that is more generous to average Americans.
What stops us from doing all these things is the belief cultivated by anti-government conservatives that this rich country does not have the money to put its people and abundant resources to work. The government during World War II “employed” 16 million Americans in the armed forces whom Republicans had dismissed as untrainable and unemployable through the Great Depression. (See John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”) Millions of other Americans got jobs building unimaginable numbers of planes, tanks, trucks, guns, and ships. American farmers, who had suffered from low prices when Republicans opposed spending in the 1930s, rebounded mightily because the government bought what they were producing to feed the world.
These miracles happened during the war because the taboo against government spending, the bedrock of what passes for Republican “thought,” was ignored. Arbitrary financial handcuffs on the potential of the real American economy that produces goods and service were discarded. Government spending paid for the war and made millions of civilians better off. A huge, better-educated middle class was created in five years of 10-15 percent annual growth, and the rich also prospered enormously despite higher taxes.
Republicans have spent the last 40 years reinforcing the myth that government is dangerous and unnecessary, leaving trillions in economic potential on the table and in effect telling Americans that they must bow to those they call “job givers” to have economic security. They want to convince Americans that there can be no peacetime equivalent of the wartime economy. Their claim is that infrastructure as good as Korea’s is too expensive; that shifting to environmentally friendly sources of energy is too expensive; that better education is too expensive; that better and less expensive health care is too expensive; That better social security is too expensive.
Republicans denied President Obama the ability to rebuild the economy rapidly after the Great Recession, re-enforcing the sense of government failure that gave us Trump. President-elect Biden and Democrats will need to fight Republican efforts to keep government ineffective. If Biden succeeds, however, the country could have a new birth of balanced political power and prosperity. The fact is there is no difference between creating jobs and wealth with government spending for war as we did during World War II and doing so by financing modern infrastructure, environmental remediation, better health care, Social Security, and education. There is no difference!