Big Government and the Big Easy

“…each proposal must be weighed in the light of…the need to maintain balance between the private and the public economy;
— from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Military-Industrial Complex” speech, 1961

New Orleans languishes today in a state of economic disrepair. With disruptions to the normal balance of life so complete, the traditional paths to economic recovery—aid, grants, job programs, private charities—cannot take hold. The self-healing, virtuous circle has been severed: no jobs, no people, no people, no jobs. When economic activity comes to a dead stop, what or whom steps in as the Prime Mover?

America is a nation of near-boundless resources. The material needs posed by New Orleans’s plight are eminently surmountable. Given the abysmal public sector response to Katrina’s aftermath, the question begs asking: Does this country’s leadership still possess the ingredients of character—spirit, leadership and ideology—to make possible today what it accomplished for other nations fifty years ago?

Indeed an example exists in recent American history that dwarfs New Orleans in every logistical metric. The manifold challenges posed by WWII and its aftermath ushered in a golden age of public service in America. Intent on doing whatever was needed to secure the larger effort, the best and the brightest gravitated towards government. Money was an afterthought. Greed was still a deadly sin, hardly an ethos. This public spirit was put to the test again rebuilding a ravaged Europe at war’s end. America faced the New Orleans’ catch-22, but on a vaster scale. Yet the question was the same: how does a society rescue its traumatized economy from the death-spiral of low employment and profoundly disrupted supply?

Summarizing Dean Acheson’s watershed foreign policy speech of May 1947, David McCullough, in his biography Truman, says this:

The stricken countries of Europe needed everything and could afford to buy nothing. Financial aid was imperative, but, as Acheson stressed, the objective was not relief, it was the revival of industry, agriculture and trade.

This was market-making of the highest order. Nothing of its magnitude had ever been attempted before. Exceeding even the revolutionary era (forever besmirched by the stain of slavery), the nation has never been endowed with such an array of morally sound men. George Marshall, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan and Dwight Eisenhower threw themselves into winning the peace with the same intensity displayed during the war. Realizing the private sector lacked the resources to launch products and markets with crucial simultaneity, these gray-haired titans of public service crafted the Marshall Plan, or as it was formally known, the European Recovery Program.

This effort, combined with the two pillars of post-war entitlement, the GI Bill and the VA Loan, got the world back to business in a hurry. The government’s central role was soon forgotten in the mad dash to prosperity. How forgotten? Today it’s fashionable for the beneficiaries of this massive public sector initiative to rail against the evils of meddlesome government.

The Republican Party, chafing at the massive $17 billion price tag, opposed the Marshall Plan initially. But then, so did the Left, specifically the American Progressive and the American Communist parties. Traditionally, when a fundamental imperative looms large in America, there is a pragmatic strain that rises up, dispatching ideological purists. For a number of reasons, ideological exactitude lends itself more to intellectualized, perhaps even effete, European politics. In their heart of hearts, Americans believe in common sense. After hard lobbying from Truman, the Marshall Plan passed with near-unanimity in 1948.

Political parties are loath to champion a hero not of their own stripe. Neither Right nor Left is prone to recite the following ideological inconvenience: the American government was the unabashed hero of the WWII era. Neither the industrial class, nor the American proletariat alone could have triumphed over fascism. In a sterling example of the whole exceeding the sum of its parts, the system of arrangement, the governing principle i.e. the government itself provided the crucial element for success. So a belated "hurray" for government!

Captains of industry are not renowned for their generosity of spirit. Sharing credit, especially with the public sector, is tantamount to requesting a boost in the corporate income tax rate. But the fact is the profit motive owes its motive force to an a priori climate of relative stability. Stated another way, business thrives in, but hardly creates, the polis. Good governance is thus a necessity for profitable enterprise. Yes, Virginia, business needs government more than government needs business. For anyone doubting the order of this sequence, go visit Haiti.

Perhaps America’s moral climate—reflected undeniably in its public spirit—wavered in the ensuing fat years of prosperity. Thirty years after the Marshall Plan, Ronald Reagan, former GE pitch-man, would build a legacy on besmirching the public sector. The consummate shill, Reagan delivered his free-market devotionals with cue-card discipline—and 3×5 vacuities. As to whether his pitch was ever vetted for reality, well, veracity is hardly the first-order concern of a carnival barker. In fact, listening to Reagan, one might easily have concluded it was the free market—and not the free world led by free governments—that averted global totalitarianism.

On the contrary, big business is highly adaptable, getting along famously with liberal democrats and fascists alike. Though it was Eisenhower who would coin the term in later years, a military-industrial complex fueled the Nazi war effort; companies with exotic names like Ford, GM and ITT. Sound familiar? Yes, they were our war profiteers too. No sticklers on points of ideology, many venerable companies worked double-duty. With both sides needing bullets, industry was often spared the task of choosing sides. Flesh-and-blood public servants, raised to salute in one direction, were not so fortunate.

Nobody has ever been pulled from a burning building by a corporation. And yet, there is a certain school of thought that argues today’s corporations are big fuzzy citizens with feelings too. Of course this is the same school that believes New Improved Tide has perfected whiter whites. Yahoo and Microsoft, ‘progressive’ companies claming 21st century new paradigms, routinely hand over search information to the Chinese government. For this, people are jailed, perhaps even killed. Offering arrogance as a defense, these companies aver that China is a big market. Whew, thanks for clearing that up. They also admit, in so many words, that civil rights are not really their business; software is. After the left-hand-right-hand shenanigans of WWII, no one should be surprised at the amorality of the bottom-line-seekers. The question is, do we want an implicitly unprincipled force to be the organizing principle for our society, Walmart government at unbeatably low prices?

Today’s corporations, no different from yesterday’s corporations, would have America’s kids back in coal mines tomorrow if not for those persnickety child labor laws. Yet there is a plaintive echo of American exceptionalism in the notion that American children will never again suffer the plight of nine-year-old rug-makers in Lahore. After all, this country has "evolved" through its progressive era. Upton Sinclair exposed the meat-packers. The muckrakers prevailed. Had there been something intrinsically sacrosanct about America, surely our industrial base would have clung to the heartland in a determined effort to make things work. Instead, they headed off-shore to countries where labor activism looms in a very distant future. Progressive victories are reversible. Remove government and Junior would be jack-hammering igneous rock formations faster than you could say "adolescent black lung."

This is not a treatise for industrial policy or democratic socialism. Most of us would settle for such rudimentary prohibitions as no lead in our drinking water. Gulp. It’s just that those pastoral ADM advertisements should be taken with a grain of salt. Corporations are still the best little whorehouses in Texas. Their anti-social tendencies must be reined in to better serve the public good. Government is the only entity capable of doing this.

So exactly what type of system do the corporatists have in mind for us? By this essayist’s reckoning, George Bush Senior’s thousand points of light worked out to approximately one sixty-watt bulb for every 300,000 citizens. By design, old George’s ‘points’ were to be kept in a state of perpetual disconnect; in short, no organizing principle, no power-sharing grid, no Marshall Plan. This metaphor of patchy luminosity offers a glimpse into the corporatist agenda: Isolate the heroes and avert a national movement. Should the heroes die, as heroes often do, thousands fall back into the inky blackness where they’re easier to control. The abrupt and mysterious demise of firebrands such as Huey Long and Karen Silkwood suggests that something in the American ethos is hazardous to the health of populists.

In the current era of private sector blow-ups and rapacious greed a la Enron and Worldcom, Reagan’s disparaging typecast of the "lazy, bumbling public servant" (sad corollary to his mythic welfare queen), becomes all the more scurrilous for its unanswered character assassination. Reagan’s cynical renderings of the typical public servant made the despairing assertion that, if people are not working for obscene sums of money, then they couldn’t possibly be working at all. But we call too-large sums of money obscene for a reason. The suggestion here is that honest labor is not an innate expression of man, but rather something he barters up, always with a jealous eye cast to the bottom-line. This sounds like meretricious self-servitude, man counting himself out like so many pieces of gold. For many, some of the best things in life are done for free, without compunction, without monetary incentive.

Equally ludicrous is the idea that, faced with the opportunity of making just $30 million a day instead of, say, $40 million a day, Bill Gates would slip into such a dispirited funk that he’d stop creating software engineering jobs for kids in India. So please, no tax increases for the poor rich!

"Man-as-economic-automaton" theories tend to denigrate the preponderance of human endeavor over the ages, lashing them all to a Form W-2. Before Bill Gates ever thought to build a 60,000-square-foot home, he was a human stew of passion, incentive and drive. Marginal tax rates did little to encourage—or dissuade—him from doing what he appears to do exceedingly well. After achieving their subsistence needs, people, the worthwhile ones anyway, work for passion, not money. To say otherwise strips the humanity from human achievement. As many a starving artist will attest, there is much more to human aspiration than the mercenary impulse. Only a shill withholds speech for remuneration.

At this point, Thomas Paine or Patrick Henry might chime in, "We made free speech free for a reason. Some of us answer to the ultimate employer, our conscience." Light-years away from Reagan-Bush corporatism, this stubbornly inalienable aspect of free speech still strikes some folks as the quintessence of America. After all, what did our brave public servants fight and die for? The right to speak in the public square or Ronald Reagan’s right, as paid spokesman, to denigrate public sacrifice while extolling the virtues of GE? Even in this era of GE-underwritten broadcast "journalism," we must hope there’s still a difference.

As Reagan served his country during WWII in the crucial role of thespian, risking rashes from face-paint, it’s possible the more perilous and singularly unprofitable contributions made by others in the war effort were entirely lost on him. Or, as a supply-sider might point out, dying for ones country all but guarantees a precipitous fall-off in lifetime earnings. Such is the economic calamity that awaits public servants called upon to make the ultimate public sacrifice. In another time, we called them patriots.

When the National Anthem plays, micro-economists should remove their green-eye shades and avert their gazes in respectful silence. Defying profit motives, rational expectations and wealth-maximization theories, thousands of people who gave their lives in WWII were essentially broke. Yet heroism is not a venerable smokescreen for economic ineptitude…right?

How else to explain why the greatest contributors to our culture and civilization, gifted men and women, routinely die in abject poverty? Perhaps they received horrible estate planning advice. Perhaps they saw beyond wealth and power, poor bastards.

Produce a private sector resume that boasts the equivalent of The Marshall Plan, The Manhattan Project, The Interstate Highway System and the Apollo Program, and this peon to public sector accomplishment will be abandoned forthwith. Think of that apocryphal moment in American achievement when a bunch of government bureaucrats navigated a near-inoperable Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. It’s hard to recall a private sector accomplishment that rivals this moment of quintessential American genius. Stock options can only gnash their teeth enviously. Some pages from history demolish the best right-wing polemics.

One triumph of the Reaganite disinformation campaign is that being "for government" enjoys all the public cache of root canals. Even the Democrats have been cowed. No one champions public service anymore. This is hardly an appeal for government-of-a-million-paper-cuts or the stultifying omnipresence of a Big Brother involved in all things great and small. The Orwellian objections to Big Government are certainly valid and may yet come to pass. Yes, government-led fascism is something to be feared. But corporate fascism, with a quiescent government in tow, is every bit as oppressive. And it’s what we have now.

Rather, this is a tribute to the grand gesture, the noble human endeavor of monumental scale. It is the recognition that government, when allowed to think big, can tackle truly Big Things. Today’s government is overrun by small men with small ideas, custodians of narrow private interests, who are bought and paid for with private dollars. From these men, any pretense towards public service, in the time-honored sense of that calling, is a smokescreen for something decidedly less seemly. Follow the money trail to chart the animating principle of their public fervors.

Like Dresden after the war, the Big Easy is a big need awaiting a grand gesture. In a prior time, Marshall and Eisenhower would have seized the moment. As it is, the city awaits a public sector largesse and commitment that may belong to a bygone era. One wonders whether the city suffers further disadvantage since it beckons from within. Power, particularly in its current permutation, insists on staring outward, in search of fresh new axes of evil. Because New Orleans is in America, it’s like a discarded lover, long since conquered, seduced and subdued. FEMA would do well to take a lesson from Hezbollah who wasted no time distributing charity at home.

Instead, our leaders appear bored at the prospect of swabbing the decks of the Big Easy. After all, New Orleans is a national embarrassment in which no vainglorious war-hawk wishes to be caught dead. The photo ops are horrible. These guys live to exude power; not wade, ankle-deep, in muck and pathos.

So that’s where we are. Short of blowing things up, it’s impolitic today to be seen exhibiting much proficiency in government. As J. Edgar Hoover might opine, a too-hearty appetite for public service has the smell of communism or worse, flagrant homosexuality.

George Marshall was as brilliant and committed in peace as he was in war; from Army Chief of Staff during WWII to Secretary of State in his "second career" as diplomat. Reagan’s heirs, by contrast, must always be seen to be bristling under their public mantles. After all, they inhabit a role they’re ideologically on record as detesting. Service? We came to town for power. In order to retain power, we must dismantle service. That is the weird two-step the Republicans dance to time and again. They are the great dismantlers, the barbarians within the gates. Pure poison to the notion of honorable governance, they find the term itself an oxymoron.

If character is forbearance, few of us can claim the character of an Eisenhower. Weary veteran of the inglorious realities of war, Ike knew instinctively that a myriad of terrible toys stored up in a Pentagon warehouse was an accident waiting to happen. Some loopy cowboy was someday bound to stumble into hand’s reach of the red phone.

The high art of bloodless posturing and symbolic ‘shows of force,’ really what a superpower does best, would eventually overwhelm a smaller man’s sense of inadequacy. An escalation into very big bangs was practically ensured; bangs the country might not recover from. For an untested male, the inevitable use of force can be like the first law of testosterone, as immutable as physics itself. Let’s try this stuff out! There isn’t a weapon that’s never been used. President Eisenhower had nothing to prove. Bush, by fifty, had little to show. So the gun just went off in his hand.

Think of the classroom bully (often the covert classroom coward) who must wear a halo for the school play. He does so only because his parents promise him a new bike if he plays nice. That’s what public service has become in the hands of the Reaganites. Their namesake played an unconscionable role in the assault on public service. Surely Eisenhower, a warrior of deeds, would have seen Reagan and his ilk coming. Judging from the cautionary tone of Ike’s last presidential speech, perhaps he did.

There is plenty of blame to go around; Reagan for hoodwinking us, GE for incubating his glibness. But most of all, the shame is ours for ignoring the innumerable examples that contradicted the Gipper’s shallow diatribes.

This then has been a tribute to the manifold blessings of good government which, in the final analysis, can only be underwritten by a decent people. May history grant us the good fortune to enjoy good governance again. Until then, the Big Easy waits in an uneasy shambles.

Bibliography

Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961, Public Papers of the Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960, p. 1035-1040
Truman, McCullough, David; Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (June 14, 1993)

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