Monday, April 11, 2011

Who's Your Daddy?

John Boehner…apparently.

He even reminds me of my father. The same blue eyes. The same love of golf and the tan that goes with it. The same smoking habit. The same urge to break out the austerity lecture. Every time I see John Boehner on television, I feel he’s about to tell me to go to my room.

Conventional Wisdom
Like Speaker Boehner, my father was a sharp dresser who liked a good party. Socially and politically his tastes ran more to Mad Men than Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. I can’t say he was never an idealist, but by the time I got to know him he was pretty conservative.

Looking back, I’d have to say that he was a libertarian. Which is not to say he was ungenerous. He didn’t charge patients who couldn’t pay. We got a lot of hams and homemade preserves for the babies he delivered. He was happy to press a twenty-dollar bill into the hand of a man who needed help, but he resented paying taxes to enable the government to do the same. I wish he were still alive so we could revisit our old debate, the central debate in the country today: how much government should we have, and what should it do?

The American Dream is an accident of birth. Those not born into circumstances that offer a chance to take root and grow are likely to dry up and be blown against the back fence with the rest of the litter. John Boehner grew up sweeping out his father’s bar. He knows how to work. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he has lost sight of the fact that he had a chance to work at all. His life might have been quite different if his father had been a daily patron of that bar instead of the owner.

In the years when the young John Boehner was learning to read and write and my father was building his medical practice, John Kenneth Galbraith was writing The Affluent Society. In work as relevant today, Galbraith noted in 1958 that much of our economic thinking was still governed by what he called Conventional Wisdom (he coined the term), notions that arise out of very different economic times but persist because of the interest of the establishment in preserving the status quo.

One such bit of Conventional Wisdom was that government, long the province of rapacious kings, was not to be trusted. Government was at best a necessary evil, at worst “a malign tendency against which an alert community must exercise eternal vigilance.”

This suspicion of government persists. And yet, as much as we may long for a simpler time of hobos asking for handouts at the back door, many of the complex problems facing us today can only be dealt with by a central body through which we act collectively. Just as we would not expect private citizens to build roads and dams and schools, we cannot rely on social Darwinism---the survival of the fittest---to build a civil society that addresses the needs of all of its members.

Government is our bastard child, but like it or not, we have come to depend on it to do much more than keep us safe. We look to it to provide the nexus, the honeycomb, if you will, in which we can work and thrive.

How, then, should we deal with our public servants? Does it make sense to condemn and belittle them? Any parent knows the answer to that. Any businessman or woman knows that to motivate performance one must set goals and provide the resources needed to realize of those goals.

In the case of government, this means choosing how much we want to help our fellow citizens. We can be humane or we can be heartless, but we must choose. When we stop participating in that choice, we risk losing not only our moral compass but our liberty.

And after we have chosen, who should pay for the things government is to provide? The answer to that is so simple it seems hardly to need expression: those who can afford to. If we are trying to help the less fortunate, it doesn’t make sense to tax them. The government coffers must be filled by those who have money to spare. They may not like it, but they are the only practical source. If we let them convince us that it is not fair for them to pay more, the only choice is to cut back on our goals.

Our democracy permits us to play Robin Hood. We can tax the rich to aid the poor. Some argue that this is un-American. Nothing could be further from the truth. This country was founded by settlers who looked after one another. That is how they survived in this wild new land. What would be un-American would be now to abandon our heritage of generosity and selflessness just because the people who need our help today don’t all look and dress the same as we do. The poor are part of us as much as any Jamestown colonist. They came on the same ship of hope.

In my boyhood days of sneaking out the bedroom window to carouse at night, it never occurred to me that the window might be locked when I came back home. My parents made an investment in me, because they loved me, of course, but also because that was what a parent did. Those of us with money and political power are the parents now. It is up to us to find a way to help our children, all of them. It is up to us to see that no one is locked out of the bedroom.


  1. We must carefully consider what powers we relinquish to The Government. As Lord Acton so succinctly put it "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Our system has shown time and again the truth of this.

    Have you considered the possibility that government usurpation of care of the poor may be part of the problem. Perhaps people delegate their responsibility for supporting the less fortunate on to The Government, not realizing the enormous overhead costs of doing so. Federal safety net program dollars pass through myriad layers of bureaucracy on their way to the beneficiary. Each layer takes a chunk for itself, leaving much less than had the funds been given by people directly to local organizations.

    Remember, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Many politicians forget that important aspect of public service, instead believing that the governed derive their powers from the government.

  2. Daddy, is that you? Have you come back to visit me through Pat?

  3. I say "Amen" to your blog. Hopefully, Patrick will someday soften his views altho the clock is running.