My Point of View: A robust government is needed for world’s changes

Published 10:00 pm Monday, November 20, 2017

My Point of View, By Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Would smaller government be capable of being more responsive to the public interest? I recently saw a new book about Laura Ingalls Wilder called “Prairie Fires,” which discusses the author’s libertarian views. It caught my attention, because I had been struck by her anti-government sentiments while reading the “Little House” series to my daughter last year.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Think of how much has changed since her lifetime. For the sake of more readily available data, I’ll compare the latter years of Wilder’s life instead of her pioneer period to today’s world.

Email newsletter signup

The U.S. government is responsible for keeping a growing society stable and secure. Our population has more than doubled since 1950, to about 325 million today. Government employment has roughly tripled, and about 9 percent of adults are currently employed in the public sector. Government spending per capita, adjusted for inflation, has increased from about $3,000 in 1950 to almost $12,000 per capita in 2015. That may seem out of line, but is it? The Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased about ten-fold since 1950.

Both the U.S. and the world are more complex than was the case in 1950, and development continues at an accelerating rate. Consider the chemicals industry and internet technology.

An article from September 2009 in Wired magazine by Alexis Madrigal states that humans have found or made 50 million chemicals on Earth. She explains, “It took 33 years to get the first 10 million chemicals registered and a mere nine months to get the last 10 million chemicals into the [American Chemical Society] database.” Just eight years later, that number has nearly tripled: there are now 134 million chemicals listed.

Many of those chemicals have to be managed for safety, plus we have to deal with impacts of past contamination, like an estimated 1.7 million pounds of Dupont’s perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) discharged into the Ohio River between 1951 and 2015. It took the government six decades to catch up with the pollution, and Dupont has been ordered to pay over half a billion dollars in damages so far. Without the government to hold them accountable, companies often privatize gains and socialize losses as much as possible.

Another sector with rapid changes is internet technology. It didn’t exist yet in 1950, when we had rotary phones, telegrams and the postal service to communicate. Now we have personal computers and smartphones. We are on the cusp of the “internet of things” when everything will “talk” to everything else via wireless networks. Cyber capabilities have introduced cyber crime, which cyber security races to keep up with in order to protect our information. We are in a brave new world, and we stretch our brains to predict the impacts of the internet explosion on health, employment, government and society. It’s a cataclysmic change that will likely make Gutenburg’s printing press look like a blip.

Individuals with the vision, right connections and luck can make fortunes on these and other changes. Government, along with the press, are the only things that can influence decisions in these industries to also serve the common good and national security interests.

The start of the Trump administration is clearly showing a retreat from this vital role, as uncovered by Politico. Take the USDA, which has been a scientific institution since President Lincoln founded it in the 1860s and is vital to our long-term stability. Trump’s political appointees to this department, which has a large and often invisible impact on rural areas like Freeborn County, frequently have no science background, rural experience, or, in some cases, college degrees. The main qualification seems to be loyalty to Trump.

Of the 14 top political jobs at the USDA, only one had been filled by late summer — Sonny Perdue as secretary. The remaining empty positions would be the people who oversee dealing with the next livestock flu epidemic in the short term and creating hybrid seeds that will feed our children decades from now under climate change conditions. Rural populations, the base of Trump’s support, will likely lose the most from this heedlessness, but it will hurt everyone else, too.

Aiming for small government when our society is constantly becoming more complex is like driving faster and faster speeds and demanding the guardrails to be taken off the highway. It’s a bad idea underwritten by obnoxious billionaires seeking personal gain, unconcerned that the rest of us will careen closer to the brink.

A democratic government, if we can keep it, is for the public good. Shrinking it has real risks — including societal collapse. Demand instead that elected officials make it more efficient and more accountable to the public interest. The days of prairie schooners and homestead claims are long gone. We need a robust government that can keep pace with our light speed changes.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.