The Big Victory of Big Government

Though much current American dissatisfaction is directed against “big government,”  two things I read recently also remind us that government when it is big enough is quite efficient and can accomplish great things. It is not easy to discern whether it is just BIG government that Americans dislike, or whether we hold to a populist anti-government attitude, which in America is promoted by both political parties (see my Stuck in the Middle of American Politics).    The following two unrelated quotes both dealing with the American government in WWII point out that it was precisely government (whether “big” or not) which brought about victory in World  War II. 

Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE:

“The war revealed what might b e called ‘the dirty little secret’ of American capitalism.  The myth of capitalism is that the free market is the most efficient economic system.  But it is not.  Governmentally sponsored and regulated production is far more efficient.  It was the war, not the New Deal,  that finally reversed the Great Depression.  In wartime, the government can compel the collection of raw material, channel research, subsidize new production methods without taking time for them to prove profitable, redistribute labor pools, eliminate distracting competition by the incompetent.  All these things happened during the military-industrial explosion of the 1940s  … When it is important to get things done, and done fast, the government must be relied on.” 

Margaret Graham, “Schumpeter’s Children”   (Wilson Quarterly  Spring 2010):

“That wisdom was confirmed by America’s experience in WWII.  With Washington as maestro, the nation rapidly produced vast quantities of K rations, B-29 bombers, and everything in between, while researchers marshaled by the government from industry and the universities designed and built the atomic bomb and made rapid technological strides in fields such as radio and radar.

For American policymakers, the war offered a powerful example of what the economy could accomplish if directed and optimized by the federal government, and they believed they could most efficiently accomplish their goals through large corporate entities.” 

Wills goes on to note:

Of course, stupid management can make government efficient in producing disaster, as in the Soviet destruction of agriculture.  But in America, government is normally inefficient only if the market interferes with it, lobbyists distorting the outcome (for instance, in health policy). 

Which is perhaps an interesting comment since the popular wisdom is that the market is efficient unless the government interferes with it, as in President Reagan’s comment, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”   Despite his anti-government rhetoric, and his calls for the American government to live within its means, as far as I can tell, the government grew under his administration, and his economic policies did not create a a balanced budget,  accepting rather  national debt as normative (and ultimately tripling the national debt –  see http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/budget.php); both his anti-government attitude and the acceptance of the national debt are two of his legacies, even if they are somehow contradictory.   My suspicion is that what many Americans liked about Reagan was that he significantly cut taxes – it’s not small government that people care about, it is purely how “it” affects me personally.  The attitude is very self-centered as is much of American individualistic thinking – I favor low taxes because that benefits me personally, and yet I want the government to be there when I need it (but I’m not so concerned when others need it, and resent it if it means I have to pay for something that is not personally benefitting me).   In this thinking, we realize how foreign sounding are President Kennedy’s words:  “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”     The modern version probably is “Ask not what purpose government serves for the country, ask what government is doing for me personally.” 

One can note that in both the Katrina Hurrican natural disaster and the current Horizon Oil Rig collapse disaster, there was a need and a demand for massive government intervention, even from those who oppose big government, and many complained that “the government is not doing enough.”   In both cases it appears that only the government was capable enough and efficient enough to respond to the human need created by the disasters (and this despite the many complaints about inefficiency, waste, slow response).  No agency except the government had the resources and ability to respond to the many, varied needs created by the disasters. 

I am not advocating for big government, but am advocating for us to have a real discussion about what has to change, what do we have to be prepared for, what needs to happen for smaller government to exist, and for us as a nation to be able to deal with natural and manmade disasters and catastrophes.   For example, do we really believe that industry left to itself would and could deal with the Gulf Coast oil disaster, and all its implications,  without being pushed by the government?  (Could industry deal with the problems without the coast guard, navy, national weather services, etc?)  Do we believe industry left to itself would respond to the needs of those who will be affected by the disaster without the government to advocate for the people?  (Would industry be reporting the extent of the disaster or be prepared for all of its potential consequences without monitoring agencies to force safety measures, environmental tests,etc?)

Cutting the size of government does not immediately translate into tax savings, that is a different issue, especially when reducing the government may only bring it down to the size which our current taxes make affordable.  Exactly a problem created by past policies is taxes have been reduced without cutting a proportionate amount of government spending.    Now the time comes to reduce the government down to the size for which we are paying.    Will voters accept that?

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 8:6-12 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 8:1-5 (b)

Genesis 8:6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, 7 and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.

No description is given of what life was like on the ark or how the humans and the wild animals could possibly have survived sharing the space of the big box for the year of the flood.  But one might speculate.  Is it possible that for the year in which the flood was devastating the earth, that humans and animals, lion and lamb, once again lived in peace together as they had in paradise?  Is the lack of detail of their lives intentional, to somehow cause us to hearken back to the story of life in the Garden of Eden?   Many ancient people in fact felt the entire created cosmos was a big box with the walls of the box keeping the chaos away from the inhabited earth.  So the ark was a microcosm of the universe – outside the box the forces of the abyss raged, just as the ancients imagined their potential power raged in the place beyond the world where to God pushed them.  The entire world was in a cataclysm, but in the ark there was peace and harmony – a miniature paradise.  God may be raging at the wickedness outside the ark, but in the ark all are at peace with each and with God.  Such imagery of the ark of salvation as a place of refuge and peace might not work so well if we overly literalize the story and have to deal with the harsh realities of what it would be like to live in a big box with a large number of animals for a year (One need only read the impossibilities which the crew of the ill-fated $200 million Biosphere encountered, to realize what Noah and crew would have faced in the ark).  However, the lack of any description of life in the ark suggests we are not to overly rationalize about the harsh living conditions the passengers would have experienced; rather we are to imagine their situation as living in another paradise.  It suggests that the story is also symbolic, and when read figuratively it is full of beautiful and godly images as well as having a moral to it.   The story is not about what life would have been like on the ark, rather it is a story about God saving His chosen people, and the ark is the image of that salvation.

St. John Chrysostom makes an interesting reference to the raven who leaves the ark but doesn’t come back but rather flies about continuously until the flood waters receded from the earth.  He compares the raven (his text says crow) to  people who show up at church for some special event but then are not interested in coming back to church on a regular basis.  “They mimicked not Noah’s dove, bur the crow (raven), and this when the choppy waves and that storm still lingered and the surging waves were intensifying with each successive day, and this holy ark was in front of everyone’s eyes and calling everyone and drawing them to herself, and providing considerable safety to those in flight.  She beats off not attacks of waters or waves but the constant assaults of utterly irrational passions and removes envy and suppresses arrogance” (TCOTS, p 67).  Chrysostom portrays the raven as refusing to return to the safety of the ark not because the storm prevents it, but because the raven is consumed by the passion of pride.  He apparently thinks many people avoid regular church attendance because of the story of their own passions which they don’t want to control, nor even have to acknowledge.  His use of the raven to teach a lesson in human behavior and morality is typical of many Patristic writers who believe the Old Testament stories have many valuable lessons to teach.   They were not constantly worried that the literal value of the story would be lost.  For them the Scriptures are a continuous source of teaching, inspiration, correction and training in righteousness as 2 Timothy 3:16 says.

The story does not tell us exactly why Noah released the raven.  A raven is considered an unclean animal in Judaism as it does eat carrion.   The restless raven flies about and does not come back to the ark. The raven doubtlessly found plenty of carrion at which to peck.  The grim message to Noah was that the flood waters are filled with corpses of humans and the carcasses of animals.  Noah would then know the flood was as destructive as God had warned.  When Noah next releases the dove he clearly does so “to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground.”  The dove is able to convey a different message to Noah about the changing conditions of the flood each time it is released  – by first returning, by bringing a fresh leaf from its second flight, and finally when it doesn’t return at all.   Interestingly, the dove is the only bird that was acceptable for sacrificial offerings in Jewish temple worship. 

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 8:6-12 (b)