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When I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s, government service was cool. There didn’t seem to be a huge difference between my dad who sold cars and my friend’s dad who worked for the Department of Agriculture. There wasn’t a huge disparity in our families’ incomes. Both worked honest, respectable jobs.
It’s taken a good 30 years since Ronald Reagan first uttered the words, “Government is not the answer to our problem, government is the problem,” for the complete and utter vilification of government to take place.
The signs are everywhere. Glenn Beck hates the government. Sean Hannity hates the government. Neil Boortz refers to the public school system derisively as the “government schools.” In the eyes of these guys, the government can do no right.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see how over the course of 30 years a constant barrage of pejorative speech has made people see government as dumb and wasteful. As a CBS News/New York Times poll indicated last week, self-identified Tea Party members hate big government. And boy, do they hate taxes! And did I mention that they really hate government? Interesting then that when asked if they’d give up their Social Security or Medicare they demure.
So I’m having a problem understanding which parts of government they would cut. The military? Would they privatize police and fire protection? Clearly they hate the “government schools.” Current polls seem to indicate that they want regulation of the financial markets so that we don’t have to bail out any more banks that are too big to fail. Do they want the government to stop inspecting meat? How about just scrapping the Food and Drug Administration? Caveat emptor, right? Take those pharmaceuticals at your own risk. No giant drug company would ever knowingly put a dangerous substance on the market. You know, except the occasional Vioxx or Phen Phen.
Money — now here’s a new one — appears to be at the root of this evil. You see, for the vast majority of Americans there has been no real income growth since 1976. Call it The Chasm. And no, I’m not about to make an argument for socialism. I’m just saying that 30 years ago when bankers made what lawyers made, and that was the same as most everybody else in the white collar world, and that was about 20% more than most of the workers in the blue-collar world, decisions about national or local service went through different filters.
Around 1985 when Grover Norquist said of government, “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” income disparity began running wild. The chasm that did not exist between the haves and have-nots, at least not in significant numbers, in 1970, was very real by 1990 and is a Grand Canyon here in 2010.
In 1975 an honors finance graduate from a good school was just as likely to choose the community food bank as a big Wall Street bank for the first rung on their career ladder. Government got a good crack at our best and brightest back then. Once the Wall Street bonuses passed seven figures and got into the stratosphere, many of our best and brightest stopped contributing their services to our local communities or our national government in favor of Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs.
Now this isn’t to say that there hasn’t always been a chasm. I will never forget bringing my college girl friend, a young woman of means and extraordinary breeding, to my upper-middle-class neighborhood for a holiday party. We were both from white-collar families, but hers was an industrial family whose name you would know, and mine was, well, not. She clearly had a good time at the party, but in the car on the way back to school, she must have said three or four times how strange it was that we had invited our mailman to the holiday party.
Of course these were the days when the difference between the upper-middle-class and the regular old blue-collar middle-class was that the folks in the UMC drove Chevy Caprices while our blue-collar brethren drove Chevy Biscaynes. Today, a new Mercedes versus a beat-to-crap, 12-year-old Chrysler Sebring marks that difference.
Frankly, I had great hopes for the revival of government service as a compelling and honorable option for our college graduates when Barack Obama was elected president. I thought service would once again be cool. It would be fashionable to get a federal appointment or simply go to work for the city. But the rancor from the right, the predictable and constant stream of invective that continues to vilify the government seems to be overwhelming any youthful and idealistic sense of responsibility that might lead our younger generation to a life of honorable government service, and thus help rebuild government’s competency. A friend just told me that when a distinguished guest — an astronaut — asked an assembly full of high school juniors what they’d like to do with their lives, the near-unanimous answer was be a rap-star or pro-athlete. Not a single budding chemical engineer or teacher in the bunch. They see the bling on the other side of the chasm, and the only way they envision getting there is by cashing in on the longest of shots.
The chasm wasn’t a problem when we had a solid middle class. Now, the chasm is going to be a big problem.