Looking at Big Government
A little over a year into Barack Obama's presidency, few things are clear. One change that is obvious, however, is that the government has gotten larger. Regardless of whether you are a small-government conservative or a big-government liberal, the undeniable truth is that the government is rapidly expanding into facets of business and American life that it previously stayed out of. The most apparent example of this change is the assistance sent to banks and to General Motors in the form of bailouts and partial ownership--a measure that saved thousands of jobs and helped to stabilize the American banking system.
But aside from bailout measures, there has not been much of a correlation between an expanding government and a better quality of life for American constituents. We are still in a recession. The mighty United States government cannot control the global economy, and neither party in Congress has truly been doing what it was elected to do, even in this time of large government. The Democratic Party's platform revolves around universal health care, energy independence, universal civil rights and liberties and repairing America's image abroad. None of these goals have been thoroughly addressed, despite the Democratic majority in the Senate. Civil rights and liberties in particular (i.e. same-sex marriage) have been put on the back burner and left to the states to rationalize. Universal health care appears to be a major work in progress, with two separate plans from the Senate and House, and with Republicans digging in against both. In terms of the American image abroad, Obama may have high approval ratings in Europe, but Iran has no issue with flaunting international nuclear regulations. Also, China continues to undermine American companies in China through electronic means, all while controlling the lion's share of American debt. I will not give too much time to the Republican platform at the moment, other than to say it is more of an anti-platform that is in denial about the realities of an expanded government in the year 2010. From that perspective, perhaps the Republicans view the past year of legislative gridlock as a success.
A common and valid criticism of the Obama administration is that it has taken on too much at once, and that it lacks a prioritized agenda. There are different ways to characterize our government. One could call it polymorphous, in that it takes many forms and acts in different capacities. From one moment to the next on C-SPAN, a person can watch Congress talk about a public health care option, grill the top executive in charge of Toyota's North American operations, hand out subpoenas to performance-enhancing professional athletes and still find the time to extend provisions of the Patriot Act (House Vote 67--H.R.3961, in the fine print). That was all accomplished last week.
One could also characterize our large government as hypertrophic and cumbersome, in that it is simply too large to effectively respond in a swift manner to the problems of this day and age. Watching C-SPAN through that lens, a person can watch different houses of Congress talk about different health care options, finally get around to investigating Toyota (after staying unresponsive to months of warnings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), unnecessarily extend into the realm of professional sports because of presumed federal authority over national pastimes (and the fact that both the NFL and MLB get special anti-trust exemptions) and consolidate its intrusions by extending the Patriot Act. I desperately want to believe the former--that a larger government can be a major institution for bettering American life. Yet, when so much time is wasted, I have no choice but to become pessimistic. There is supposed to be discourse between citizens and their elected representatives. Why is it that a larger government seems to be even more indifferent to what people actually want or need? For most voters, participation can feel like just voting once every year and spending the rest of the time on the sidelines as the starters play out their personal agendas. There is a major disconnect between politicians and voters. That came to light when Martha Coakley lost the Senate race in the heavily Democratic state of Massachusetts. Coakley's impression of Bay State voters as party line Democrats was a flawed reasoning that cost her and the Democratic Party dearly. The disconnect also came to light when a relatively young and energetic face in Congress, Evan Bayh, declined to run for reelection to the U.S. Senate because he wanted to actually help people. For certain Congressmen and women who are entrenched in their districts and have no major opposition, there is perhaps little incentive for actual public service. At some point in our history, American politicians ceased to be elected and paid based on performance, and instead became plain salary men. I guess investment bankers aren't alone.