Without big government, where would we be?

  • Rich Wandschneider


Like most people who use email, I get an extraordinary amount of SPAM, plus a large volume of canned messages from both sides of the political spectrum, forwarded by well-meaning friends who think I will agree or who think I should agree with the e-mail's premise. Most of these messages get a quick hit on the delete key, but not all.

Last week I read one that blasted taxation, though the writer acknowledged that an advertising agency had put together the bunch of figures he cited. They were all about the billions of dollars that we hand over to politicians: A "billion minutes ago Jesus was alive," and "a billion dollars was (gone) eight hours and 20 minutes ago at the rate our government is spending it," said the critic of all things cooked up in Washington, D.C.

The writer then listed a bunch of taxes, from dog licenses and gas taxes to Social Security and income taxes, that did not exist 100 years ago. 1910, it turns out, was when "our nation was the most prosperous in the world. We had absolutely no national debt. We had the largest middle class in the world. And mom stayed home to raise the kids."

Well, that last sentence got to me, as I considered that 100 years ago, most Americans were involved in agriculture, and yes, mom stayed home, raised kids and worked her behind off on the farm. Then I thought about the women who did not stay home, especially those in urban areas who worked 60 hours and more per week in sweat shops and factories.

And what about all the women who didn't make it very far at all? I googled "deaths in childbirth," and got this from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

"At the beginning of the 20th century, for every 1000 live births, six to nine women in the United States died of pregnancy-related complications, and approximately 100 infants died before age one year... From 1915 through 1997, the infant mortality rate declined greater than 90 percent to 7.2 per 1000 live births, and from 1900 through 1997, the maternal mortality rate declined almost 99 percent to 7.7 deaths per 100,000 live births."

Back in 1900, in some U.S. cities, up to 30 percent of infants died before reaching their first birthday. "Efforts to reduce infant mortality focused on improving environmental and living conditions in urban areas...(e.g., sewage and refuse disposal and safe drinking water)," said the Centers for Disease Control.

The government site pointed out that the key to saving mothers and their infants was social programs enacted by Congress from 1900 to the 1930s. The programs focused on public health, social welfare and spurring advances in pediatrics and obstetrics.

So I guess I say we -- and especially women -- got a pretty good deal from all those taxes. In fact, many of us would not be here at all without the intrusion of big government. Our grandparents and parents might have died in childbirth or as infants themselves.

Or, if our forebears had made it past that first hard year, they probably would not have lived very long. The average life expectancy in the United States 100 years ago was about 50 and now it's close to 80.

And ladies, the government continues to intrude on your behalf. Women didn't have the vote 100 year ago, and elective office and most professional work for women was impossible or extremely rare. Now, more than half of all medical students in this country are women, and rural Westerners have the benefit of many who've chosen to set up family practices in the region.

And don't forget: Women play basketball and volleyball and softball in high school, thanks to the federal government and Title IX mandating equal funding for boys' and girls' sports in 1972. Before that, a few girls could be cheerleaders but that was about all.

The next time you're at a basketball game watching your daughter, granddaughter, niece, or neighbor girl rack up points on the court, remember that if it weren't for the government, taxes and those agitating women's libbers, the girls would be dancing around in their short little skirts cheering the boys on. That's what they did in my day some four decades ago, when family values were strong. That's when we could concentrate on the important stuff -- boys' games.

Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Joseph, Oregon.

Anonymous says:
Feb 07, 2010 02:11 PM
"I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization."
Anonymous says:
Feb 08, 2010 01:24 PM
    It's not true that "Women didn't have the vote 100 years ago." There's a widespread myth that American women couldn't vote until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920.

    Westerners should know better, because this is where women first got the right to vote, and it happened before 1910.

    In general, the federal constitution left voting qualifications up to the states. Wyoming Territory allowed women to vote in 1869, and with statehood in 1890, Wyoming became the first state where women could vote in all elections. Thus its nickname, "the Equality State."

    Colorado got statehood in 1876 and allowed women to vote in school elections. There was also provision for an 1878 referendum on full female voting rights, but suffrage was defeated. However, it came up again in an 1893 referendum, and it passed.

    One irony: Colorado elected a Populist governor, Davis H. Waite, in 1892, and he campaigned for women's suffrage the next year. But he lost his bid for re-election in 1894, largely on account of the women's vote.

    Women got full voting rights in Utah and Idaho in 1896, and in Washington in 1910. So a century ago, there were five states, all in the West, where women voted. Back then, Denver was the largest city in the world where women could vote.

    And it should be noted that in 1914, women got the vote in Montana, where in 1916 its voters sent the first woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the U.S. House of Representatives.

    In many respects, Western states have been far from progressive in their politics. But we shouldn't forget that there was one area where we led the nation.

Anonymous says:
Feb 09, 2010 04:02 PM
Good point. However, until the 19th amendment, women everywhere were not guaranteed the vote. People (especially the tea baggers) who complain about "big government" and how it's ruined our capitalist country, have forgotten (or never knew)that our government finances much of the research that has created enormous wealth for corporate America and lots of jobs for the rest of us. And it goes way beyond medical advances. Sure, we could all stop paying taxes, but we'll still have to pay someone to fix our potholes, police our streets, educate our children, and on and on. Do we really want to add a profit motive to all the community services that we would be unwilling to give up? Not me.
Anonymous says:
Feb 09, 2010 06:47 PM
I kind of like such things as paved roads, libraries, sewers, telephones, and fire stations. None would exist were it not for taxes and the idea that the government must provide for the common good. 'Every man for himself' isn't how civilization was born, and it isn't how it will remain.
When did selfishness become acceptable instead of shameful? Ask your tax-averse friends that one.
Anonymous says:
Feb 09, 2010 08:23 PM
Great topic Rich! Please keep pushing for more awareness. While I dislike the thought of higher taxes and the ever exploding debt levels when I am pressed to identify what area of the government I would support cutting the choices are few. My answers aren't the conventional wisdom generalities nor are the they typical hate list. I would focus on identifying areas of duplication, outdated programs and inefficiency. To the critics of our current budget I ask "Should we cut snow removal or the the FAA, or the Federal Highway system?" The obvious answer is that many areas of government spending do provide necessary service. Its not black and white! We depend on the government to keep the country running just like a corporation has a maintenance department to keep the lights on. Its not the "what they do" but the "how they do it" that needs attention. Unless we change change the content of the debate we are doomed to fail.
Anonymous says:
Feb 09, 2010 10:51 PM
Without big government, where would we be? You are kidding...aren't you? I wrote a long treatise, then simply decided to write: "There is no dignity quite so impressive and no independence quite so important as living within your means." Calvin Coolidge
Anonymous says:
Feb 09, 2010 11:11 PM
Without big government, where would we be? Specious reasoning won't work on me. Does no one understand? Our MASSIVE government wastes, wastes, wastes. Microsoft, Apple, Berkshire H., aren't in the red. Does HCN spend beyond its means? Probably not. There are other ways to "run" a government than the way ours is/has been run. Big is NOT better; BIG is more often than not simply "lazy." The government is BIG because we, the people, have allowed it to get BIG.
"Government" wasn't the ONLY means to affect some of the major changes you mention, like equal rights and women's suffrage. Because of our--the public's--complacency, racism, laziness, greed, et. al., seldom have we adequately helped affect neccessary change; we have allowed the government to do it. For instance, decreasing infant mortality (aren't abortions a mortality?) via government programs wasn't the ONLY method to accomplish what was accomplished; you just think it was because that's what appears to have worked, that's how you have been taught to think, and that is what you believe was the ONLY answer. It's easy to defend the past with specious reasoning; how about thinking up future solutions that may actually work? Accepting and lauding something that is obviously flawed is lazy and naive, like cheering over a Pyrrhic victory. Change would be voting out Obama- and Palin-types, seeking out Buffetts, and going into the trenches after work, instead of going to the bars, the gym, or the TV.
Anonymous says:
Feb 10, 2010 09:38 PM
Ok lets agree that the "big government" is inefficient and wasteful. Now what? To find new efficiencies do you look to the employees doing the work or to the management that sets the policies? If you would rather just eliminate programs entirely I am ready to entertain your logic on how much it will save and why the service is no longer required but I digress. Having spent nearly 35 years working as a contractor for the federal government my observation is that the vast majority of employees are hard working and frequently driven by a sense of civic duty completely absent from my brethren in the corporate sector. While there are always ways to improve an organization even the most optimistic projections for this area wont make a dent in the problems we face. In contrast I have seen the promulgation of federal legislation result in conflicting, duplicitous and down right stupid projects and requirements. Where do these requirements come from? They come from Congress. Why does Congress pass legislation if it is not productive? Because we demand that they do it. Just like you are demanding the "Big Government" be eliminated. The toxic mix of needing to appease the public while simultaneously not wanting to anger the corporations that feed them campaign contributions results in absolutely inane legislation. And that inane legislation is where your anger should be directed.
Anonymous says:
Mar 02, 2010 11:39 AM
Nice try, but no, abortions aren't "infant mortality." Infant mortality refers to actual births and babies. Abortion refers to unintended, unwanted and/or unsustainable pregnancies not intended to go to term. If you want to "twist" statistics, you could also say that "abortions have prevented more teenage automobile deaths than the invention of seat belts has" but it would be the same twisted logic.
I'm assuming you are a boy. Can you imagine if you had no rights of self-determination, no 'personhood' of your own?
Anonymous says:
Feb 10, 2010 04:27 AM
It so refreshing to read something so clear-eyed, not only about the "good old days," but also about the realities for women, then and now. I have worked for the federal government for nearly 20 years and have heard my share of jokes about "bureaucrats feeding at the trough," as if government workers only show up at work to collect their paychecks and nothing else. Some of the most altruistic people I have ever met work for the government doing jobs that make life better for all of us.
Anonymous says:
Feb 10, 2010 05:28 PM
As a student of history it is refreshing to see some one debunking the good old days. Despite all of the problems we now face society has generally progressed and it is stupid to pretend that other eras were superior. The past is different and not directly commensurable with our present conditions. In other words those lamenting "the good old days" ought to get over it.
Anonymous says:
Feb 10, 2010 07:16 PM
Please remember that the vast majority of the federal budget goes to the military, Social Security, and Medicare. Which benefit are you and your parents willing to give up? I thought so.
Anonymous says:
Feb 12, 2010 05:53 PM
I could give up SS and Medicare (but don't charge anymore and return my previous payments into); the majority of my forebears didn't have these perks...think outside the box and don't be afraid of living life without governmental assistance...work 'til you're 80, and give 10-15% of your pay EVERY month to good causes like the elderly and the infirm...then they won't need the gov't so much!
Anonymous says:
Feb 14, 2010 08:11 PM
All the money you paid in has gone out to recipients. Can't have it back. The system would collapse if people were given the option to stop paying in, and millions of old folks would be back to eating cat food, and taxpayers would be supporting them anyway. Most people are too irresponsible to take care of their own future. SS and Medicare are the reason why the poverty rate for children is much higher than for seniors. More of them are playing golf while kids are waiting in line with their parents for food stamps. And the scary part is a lot of those seniors find that hunky dory as long as their benefits keep a comin'.

Since the system is likely to be bankrupt before I'm old enough to draw checks, I'm afraid you'll have your selfish world all too soon. But there's still the military, which consumes vast amounts of money. I guess you don't mind watching those dollars go down the rathole. The debt owed on the current two wars dwarfs SS and Medicare by a longshot.
Anonymous says:
Feb 14, 2010 07:59 PM
Please remember that the vast majority of the federal budget goes to the military, Social Security, and Medicare. Which benefit are you and your parents willing to give up? I thought so.