COLUMN: The main business of government is the people
Editor's note: Robert Faber writes occasional columns for AnnArbor.com about aging, politics and other issues.
It was President Calvin Coolidge in the early 1920s who asserted that “the business of America is business.” If they had television in those days he would have been the target of all the late-night TV comedians, but we now discover that he was not necessarily foolish or glib - just prescient.
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As a successful business, after all, our country could assure stability and make funds available for the necessities of a good, or at least adequate, life for all its citizens. With such a no-nonsense, conservative approach to our nation’s governance, it could be claimed that the important needs of the People — health care, education, food, housing — will be adequately attended. Successful businesses are built on knowing the needs of their customers and employing the most efficient ways by which to satisfy those needs.
At least that’s the theory. Unfortunately, the problem with the government’s current business model is that a large part of its original customer base — the working middle-class who comprise the vast majority of our population — has been downgraded to the status more of inventory than of client.
It is now the suppliers rather than those most in need who are the primary recipients of our government’s attention.
And now that segment of our population most dangerously impacted by our tottering economy because they have no reserves and no alternatives, are further threatened by fiscal policies focusing on the reduction of aid to the indigent as the best way by which to balance our budget.
The conservative philosophy of keeping larger business firms healthy in order to provide jobs in the future is reasonable and potentially productive — within principled limits. Adjusting those limits to the politics of the moment, however, can be dangerous.
An offensive example of surpassing reasonable limits, for instance, was the legislative favor to the coal mining industry to help them cut their costs by reducing the safety rules then in place. Unfortunately, in 2006, the inaction of the regulators charged with oversight and enforcement of even those new relaxed rules led to the West Virginia Sago coal mine disaster—and its loss of 12 miners’ lives.
Manipulating the system to make friends and win votes often works, but is not the best way to serve the people or the democratic process.
Our Constitution, the founding document setting the tone and defining the goals of our democracy, insists that its primary mission is to “promote the general Welfare” of our citizens, thereby “form[ing] a more perfect Union.” That goal remains unchanged for conservative and liberal leaders alike, but the loss of the higher principles of governance makes it a very costly and dangerous tactic.
The credible conservative philosophy that by making businesses profitable, working people will find the employment they need to provide adequate resources for a better life is reasonable — when approached with integrity. Buying political support by reducing taxes for the affluent, however, or helping industry by not enforcing such environmental safeguards as the clean-air or clean-water regulations, is dangerous and dishonorable — a form of “trickle-down relief.”
An alternative approach would be to start the process by identifying the unmet needs of our people, analyze ways to provide the assistance needed to bring them up to speed and then determine the best and most efficient tactics to meet those ends.
In his second Inaugural Address in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt, noting the shame of “one-third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” said: “The government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people.”
The Founders’ pledge to “promote the General welfare” is one of the bedrock principles of our nation — the essence of who we are. Rather than trying to create an environment conducive to fuller employment so people will eventually find work — also known as “trickle down” — it should be mandatory that everyone have their essential needs fulfilled and then find the best way to manage the process.
In the present scheme of things, we too easily lose our focus, concentrating on the well-being of our suppliers rather than of our people, which puts the citizens several rungs lower than that of business. It is reasonable to support businesses in order to help the poor, but the ground rules must be set by the needs of the people—their customers—rather than by the demands of their stockholders.
To some degree, President Coolidge was right — business does have a major role in the business of our country, but instead of concentrating solely on methods of easing quality controls or bypassing environmental standards to meet that burden, our concern must include addressing the needs of the people to be served. Very simply, in both the planning and the process, the people must be our focus.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at email@example.com.