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Fixing government is up to us

Feb 22, 2012 - The San Jose Mercury News

The Congress is mostly in gridlock. The political parties -- particularly the GOP -- don't want to compromise, no matter how silly the impasse. The moderate center of political life seems to have disappeared, and many, many people say it is the fault of government.

But the government is us. We control it. Or we could control it if we exercised our power.

For all of the bellyaching about special-interest groups running amok and Washington being out of control, the people -- if they actually took time to understand the issues, voted, and got involved in their communities -- could change things. But instead, we have this:

The people who most despise government are often the ones who benefit from it the most.

Haters and benficiaries

In broad terms, this is the picture painted by New York Times research. Americans in many parts of the South and Southwest, including Texas, that revel in anti-government vitriol receive the greatest portion of personal income from federal sources. In California, while the liberal Bay Area gets a low percentage of its income from the government, more goes to the conservative Central Valley and to the far northern counties that are so anti-establishment, they proclaim themselves the independent state of Jefferson. (Google it.)

Overall, according to the research, 18 percent of Americans' income comes from the federal government. In some areas, including parts of Northern California, it's more than 30 percent, and in parts of some other states -- often anti-big-government states -- it's more than 40 percent.

The increasing dependency on the government is not sustainable. We all know that. But it's not enough to just get angry and blame government, when many of the programs people fume about today were a result of public demand.

People are turning against Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and other basic support systems that have reduced poverty and provided a safety net -- not just for the poor but increasingly for the middle class, whose numbers are dwindling. The proud American claim of opportunity for all is at risk. Yes, our support systems need reform. But the point must be to sustain them, not to destroy them.

Tainted money?

The safety net was not woven by left-wing zealots. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan proudly expanded it, to public acclaim. George W. Bush added the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Now, somehow, all of this is decried as "tainted money." And don't even start on veterans' benefits, which are figured into the map below. Can anyone really argue we do too much for these men and women?

Then there's the myth that lowering taxes solves everything. Starve government and, like magic, all will be well. But lowering taxes during the Reagan and George W. Bush years sent deficits soaring. This is the bill that has come due.

Fed by wars and recession in this century, the deficit now is a huge, long-term problem we must control. But most economists reject dramatic cuts to government spending. Rather, we need to spend wisely, helping families get back on their feet and shoring up the basics, from repairing roads to improving education: Invest in what will help us to prosper in the long run.

Blame ourselves

We need an honest discussion of what government should do in a civilized society. To blame it for everything is to blame ourselves. We must hold politicians accountable, but we must be accountable, too. Today, America is in denial. You can't collect less money and keep spending more.

And you can't cut off 40 percent of a community's income and expect it to suddenly thrive.

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