Good Things That Governments Do

Some people keep saying that all government is bad.

I think they are wrong, and would like to list some things that government has provided for me, and many others like me, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

I am not going to pretend that I like everything that all governments have done. (I’ve done my share of protesting!)We should also remember that many of these good things were the results of lots of folks pushing to have them get done.

Here is a partial list, with some details:

Polio Vaccines

In the early 1940s,  my dad got polio. He was in an ‘Iron Lung’ for a while, on crutches for longer, and had permanent damage around his midsection, though not his legs. A federally-led and -supported research program developed vaccines for this so when I was a boy in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the disease almost got wiped out. One of the current managers of the pizza joint around the corner from me caught polio when he was growing up, but that was overseas, in a country where it hadn’t yet been eradicated. He’s a young fellow, and uses crutches to get around. I am very happy that our government organized and funded basic and applied research by scientists on the causes and ways of preventing the disease. I am also grateful that our federal government, through the NIH or one of its sections, then organized and contracted for various private labs to earn money by serving the public to produce huge batches of tens and hundred millions of doses tested, effective vaccines. What’s more, once it was discovered that one of those private labs was producing vaccines that were actually hurting people, the central and private medical sectors  immediately stopped the production, found out the source of the errors, fixed the problem, and ramped up production again.

MMR and DPT vaccines

When I was a boy, I got every single one of the MMR trio: mumps, measles, and rubella. And a nice case of hepatitis, and my brother caught tapeworms overseas. Let me tell you, when you have the mumps, or measles or rubella (aka ‘German’ measles, because you can catch it more than once), you feel like you are almost dying. For a period of a few years, it seemed to me like every year would bring yet another horrible, seemingly unavoidable, ‘childhood illness’ to me and my brothers. My mom even caught one of them as an adult, trying to take care of us, and that’s even more serious. I supposedly caught jaundice (aka hepatitis) from some of the poor white kids at my semi-rural elementary school, children who lived in some of our local slums. Having hepatitis sucked, too. A lot of people used to die from those diseases. My own children benefited from the fact that there was basic research into developing effective and safe vaccines for MMR, as well as for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus. I perhaps would have had about three more aunts and uncles if some of those vaccines had been around during the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Again, I am profoundly grateful that through basic federally-funded and -organized research and development, these horrible diseases are on the way towards eradication, just like smallpox.

Social Security

If I stick around long enough to draw a social security pension, it won’t make me rich. But a few hundred dollars a month will certainly help pay a few bills. What’s more, it looks like it’s been a fantastic investment for me, assuming I remain alive, because every single month, it appears from my most recent Social Security Statement that I will ‘earn back’ one-seventh of all the money I ever put in. So if I collect 7 months worth of checks, I’ll get back 100% of everything Uncle Sam says I put in. A life expectancy calculator says I should live for 20 years after reaching the age of 66. So at 1/7 of my total input per month, times 20 years, times 12 months per year, I calculate that I will earn back, from the Federal Treasury, an incredible sum, namely:


If my wife lives to her expected age of 89, she will earn back 31 times what she put in.

You know any legal investments where people routinely get returns like that? I don’t. Yay for Social Security! (I’ve indicated in an earlier post how to make it so that SS never runs out of cash.)

Unemployment Insurance and Food Stamps

I’ve been unemployed a few times, and a penniless grad student for a while, too. It really helped that after biding my time during the waiting period, I was able to have enough to pay the rent and to have some food to eat while I was still looking for work. The various federal and state unemployment and food stamp programs didn’t make me rich enough to buy anything special, but I could survive for a while. (However, I found that using food stamps was profoundly humiliating.)

Federal Housing Administration

Without some help from my parents and from the FHA, my kids would never have been able grow up in a house their parents owned. Along with many others, my wife and I would have remained renters. We did that for quite a while, and it’s really no fun, especially here in DC, and especially with children. (Rats, mice, roaches, leaky sinks, and crazy landlords, anyone?) What you get for your apartment rental payment is SOOOO much less than you get when you can afford a down payment and get a mortgage. So, I’m grateful that as part of the New Deal, back in the 1930’s, the Federal Housing Administration was set up to help folks like us, helping to stabilize and regulate the housing market and help us get lower-interest loans, for a lot more than most banks would otherwise lend. The price of our house today is about five times what we bought for, 24 years ago, so that’s been a heck of an investment, too. If I did my calculations right, that’s an annual return of just about 7.2%, every year. Not bad for something we keep wearing out! (yes, and fixing…)

Big Science in General

The Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck and Gemini scopes and all of the other big telescopes you can think of, as well as just about every single big scientific advance that has happened in my lifetime, owe a lot (or perhaps everything) to federal or international government funding or support. The entire US space program was federally funded and organized, with private firms earning money carrying out a lot of the work. We have learned so much about the entire universe with this research. The fact that the federal tax code subsidizes donations to research institutions makes it much easier for them to get private donations as well.

Public Health and Utilities

There are countries where when folks need to ‘use the facilities’, they just have to go do their #1 and #2 business out in the bushes a little way from the village, and wipe themselves with their left hand. And to get water, they have to use a hand pump from a shallow well that’s not all that far away — water that may or may not be contaminated with fecal matter, arsenic, or anything else, because nobody ever tests it. (This is a pretty fair description of the village where a relative of mine recently served as a Peace Corps volunteer.) With no electricity. And not even any latrines.

Fortunately for us, my family didn’t have to live in a house with a septic pool or a shallow well. State, city and federal regulations and aid have made it so that we have electricity, running water that is filtered and even has fluoride, so my children have way, way fewer cavities than I did growing up mostly with well water.

When I was young, we used to paddle the Potomac river and its tributaries, which was often fun, but disgusting. Every time you went over a little waterfall or rapid, there would be a huge pile of suds right below it, often six feet high, left over from the type of untreated detergents we used in those days. Where the fancy Watergate Complex and the Kennedy Center now stand here in DC, were a couple of factories. One of them was a fat-rendering plant that took old rotting animals and restaurant grease, and the like, and turned all that nasty stuff into margarine, lipstick, and so on. This factory STANK SO BAD that I can’t describe it – and the stench spread for miles along the river. Fortunately, federal and local regulations and facilities for sewage disposal and water treatment have made those sud-piles a thing of the past. While the DC sewage treatment plant known as Blue Plains still stinks, it does such a good job at cleaning DC’s sewage water that amateur and professional bass fishermen routinely trek to its outfall region so they can catch the large numbers of healthy bass living there.

Yes, I know there have been incredible breakdowns in the treatment of drinking water here  in DC. Not too long ago it was found that an additive that was supposed to do a better job of eliminating bacteria, actually did an even better job of leaching lead into the water from our pipes and faucets. Our house ended up well over the legal limit, and I was most upset to find that the water fountain outside my school classroom (the one I always drank from, and the one that many, many kids drank from as they came in from recess, because it was always nice and cold and good-tasting and never got stopped up) — this water fountain tested as having a lead limit over 50 times the EPA limit.

(That’s obviously why I’m so weird.)

Some of these dyed-in-the-wool libertarians think the solution to such public health problems is “less government, less regulation”. HELL, NO! It was only because they were required to test and report the lead levels that any of that information was made public about the chloramine/lead/DC water problem. If anything, the regulations should be stronger. For example: right now, just about all brass or bronze plumbing fixtures contain several percent of lead (yes, element Pb) in addition to the normal copper, zinc, or tin (which are harmless). Regulations should be passed to make that essentially zero percent.

Where would we be without a national, even trans-continental electric grid? Do you think that can function without government direction and regulation?

Where would we be without our national railroad network? Without our federal highway system? Without a national telephone system, not to mention all of the other ways that the electromagnetic spectrum is federally managed?

That’s all I feel like writing about right now. I’m sure some readers can supply some more suggestions, in the form of comments.

Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I meant to write that I caught hepatitis (Aka jaundice) not tetanus. Considering all the little barnyard cuts, scrapes, and punctures I got as a kid and later, without those federally-researched and -mandated tetanus shots, I might have died from tetanus (Aka lockjaw).


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