Fist-bumps in anti-government crowd

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Trivia question: What historical leader said the following? “All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.”

Karl Marx? Chairman Mao? Barack Hussein Obama?

Hold that thought for a moment.

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Longingly, for more years than they wanted to count, they waited for their marching orders. Someone who shared their contempt for government surely would appear and inspire them with immortal oratory.

John F. Kennedy didn’t come close. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” was not what they had in mind. That kind of commitment and personal sacrifice would do nothing to widen the chasm they sought between themselves and government.

And so it came to pass that their leader appeared, and on Jan. 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued their marching orders in his first inaugural address, insisting that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Bingo! Exactly what they had in mind! And three decades later, their timeless battle cry still reverberates through the radio airwaves of America. It ricochets off the bandstands of presidential stump speeches. It radiates 24/7 from our television screens.

When you spend three decades dismissing the fact that the government just happens to be us, it’s easy to fear and hate the government. So, for these people, the Great Recession brought the best of times. Statistics tell us all we need to know.

Last month was the seventh consecutive month of government job losses in America. More than 30,000 public-sector jobs were cut across the country. A recent Associated Press story brought more good news for those who despise the government: 467,000 state and local government jobs were cut in the past two years, 188,000 of them in America’s public schools.

Closer to home

Here in Washington, 4,000 state government workers are being eliminated, Gov. Chris Gregoire recently told The Olympian. The newspaper also noted that this is “on top of the 6,000 teachers and 12,000 public employees the state has already sent to the unemployment office under previous budget cuts.”

How difficult have these cuts been for communities? Consider Thurston County, specifically the state offices in Olympia. The Olympian explained that “most of the layoffs of public employees are coming at the administrative level. Legislative budget writers tried their hardest to not cut jobs of line workers, those delivering state services.”

The anti-government crowd will also find inspiration in the fact that this recession is different than declines of 10 and 20 years ago. This month marks two years after the official end of the Great Recession, according to AP writer Paul Wiseman. In the two years after the 2001 recession, state and local governments added 249,000 jobs. In the two years after the 1991 recession ended, they added 430,000 jobs.

In these past two years, however, state and local governments have cut 467,000 jobs. And they’re not done. Wiseman writes: “Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, expects state and local governments to slash 20,000 to 30,000 jobs a month through the middle of 2012.”

If government is the problem, then we’re winning the war. Fist-bumps and high-fives abound. But for those who remember that the government is us, well, we don’t feel so victorious. Crowded classrooms, longer response times for emergency vehicles, needy people ejected from assistance programs and the doubling of college tuition are not the trophies we envisioned.

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Trivia answer: Those words extolling the virtues of collective sacrifice were spoken by Ronald Reagan three sentences after his marching orders for the anti-government crowd. Prior to his famous command, he used the introductory phrase, “In this present time … .” Now, though, we are led to believe he meant forever, because there’s no sign the contempt for government will subside anytime soon.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.