Wednesday, December 26, 2012

thanks, Uncle Sam!

The week between Christmas and New Years is traditionally reserved for countdowns and best-of lists, so we’ve decided to compile our own. We’ll mark the 26 days until President Obama’s second inauguration with our highly subjective list of the 26 best federal government policies, laws and initiatives, at least since 1787.

This project is inspired by the frequently espoused Right-wing and/or libertarian position – as wrong as it is loud – that nothing good ever comes out of the federal government. Of course the irony of expressing that retrograde view over the (federally financed) Internet is lost on the government’s critics, but, whatever. For the next four weeks we’re going to celebrate that most beautiful gift of the Enlightenment, democracy.

Drum roll, please...!

1. The Rule of Law
Yes, this is more of a broad and ambiguous category than a specific policy, law or initiative, but it speaks to the ongoing success of the American experiment. We are a society governed by laws that we continuously test, tweak, refine and improve through our elected representatives. It is an infuriating and messy process, but it works. In the long run, it works.
One indication of how well the rule of law works in the US is the level of outrage that accompanies any perceived fault in the system. If a reckless driver escapes serious criminal penalties after killing a bicyclist, or a chemical company extorts royalties from farmers whose land has been polluted with GMO seeds, or a person fails to honor a contract, or a politician carries water for an industry who funded her candidacy, or the federal government imprisons people without trial, we are - rightfully - outraged. The system, for all its faults, protects us against all manner of trespasses which are common in other societies. Most importantly, the rights of minorities are protected against the "tyranny of the majority."
The oath of office administered today marks the 68th peaceful transfer (or affirmation, in the case of re-elected presidents) of presidential power in our history. That's worth celebrating.

2. The 15th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, Voting Rights Act, the 23rd Amendment, the 26th Amendment
In our representative democracy, in which all laws are created and enforced through the consent of the governed by elected representatives and their appointees, no right is more fundamental than the right to vote. Our greatest moments have come when we have expanded and guaranteed the franchise, while our darkest have come from restricting it. It took nearly a century for the 15th Amendment (1870) to ensure that voting rights could not be restricted by race, though Asian-Americans were still routinely denied the franchise and African-Americans would have their rights restricted by Jim Crow laws for another century until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It took the 19th Amendment to extend voting rights to women in 1920, 42 years after Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first proposed the amendment. The 23rd Amendment extended voting rights to residents of Washington, DC, though these are restricted to municipal government and presidential voting; the 600,000 residents of the nation's capital still have no real representation in Congress. The 26th Amendment set the voting age at 18. As with abolition (see below), the continuing expansion and safeguarding of voting rights demonstrates our remarkable ability to right wrongs and to move closer and closer to that great ideal of a more perfect union.

3. The 13th Amendment/Civil Rights Act (tie)
The 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, was ratified at the end of the Civil War. Yet the legacy of Jim Crow laws and institutional racism perpetuated the overt segregation of, and restriction of opportunity within, American society for another century, which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to rectify. The principles expressed in both documents should not be controversial - they affirm the core American belief that we are all equal, and all equally entitled to the gifts of citizenship in this nation. Living in the South for the last eight years, however, has driven home what a long shadow the "original sin" of slavery casts on everyday life in America. Yet history does bend toward justice, and the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act demonstrate that beautiful American capacity for fixing the deepest and most divisive of problems.

4. Social Security
When the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt created Social Security in 1935, half of American seniors lived in poverty. Roosevelt argued that supporting the welfare of the elderly was "our plain duty" as a nation, as defined in the preamble to the Constitution. The program is an unqualified success: in 2011, over 21 million Americans were lifted out of poverty by Social Security; 14.5 million of them were elderly. Between 1960 (when poverty rates began being measured with greater precision) and 1995 the poverty rate among seniors dropped from 35% to 10%. Many, many more people receive Social Security benefits, too, including children and people with disabilities.

5. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
Obamacare builds on the success of other federal health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid and  the Veterans Adminstration, for example) to ensure access to affordable healthcare for nearly all Americans. The Affordable Care Act is designed to compensate for the failure of private industry to make health insurance universally accessible, and is the culmination of decades of attempts by leaders from both parties to develop a national health insurance program. It will reduce costs for all patients, improve pubic health and lower the federal deficit, while eliminating the unconscionable practices of abandoning patients under the pretext of pre-existing conditions and other excuses for lethal cost-cutting. It's not a single-payer system, and, to my tastes, relies too much on private insurers and state-level exchanges, but Obamacare fixes one of the great moral shortcomings of our time - our unwillingness to care for millions in need, despite the resources at our command.

6. Medicare and Medicaid
One of the cornerstones of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives were the twin programs, Medicare and Medicaid, which created a government-sponsored health insurance system for the elderly, disabled and impoverished. Nearly 50 million Americans are now covered by Medicare, and Medicaid insures a slightly larger number of people, with up to 10 million Americans taking advantage of Medicaid during brief periods of financial hardship every year. How important are these programs? Keep in mind that seniors have a median household income of approximately $22,000, which would make private insurance unobtainable if combined with rent, food and other costs. The average American enters retirement with about $67,000 in savings, yet will incur $124,000-$152,000 in health costs, depending on gender. Without Medicare, a huge number of seniors would live in poverty, or would depend on their children, significantly impacting the next generation. Given the private sector's failure to adequately cover individuals' health costs, these two programs have been essential for ensuring that retirees, the working poor and the families of the chronically ill do not suffer financial hardship. Two other thoughts about these seminal programs: per capita costs of government-run health programs are at least 40% lower than those of private insurers in America, giving the lie to the conventional wisdom that competition breeds efficiency, and Medicare and Medicaid accelerated the desegregation of American health facilities, especially in the South.

7. Diplomacy
Advocates for business interests, like the Chamber of Commerce, are among the loudest voices calling for reduced government interference in commercial affairs. Except when they need help opening foreign markets to our exports or securing access to raw materials in other countries, that is. The federal government plays an irreplaceable role in ensuring the free flow of people, ideas and capital across national boundaries. Yet commerce is the least important mode for exercising soft power. Diplomacy safeguards our security - it's worth noting that World War III never broke out, despite the common assumption that it would during the Cold War - and enables us to assert our values when compelled to do so morally.

8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Given America's size and geographic diversity, as well as our lingering problems with poverty and our highly mobile populace, it's remarkable that we suffer as little as we do from epidemics and pandemics. This reflects the success of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in identifying contagious diseases and limiting their spread. The CDC's success is a strong argument for the necessity of federal agencies to deal with issues like epidemic prevention, since only an organization with nationwide scope and resources can quickly isolate and limit the damage from illnesses like SARS and new strains of influenza (and they address many more issues than those). The CDC is also one of numerous federal agencies (including the NTSB, the FAA, NOAA and the FDA) which act as de facto global agencies, given other countries' reliance on our programs that ensure safety in transportation, agriculture, medicine, climate and other fields. The CDC has a budget more than twice that of the World Health Organization, for example, and its research and policies play important roles in determining health policy in other countries.

9. Rural electrification
The private sector works great, until it doesn't, and that's when government needs to step in to ensure fairness and access to opportunity. In the case of providing electrical power to rural areas, the Roosevelt administration created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 to address the huge deficit in utilities services to farmsteads when compared to urban areas (where electricity often cost one-fourth as much) and to rural areas in Europe (where 90% of farmers enjoyed access to electricity, compared to just 11% of American farmers). The Tennessee Valley Authority, created in 1933, also sought to compensate for private utilities' refusal to extend power lines and generating capacity into rural areas. Both programs involved other utilities (notably telephone service), and the TVA also served to control flooding, reduce malaria, produce fertilizers and provide shipping routes, all of which increased the productivity of rural industries and raised the standard of living of area residents. By the time of FDR's death in 1945, 90% of rural Americans enjoyed access to electricity.

10. National Parks
Ok, Ken Burns beat us to this one, but the National Park system is one of the federal government's great achievements. It was a project that spanned several administrations - most notably Theodore Roosevelt's and Woodrow Wilson's - and was propelled by the activism of Sierra Club co-founder John Muir. Here in Miami, we live on a narrow sliver of land between two national parks, the Everglades and Biscayne Bay. The environmental benefits of the national parks are clear - irreplaceable habitat for native plant and animal species needs to be preserved, free of pollution and disturbance, in order to ensure their continued survival. Our national parks have, along with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air and Water Acts, brought bald eagles, alligators, bison and other iconic North American species back from the precipice of extinction. But they also express a more abstract and noble concept, that the commonwealth is sometimes best served by restraint and conservation. No amount of economic profit is worth the loss of places like Yellowstone, Zion and the Grand Canyon. Like New York's Central Park, it's the places set aside from development that make us all richer.

11. The Americans with Disabilities Act
At its best, government ensures access and opportunity when society fails to do so. In the case of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Congress and President George H. W. Bush stepped in to ensure that people with a variety of disabilities, including many that are not easily recognized, would be able to find employment, access public entities and use public accommodations without restriction. The law had profound effects on architecture and urban design, which adopted new design standards to ensure accessibility. As a result, large numbers of people who had previously found their educational and employment options limited took advantage of new academic opportunities and joined the work force in unprecedented numbers, bringing with them untapped insights and entrepreneurial energy.

12. Environmental protection
A provocative article recently published suggests that dropping crime rates (especially violent crime) over the last two decades in America may be linked to the steady elimination of lead from our air following federal regulation of lead in gasoline during the Nixon administration. While the author's conclusions (which are based on some pretty convincing scientific analyses of publicly available data) have been challenged, the article gives a hint at the broad effects of federal environmental regulations. We've discussed the importance of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act before, and we've particularly heaped praise on the environmental legacy of Richard Nixon in this regard, but it is necessary to repeat that, were it not for the government's actions in the 1960s and '70s, our air and water would be poisonous, and bald eagles would be extinct. Given the fact that animal habitats do not respect state boundaries and air- and water-borne pollutants travel without respect to political borders, environmental regulation is a clear example of the need for intelligent and effective action at the federal level. It is time we displayed this kind of collective courage and perspicacity on climate change.

13. Title IX
Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination at any school that receives federal financial assistance. We typically associate the measure with collegiate sports, where it has resulted in a vast expansion of women's athletics that, among many other benefits, is probably responsible for the dominance of the US soccer and basketball teams in international competition. But much more than that, Title IX has made college accessible to women - who now comprise a majority of students enrolled in American schools - and has ensured that merit, not bigotry, guides hiring processes for teachers and administrators. Title IX is an example of something the federal government is uniquely capable of doing, given its scale and authority: guaranteeing equal access to opportunity.

14. The G. I. Bill
The first day of classes at FIU is an opportune time to sing the praises of the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act (the G. I. Bill). Available to every veteran of the second world war, the G. I. Bill sent over two million vets to college over the course of its twelve year term (an increase in college enrollments of over 40%), and provided funding for technical training for another six million. Subsequent versions were even more successful, with over 70% of Vietnam veterans using the bill's education funding provision. Veterans and their families were not the only beneficiaries of the program, as American colleges witnessed their greatest period of expansion between the end of the war and the late 1960s, providing access to higher education for increasing numbers of students at all levels. The G. I. Bill also subsidized home mortgages and small business loans. Together, these policies spurred a vast expansion of middle-class wealth that reshaped our polity and funded the development of American universities and the suburban landscape. It was an investment in human capital on an unprecedented scale.

15. The Internet
Has any government-funded initiative ever reaped higher returns on its investment? What started with research funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal organs has become the medium through which college kids become billionaires and activists overthrow dictators. Our changed relationship to information and communication has provoked the greatest epistemological changes in human societies since the Enlightenment.

16. The Federal Emergency Management Agency
There may be no starker contrast between effective and incompetent government than in the differing responses of FEMA to Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. At its best, the federal government can marshall resources beyond the capacity of local and state governments, can organize responses by multiple agencies at all levels of government, and can provide security, housing, food and medical care for people affected by disasters. The combination of prevention (in the form of effective building codes and best practices for disaster preparedness), preparation (through effective weather forecasting based on sound scientific methods) and response (both emergency and long-term) saves lives in a way that piecemeal local responses, charities and the private sector simply can't.

17. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
No one was surprised when Hurricane Sandy travelled north along the Atlantic coast, then turned due west into New Jersey and New York. The superstorm produced devastating damage in the mid-Atlantic states, but authorities were able to prepare for its arrival in ways that mitigated damage, enabled rapid emergency responses and, most importantly, reduced the number of fatalities. This planning was made possible by the forecasting services of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA shares responsibility with a number of entities, ranging from NASA and FEMA to state and local emergency planning operations, for translating climate data into life-saving information. They've integrated great amounts of (often federally-funded) scientific research into climate prediction models that are essential tools for agriculture, transportation and life safety.

18. The Marshall Plan
Between 1948 and 1951, the Marshall Plan helped 17 European countries rebuild after World War II. In particular, it ended the punitive restrictions against German industry, which helped the whole continent recover much more rapidly. In addition to the money spent to reconstruct infrastructure and resettle refugees through 1947, the Marshall Plan was hugely successful: by 1951, economic activity in the participating countries was dramatically higher than it had been the year before the war started. And while the Marshall Plan was restricted to Europe, similar aid was provided to Asian countries. In terms of pure self-interest, the Marshall Plan was an unqualified success, as American businesses profited tremendously from the increased trade with Europe spurred by the reconstruction and period of rapid growth, and the United States built blocs of prosperous and (largely) democratic allies for a relatively small sum. Yet the moral implications of the Marshall Plan are far more important, as they provide a model for intervention based on human need, not short-term political interests.

19. Transcontinental Railroad
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 enabled people and goods to move much more quickly - and affordably - between the West Coast and the rest of the country. It accelerated the settlement of the Great Plains and the West, spurred the industrial and agricultural development of these areas, and helped end the recurring threat of California secession. The move to link distant states across the continent was a powerful affirmation of the Union during the Civil War, and, for better or worse, a major step in the completion of Manifest Destiny. Alongside the tracks, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads built telegraph wires, which dramatically improved communication across the country. But while the railroads designed and built the tracks, they didn't fund them. The federal government paid these companies with bonds whose value varied according to the difficulty of the terrain, and further subsidized construction with grants of land around the tracks (both rights-of-way and larger tracts). The bonds would be paid back, with interest, and the tax revenue from the new settlements would quickly offset the value of the land grants. The government's investment, which was necessary to build the railroad, would be completely repaid, while private interests managed the project with an eye toward efficiency and profit.

20. New Deal Labor Laws
Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, oversaw the creation and enforcement of a number of seminal laws regulating labor practices. We'll deal with Social Security, in whose establishment she played a major role, later (spoiler alert!). Perkins was the driving force behind the elimination of child labor, the establishment of a minimum wage, the creation of the 40-hour work week and overtime pay. Having personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she enforced new workplace safety standards. And as a veteran of the labor movement, she played a role in developing the National Labor Relations Board and other bodies that protect the rights of organized labor.

21. The 16th Amendment
"Taxes," Oliver Wendell Holmes reportedly said, "are the price we pay for a civilized society." And what better way to celebrate the end of the 2012 tax year than with an appreciation of the 16th Amendment, that Progressive-Era fix to the Constitution that allows the federal government to levy income taxes? Progressive taxes, in which the effective tax rate increases in proportion to one's income, are the fairest way to fund government operations, which, ideally, ensure increasing prosperity through support for education and research, expansion of trade, and various mechanisms for securing economic stability. It's worth noting, however, that Justice Holmes spoke his oft-quoted axiom as part of a dissenting opinion.

22. Peace Corps
The Peace Corps is quintessentially American. In the half-century since President Kennedy launched the organization, some 250,000 volunteers have devoted two years of service to helping communities in at least 139 countries. They've delivered babies, taught math, dug wells, fertilized crops and performed all manner of everyday and extraordinary tasks. Above all, they've modeled the best of America - our selflessness, generosity, pluralism and optimism - around the world, and have helped shape our country through the shared experiences of program veterans. This is a classic example of a win-win program, with great benefits to communities abroad and to the US as a whole, and shows what happens when our national government reflects our national spirit.

23. Food, drug and product safety
You shouldn't have to worry about ingesting E-coli with your spinach, and thanks to agencies born from Progressive-Era legislation in order to ensure food safety, you usually don't. How bad was food safety in the nineteenth century? During the Spanish-American War of 1898, unscrupulous Chicago meat packers killed more American troops than combat. The world documented by Upton Sinclair and muckraking journalists included narcotic-laced "drugs" that did not treat maladies, foods preserved with poisons like insecticides, and manufactured goods whose malfunctions maimed their users. It wasn't the
invisible hand of the market that stopped clothiers from selling pajamas that burst into flames, it was the  federal government. We shouldn't need the government to protect us against snake oil salesmen and enormous food processing corporations, yet market forces and human decency have repeatedly fallen short in this regard.

24. Thirty-year mortgages
Hard as it is to imagine, this cornerstone of the residential real estate industry and essential instrument for the growth of the American middle class only emerged as part of the New Deal reforms for stabilizing the housing market during the Great Depression. The National Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Authority, which developed our most commonly used mortgage instruments and processes, and, most importantly, opened up the credit market by guaranteeing loans for approved buyers. How successful was this program? In the 1930s only 40% of Americans lived in homes they owned; by the last decade, that number reached nearly 70%. The importance of home ownership in the expansion of the middle class cannot be overstated. The FHA should also be lauded for incentivizing the construction of millions of housing units for veterans, the elderly and low-income families.

25. Land Grant Colleges
This year marks the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act of 1862, the law through which the federal government granted each state federally-owned land to develop as (or to sell in order to fund) institutions of higher education. The institutions funded by this and subsequent acts were originally intended to educate generations of Americans in such practical fields as agriculture and engineering, though many grew into large universities offering a full range of arts, sciences and professional studies. The land grant schools responded directly to the challenges of the industrial revolution, since the specialized knowledge required to work in fields marked by technological innovation could not be gained through traditional apprenticeships, nor could they be adequately taught in secondary schools. The land grant schools helped create a class of technologically savvy and well rounded thinkers whose mechanical, scientific and logistical innovations fueled America's industrial expansion and aided the transition of American agriculture away from a model based on human slavery.

26. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
The first law signed by President Obama, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act guarantees American workers equal pay for equal work. It's actually a fix to the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws affirming our equality, since Lilly Ledbetter's experience (getting shafted by the Supreme Court after being shafted by Goodyear Tire) demonstrated that five decades of civil rights legislation still didn't guarantee that women must be paid as much as their male co-workers for doing the same job.

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