When government works effectively, it becomes an invisible part of everyday life and people start to take it for granted.

Government programs may be victims of their own success. When
a public system works well, it becomes less visible. During
and following the New Deal, the federal government took
responsibility for protecting working people. Within a
generation or less, this became the “new normal.” As a result,
until very recently, most Americans took collective bargaining
rights, wage and hour laws, Social Security, and unemployment
insurance for granted. These protections strengthen our
economy by building a strong middle-class and minimizing

During World War II, the Defense Department mobilized
America’s scientific and creative talent to defend the nation.
The public – and most of the business community – came to
understand that public investments in basic scientific
research and technological advances were in the national
interest. American businesses from GE to Apple have reaped the
rewards of innovations produced by government-funded research

But we don’t have to go back decades to see the crucial role
government plays: Until the financial crisis of 2008, most
individuals and businesses assumed their bank deposits were
safe. Yet without the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation,
created by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, millions could have
lost their life savings or seen their businesses go under.
This invisible government service has become another taken-
for-granted yet critical component of modern life.

In other words, when public systems work effectively, they
immediately get embedded in individual and collective
expectations about “the American quality of life,” and taken
for granted. Government, when it works, is just an invisible
part of everyday life.

People don’t recognize what government does until it fails to
do something they expect it to do – like regulate the mortgage
market and credit card practices, protect against deep-sea oil
spills, respond to hurricanes or keep contaminated drugs off
the market. When breakdowns do occur, the cultural meme that
gets triggered (with a lot of assistance from pundits and
self-serving public relations shops) is: “Government always
screws up,” not “low-road corporations cut corners without
government oversight.”

Until we Americans truly recognize the myriad ways in which
government protects the quality of life in America and
provides the foundation for economic growth, we’re likely to
continue to have a shallow and partisan debate about the size
of government or trust in government. To this end, the Nathan
Cummings Foundation supported the production of a video
intended to draw attention to the innumerable ways in which
America’s private sector is supported by public investment in
our future: From federal insurance for individual savings
accounts, to roads that allow the transfer of goods; from the
National Weather Service, to local police forces – without
government involvement, we would not be able to grow together
as a nation.

What we need is not more sound bite-driven argument, but an
honest, well-grounded conversation about the role government
already plays in the economy today, and the role we need it to
fill to create a competitive, successful, inclusive economy
for the 21st century.

Simon Greer   Nathan Cummings Foundation

Katherine McFate   OMB Watch

Excerpt from AlterNet   


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