When Government works well, it is invisible

Quick note: I know it’s been several weeks, but I do make an effort to fact check and I accidentally passed along some false info about the Dolphins in Venice. That is, they have come closer than usual, but haven’t been seen in the actual canals. Though honestly, at this point, maybe they have? I’m guessing those poor Venetians have plenty of worrisome things going on that might prevent them from filming water for hours. More info about it here

Ok, so maybe I was a little too ambitious.

Like so many, I THOUGHT this could be a productive time. Was I happy that our world has been plunged into chaos because a few incompetent and selfish “leaders” failed to set their egos aside and take the most basic of precautions? Of course not! Was I excited at the possibility of writing more than once in a blue moon? A little!

Then I learned. Oh, how I learned. 

For starters, most human beings are currently reworking their entire lives. I am not an exception. That takes extra mental focus, and the resulting drain doesn’t exactly leave me in the mood to meticulously research some house and senate bills from the 80s and connect the dots to many present problems in drug policy (although that is a fascinating and horrifying topic to study if you have the time and the inclination).

Oh sure, I’ve had more time for reading, and that’s been nice. I’ve made bread. I’ve exercised more. I’ve had more time for meditation, gaming, and hanging out with my roommate and her adorable pet rats.

Unfortunately, a lot of this rings a little hollow when there’s a killer virus sweeping the nation and millions of my fellow citizens are being forced to risk their lives with inadequate pay in order to make rent. That kinda puts a damper on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer marathon if I think about it too much. 

It is a tough, tough time to have functional empathy. And an even tougher time for “essential” employees. 

No matter how hard I wish for it, I probably can’t single-handedly make Jeff Bezos take a pay cut so that the Amazon warehouse workers are taken care of. I can, however, stay home. So I am. Except for a biweekly trip to the store (which my wonderful room mate usually handles because she has the car) we are staying home. Anyone who can, should. The more consistently we do this, the more lives we save and the more hospital beds we keep free. After all, other diseases haven’t gone on vacation just because there’s a dangerous novel virus tearing through the land. 

Besides- when else will it literally be my civic duty to sit on my butt and play Minecraft? I might as well take what joy I can during a pandemic.

So with all this extra time at home, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to think. Most of these thoughts are quite personal, and won’t be shared here. Some of them could be shared here, but are completely frivolous and don’t need to be. For example, I’m still very frustrated at how the eight season long epic Game of Thrones ended. But of course, that’s completely unimportant to the topic at hand. 

I didn’t post today to rant about how powerful women in fiction are often wronged by mediocre male writers, though with all this quarantine restlessness, that post may well materialize. Rather, I want to talk about the role of government in society.


And no, I’m not going to lecture you about the second amendment, or try to sell you overpriced gold.

I want to talk about the government. Not as the ten-story high evil giant wizard that people sometimes picture when they think of “The Government” with a capital G. Rather, I want to talk about the government as it really is- a large collection of people and organizations.

People have a tendency to think of the government as a large, singular entity. Depending on their personal experience/which social media feeds they’ve decided to embrace as fact, that force may be good, evil, or neutral.

I’m one person. I have blind spots and confirmation bias, just as any other person. But I find this view to be entirely too simple. 

The government isn’t one entity. It’s literally thousands of them. 

Libraries. Police stations. Post offices. The courts. The military and all of its branches. Congress and the Senate, as well as state governments. These organizations employ millions of people. 

And that’s not even everyone.

Because sometimes the line between the public and the private sector can start to blur. How about public universities? Or public transit systems that rely on public grants? Food banks?

When we look at it from this angle, the question of whether the government is “good” or “bad” becomes absurd. Because it can be both, and often is.

And here’s the difficult part. Rarely do people write a letter to the editor about how friendly their bus driver was, or how that one case worker really came through for them when they were in a bad place. We don’t often hear about the librarian who helped someone find housing, or the aid who talked their boss into upping the grant money for a struggling district. When generic prescriptions are free because of a bill the Senate passed years ago, we don’t think about it. When we have to cough half of our monthly income to pay for a pill that takes pennies to make, we take notice.

When the government works well, it is invisible. When it fails spectacularly, everyone can see.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should turn a blind eye when the government fails. It is critical that we don’t. Rather, I’m suggesting that to truly understand the pros and cons of our various forms of government, one needs to consider a lot of variables and research the topic carefully. 

And that’s just not a practical activity for most people.

Most working parents don’t have time to sift through old voting sessions, or read the full text of a policy proposal. Most cashiers and delivery workers won’t necessarily feel like researching their local representatives after nine hours of strangers treating them like garbage. 

But the known alternatives to democracy all are pretty terrible, so here we are. The good things that come out of government tend to fly under the radar, and the bad things spill out into the open like radioactive waste into a diaper landfill. Under these circumstances, it can be difficult for the public to make informed decisions about who they should elect.

When word of the $1200 stimulus checks splashed on the interwebs, a particularly irritating meme started making the rounds. There are multiple variations, but the basic premise was that anyone who had posted the words “not my president” in regards to Trump would be hypocrites for taking the money. 

This premise is multiple levels of stupid. 

Lord Dampnut did not personally give everyone $1200. Rather, he signed off on a bill (that he did not write) that did this, among many other things. That money belongs to all of us. It is taxpayer money, not his personal fortune to bestow upon whom he deems worthy.

However much he would like to pretend to be a king, and however much his supporters want to treat him like one, he is a president. Presidents are not all powerful. That’s kinda the whole point of electing a president as opposed to living under a king. We literally fought a war over this. 

More importantly, it was the incompetence of his administration that allowed this pandemic to even reach the levels that made stimulus payments necessary. No one can be expected to perfectly predict every bump in a pandemic, but maybe he could’ve taken it seriously from the start? Praising him for playing a tiny role in the stimulus payments is sort of like praising an arsonist because they took a break from burning down a children’s hospital long enough for firefighters to begin their work. At best, it’s simple ignorance. At worst, it is straight up gaslighting.

And as Whitney Phillips at Wired reminded us back in April, the anti-quarantine/ pro-grandparent sacrificing crowd are actually a minority. That is, most of America is totally fine with enduring some inconvenience to keep their fellow citizens alive. Those who approve of how Trump and his enablers are handling this pandemic actually represent a pretty small group- they’re just really loud, and a handful of them have deep pockets for ad space and astroturfing. 

In a way, containing a virus is a lot like writing good government policy. When containment measures are successful, there are few disruptions to everyday life. In 2014, there were some cases of Ebola in the United States. Yet few of us remember that as a “pandemic” because there were relatively few deaths on U.S. soil. Africa was hit quite hard, and I don’t want to downplay the suffering at that time. But my point is that because the containment measures in the U.S. were largely successful, most of us Americans were able to resume our daily lives.

So now that I’ve spent a lot of time describing a problem (fair and effective government isn’t sexy and so it tends to be very fragile) what might some solutions be?

Well, in the short term, we as a people need to vote out the turd and his buddies. But what about the long term? How do we, as a society, help voters to make good decisions without indoctrination into one particular set of beliefs?

Personally, I think it has to do with making critical thinking a bigger priority in earlier education. Both in schools and at home/socially.

I certainly don’t want to bog down our poor teachers with more unfunded mandates, but I think that many existing curriculums could be tweaked to include a little bit about confirmation bias, or the Dunning-Kruger effect. Such things are important to touch on when discussing, for example, the scientific method. Or perhaps a writing class might include a quick presentation about vetting digital sources. 

And parents/siblings/friends can help as well. We already have “the sex talk,” but what about the “youtube algorithm talk?”

I’m actually being quite serious. Children and teenagers need to understand that video essays on youtube are not vetted for accuracy. Youtube videos can certainly be helpful or educational, but one needs a process for fact checking. Children are not born knowing this, and so we must teach them. 

This is not something that can be accomplished overnight. Rather, it is a cultural shift that is probably going to happen sooner or later because it literally has to. Society can’t function if a significant chunk of the population is prepared to believe dangerous fallacies at the drop of a hat. I know this, because the evidence is playing itself out right in front of us.

In the age of the internet, fact checking and source vetting are not simply tools that your aggressively atheist college professor rants about- they are critical topics that everyone must have some basic grasp of.

And speaking of the internet, now seems like a good time to remind the reader that there are good and wholesome things on this platform as well. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth repeating. The internet does not consist entirely of depressing news. There are also videos of animals being great. Patrick Stewart has been providing performances of Shakespeare sonnets on his twitter and facebook pages. These things exist, but you have to make the decision to engage with them.

Democracy will probably always be messy. But as I’ve said before, the whole point of getting fired up about politics and current events is to try and make things better. Otherwise you’re just needlessly raising your blood pressure.

Stay safe, everyone. Be kind to yourself. We’re not going back to “normal” anytime soon, and even as quarantines are lifted and policies shift, the world is going to look a little bit different. Grieve when you need to. But consider the possibility that something better may be ahead. Because as long as we don’t give up, there may well be a brighter future. One where teachers are paid fairly, and grocery store employees can go to the doctor when they’re sick.

Getting into a fight on social media probably won’t bring that future any closer. But hoping, dreaming, planning, and voting? Those things just might help. 

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