Saturday, February 04, 2006

Public Service and the Least of These

I didn't watch President Bush deliver his State of the Union Message. I saw no reason to do something I knew was going to disappoint me (I will also say, in fairness, that I had little hope from the Democratic response - too little to watch that, either). Instead, I watched "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I was also largely disappointed with the movie (it was almost, but not quite, totally unlike the book), but I did laugh a couple of times, and I didn't expect to be disappointed before I even started.

I have come to expect very little from State of the Union messages, or from any major policy presentation from either party. If I'm interested I will read it in print in the next day's paper. But even then I have poor expectations.

Why? First, rhetoric seems to be a lost art. One would think the desire for good "sound bites" would encourage some verbal flourishes. But, in fact, it seems not to do so. A truly witty comment requires some context, some setup. Moreover, the current fashion of "staying on message" mandates against subtlety. Sheer repetition has its place. It settles the simple phrase in the memory of the listener. But it doesn’t allow for any variation, any exceptions.

More pragmatically, I have little expectation of any program or goal described in the State of the Union Message to ever come to fruition. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible or has never happened. But I have little hope that what comes from Congress will really accomplish much to benefit the American people. That’s not an expectation of gridlock, although that can be a problem. It is an expectation that the concept of serving seems lost from the lived expressions of the phrase “public service.”

Granted, some of this reflects my differences with the priorities of the Bush administration or of the Republican leadership in Congress. I am concerned with “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40), and I do not see that as the first priority of the current government. Most of them aren’t offended if “the least of these” benefit. The hope, as the saying goes, that a rising tide lifts all boats. Unfortunately, they take no account of those boats too damaged, or too tightly attached to anchors, to rise. They take no account of those boats too loosely moored, so that they may still wash up on the rocks.

For example, what would it mean if the American economy were oriented toward maximum employment instead of maximum market value? Where is the commitment to investment for the long term, whether in production capital or in human capital? So many who realize that one must invest money and risk money to make gains over the long term refuse to consider the long term value of investing in our children.

So, it’s the sense of service that I miss from “Public Service.” So much seems to be in service of getting reelected. Now, I’m not na├»ve: those who don’t get elected don’t get to govern. However, I long for those who will risk the criticism of the press, of the “political bases” left or right, to provide efforts that would truly serve “the least of these,” not as a possible (unintended) consequence but as the primary purpose. Could we have a drug benefit more oriented to the drug consumers than to the drug producers? Could we attack our addiction to oil, not to mention our air quality concerns, with support for mass transit and urban residential development? Could we address our concerns about the cost of health care by offering universal care while requiring universal participation, and so maximizing the actuarial pool? Could we support business by ensuring a minimum income that is actually a living income, and so ensure both adequate resources for all Americans and adequate cash flow for commerce throughout the economy? Could we maintain our economic power in the world by supporting public education so that not only are our best and our brightest the best in the world, but our least and our average are also the best-prepared workforce in the world?

These are not the sorts of programs, I fear, that would be supported by the power brokers, either economic or political. In an environment committed to maximizing short-term profits these are long-term investments. They would require a commitment longer than the next political cycle or even the next business cycle. They would require a commitment of government to society that would run counter the to common romance of the “rugged individual.” On the other hand, they are programs that would benefit all of us by beginning to benefit “the least of these,” our siblings. And they are programs that would return Public Service to a focus on service, and not on politics.

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