We have to do better

I wrote this last August. I hope you still find it relevant.


For the last 25 years, we, the American people, have been sold a bill of goods. The pitch, on one level, appeals to our natural sense of right and wrong. We’ve been told that we pay too much in taxes. We get taxed in the morning. We get taxed as we drive to work. We clearly get taxed on the money that we make it work. We come home and we kiss our spouse. We get hit with the marriage tax. As we make our way to the kitchen we trip over toys that we bought for our kids and of course, those toys were taxed. We get taxed morning, noon and night. Finally, when we leave this earth, we get taxed again with the death tax.

We’ve also been told that our government is not to be trusted. If you give money to the government it is almost equivalent to flushing the money down the drain. Some of our elected leaders have gone so far as to say flushing the money down the drain is actually a better use of the money. The take home lesson is our government is wasteful and we get taxed to death. Cool story. Unfortunately, reality is different than this fantasy world. This week, in my opinion, we saw clearly the result of 27 years of cutting government programs and government spending. The evidence has been all around us but we’ve refuse to see it. Our infrastructure is crumbling around us. We’ve invested almost nothing in our schools, roads, government buildings, levees and, of course, bridges.

As I’ve pointed out in my book, A Letter to America, taxes are like membership fees to an exclusive club. The United States of America is the club that we belong to. Our club used to treat us like exclusive members. If you work hard in school you were almost guaranteed a job for which you can be well-paid. You could be secure in the knowledge that you would have this job until you retire. Once we retired we had a generous pension that made all those years of work, pain and suffering, worth it. Well, like any club, when you reduce the membership fees too far, the perks that made that club special are now not affordable.

Minneapolis is a gorgeous city. If you haven’t seen it, I hope you have an opportunity to go and visit. You should go during the summer (the winters can be a little chilly). I have driven over the I-35 bridge which crosses over the Mississippi River. When I heard the news of the collapse, I shifted into trauma mode. As a trauma surgeon, you think of the first responders and the hospitals and the trauma centers. I thought about the victims and the paramedics, the nurses and doctors and the victim’s families. Then my feelings of empathy and sorrow really turned into feelings of disappointment. I began to wonder if there is anything that we can now trust from our government. There should be some basic things that we can trust that our government will do for us. Our bridges should stay maintained in such a way that they don’t collapse. We should be able to drink a glass of water out of our sinks without having to worry about the mercury levels or arsenic levels in that water. We should be able to book a flight and have 95% confidence that the flight will take off on time, land on time and our bags be delivered on time to our destination. We should be able to buy pet food in the grocery store and not have to worry that will and not nourish our pet. These are the things that we depend on our government to do. In my opinion, if we need to raise our membership fees in order to get these things accomplished, I’m willing to pay more.

Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, informed us that the Mississippi bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, was rated a 50 on a scale from one to 120 two years ago with regard to its structural integrity. According to the American Society of civil engineers a little over 27% of our bridges have been labeled “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” According to the same study, we would need to spend a little over $9 billion a year for 20 years to fix this deficiency.

Maybe it’s just me but I have no desire to drive over a bridge that is rated 50 on a scale from 1-120. I would like my bridge to be rated 95% or better (as in an A or A+). I’m also a little tired of driving by middle schools and high schools that look like they need to be condemned. In order to turn our country around will have to change our mindset. Currently politicians get us to go for some cockamamie schemes because we are thinking of ourselves. We are thinking of “me.” When we change our mindset and think of the common good, we will begin to think in terms of “we.” What is in the best interest of all of us? This is not some Karl Marx communistic/socialistic ideology. Instead, this is democracy. Remember, our Constitution starts with the phrase “We the People.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, we are now spending over $12 billion a month on the war on terror. Do you feel safer? It seems to me that every week there is a new terror threat. Whether it is the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which desperately needs to be fixed (in spite of the fact that it’s been amended every year for the last five years) or Osama bin Laden is planning this or that. I’m not saying that there are not terrorists in the world that are plotting to harm Americans. Instead, I’m saying if we’re going to spend $12 billion per month on the war on terror we should get more for our money. We should get peace of mind.

There is a lot of work that our government officials need to be doing. As an American citizen, my job is to make sure that I elect the best person for the job. The best person is probably not the one with the best hair or the best smile. The best person is probably not the one with the most money. Instead, it is probably the person that is the most thoughtful. It is probably the person with the ability to convince others to look at the data and make the “right” decision. It is also a person with enough intelligence to keep an open mind and change his or her mind in the face of new information. In order for democracy to work, we have to do our part. We have to be engaged. We have to go to town hall meetings. We have to write letters.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Swiss philosopher, said, “…the very right to vote imposes on me the duty to instruct myself in public affairs.” We have to do better and only then will we have a government that we can trust to act in our best interest. Now, that would be a government for the people and by the people.