Small Government = The U.S of Shrinky-Dink

A recent newspaper headline read:

“OSHA Proving Weak as Workplace Watchdog”

How was that news, I wondered. This has been the direction of the United States for years, pretty much striving for the Grover Norquist goal of shrinking government down to the size “where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

The companion mantra to “cut spending” translates to cutting, primarily, government agencies’, offices’ and services’ budgets. The biggest budgetary expense for the vast majority of any operation, whether public or private sector, is  workers.

As I see more and more evidence of how these budget cuts are affecting the country, primarily in the form of reduced protections to Americans’ safety and well being, I am reminded of visits I had to two countries in the past couple of decades.

One was Bulgaria in 1997. I was participating in a court-media program sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Center and Eastern European Law Initiative and a Bulgarian legal organization. We presented three sessions of three days each in three different areas of the country. The first location was the Black Sea coastal city of Varna. My first day there was a jet-lag recovery day. After an afternoon nap, I was delighted to find street musicians playing within view of my hotel window. I decided to go down and listen. It was a lovely autumn day, so after enjoying the music I took a little walking tour and wound up on a beach.

It reminded me somewhat of Santa Monica, except for being deserted and neglected. Rusted remains of recreational equipment that looked like it might have been a playground merry-go-round and swings dotted the sandy expanse. Weedy growth erupted here and there. Black slashes of grafitti, forever ubiquitous in some parts of Europe, scarred every surface. Obviously, no one was putting any money or effort into maintaining it. What a shame, I thought. What a waste–or abuse–of a beautiful natural resource and what could have been, and no doubt at some point in the past was a wonderful community asset.

The other country was Indonesia, specifically Jakarta’s so-called “old area” of Batavia, which contains the Grand Canal. That was dug during the Dutch occupation of the city and the islands, then called Dutch Indo-China, that make up that country.

On one of my trips there as a court consultant in the mid-2000s, evidence of that long-ago Dutch influence still remained in the architecture as well as its artificial waterways — as if that water-rich with multiple natural waterways area needed them. The rooftops of buildings built in the Dutch style were caving in and paint had long since peeled off facades leaving hulks of gray-boarded derelicts. Homeless people had taken up residence under archways and strung their laundry between promenade support columns.

And the Grand Canal was one giant garbage slough. It didn’t have to be that way, according to an NGO colleague who had spent considerable time in that country. The problem was lack of maintenance. People threw trash in it. No one cleaned it out. All the refuse piled up, damming the water and hindered the flow.

Why were conditions like those in Bulgaria and Indonesia so wretched? What led to the deterioration? Mostly, apathy. Governments that were either corrupt, starved for funding or just didn’t care. And no one else–certainly no one in the private sector–willing, interested or able to pony up the money to make things right.

I see this county headed in the same direction. Shrinking the size of government–Grover Norquist would have it small enough to be drowned in a bathtub–and cutting government spending means no money for agencies that were intended to protect and serve, such as OSHA, our courts, law enforcement and fire departments, without the means to function.

That feeds into a downward spiral of the public believing–with great assist from small-government flagellators and their propaganda–that whatever government agency has suffered near-fatal budget cuts is not effective and, thus,  should get even less, not more funding. People become disillusioned with the agency or service to the point that they (1) hold it in contempt and (2) don’t fight for it.

An example is a county park near my house. Funding for what at one time was a system of beautiful, well-equipped, well-maintained parks that wove through the county like a string of pearls. As the “cut taxes” mantra gained steam across the country, the parks budget was repeatedly cut, leaving less than a skeleton staff.

The results have been visible, first in the form of weeds that have marched like an occupying army across the green expanses to the point that they go from carpets of bright yellow as dandelions bloom, to gray ground fogs as the dandelions go to seed, to dingy brown for the rest of the summer. Mowing has been confined to just a six-foot swath around the edges of those now-weed-choked expanses, leaving waist-high growth that is neither fun or safe to play ball, chase or tag. Tree branches and even trees in strong winds and storms lay for weeks where they land. Picnic tables and benches disappear. Damaged playground equipment isn’t replaced. Every summer, it looks more and more like that beach in Varna, Bulgaria.

So guess what? Fewer people use that park. So, funding is cut more because small-government, cut-spending proponents can point to it as proof that it isn’t needed. It seems these and the apathetic populace who never think about parks, much less use them, don’t understand the role attractive, well-maintained parks in their community play in raising their property values and how weed-choked, trash-strewn parks with little or broken equipment drags their property values down–and become meccas for crime.

The same thing is happening in all facets of government–death by starvation–including the justice system.

The irony is, the same people who oppose government funding of community assets like parks and beaches, present themselves as strong on law and order, and have a quiver full of communist/socialist-baiting tactics.  Yet, it is the very policies they push that lead to playgrounds for increased crime and the deterioration of public facilities that occurred in Bulgaria during post-WWII Soviet Union’s communist domination of Eastern Europe.

From my perspective, the small, weak government direction the current crop of spending cutters are taking this nation in is dragging it down to the middle of the pack of rinky-dink countries of the world with few protections for its citizens.

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