The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 18, 2013

My View: Why government? Public goods are needed and demanded

— Why do we need so much government? Put simply, we increasingly find there are needed public goods that only government can provide. Put more weightily, we live in a largely urban, technological society where commitment to democratic principles requires recognition that both the actions and inactions of private entities, groups, and individuals very often have significant local, national, and global consequences for others.

In 1790, the U.S. had 3.9 million people and was 94.9 percent rural; now, we have 310 million, who are 80 percent urban. Back then, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could envision very limited government with an agrarian populace of relatively self-sufficient, small farmers. But today, we have a huge, interdependent urban population reliant on numerous technological vehicles, appliances, devices, structures, etc.

Even most farming has become a capital-intensive major industry replacing the labor-intensive small family farms of the past. Our society now relies on a complex infrastructure that cannot exist simply through the private choices of individuals; it requires considerable governmental intervention.

After some 30 years of anti-government rhetoric and lowered taxes, serious deterioration of this complex infrastructure has occurred. Here are the grades given by the American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (or Electrical Power Grid) (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads (D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), Waste Water (D-).

In its 2009 Report, the society estimated the shortfall in needed investment over only the next five years at $1.176 trillion. Yet even President Obama’s recent proposal for just $50 billion in additional infrastructure investment faces opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The engineers though are talking merely about physical facilities. Infrastructure includes much more: like a well-functioning financial system, law enforcement, education, health care, job skills, a living wage, adequate housing, scientific knowledge and research, a safety net for people in trouble.

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