Commentary: The efficacy of government

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Home alone, ailing, taking no chances, self-isolating, I wander with my cup of soup to the front window.

And there I see my little car. My good little car. It needs a wash.

But I see something else — a $45 parking ticket on the rider’s side windshield.

I go out and take it from the car and examine it. I have a permit. What the hell? There must be some mistake.

There is: I have let the permit lapse. The mistake is mine.

Still, how is it that with half the city shutdown, waiters and bartenders out of work and worried, old-timers shut in and afraid, and a growing number of coronavirus cases found positive (but not nearly enough test kits to know if all are being counted and treated), the parking authority marches on? It’s an absurd juxtaposition.

And worse. I love my neighborhood. It is a mix of old and new — people whose families have held their homes for generations and hipsters who cannot afford the higher-price spreads. It’s been “emerging” since I lived here 40 years ago. But, I never see a cop. Not on foot. Not on a bike. Not in a coffee shop. The streets are paved with litter. The homeless and addicted wander not only without care, but invisibly. I watched one of the regulars walk into the yard of an empty home three doors down, pull a sleeping bag out of her backpack, zip herself into it and collapse onto the ground.

Where is the city?

I have been covering government for 40 years, on and off. And I am amazed that more journalists are not libertarians.

Much of government is a distant, bad joke.

Some things work. Social Security works. It’s a transfer payment, for Pete’s sake. The genius was in the original conception and the gradual extension of the program.

Medicare works. (When Joe Biden says getting people testing and help during the corona crisis has nothing to do with single-payer, I wonder what he is talking about. Universal access when the economy is collapsing but not when the economy is good?)

The military and the military retirement system both work.

But much of government, much of the time, seems unresponsive, irrelevant and indifferent: Your state’s DMV, times 10, 100 or 1,000. Inept: From potholes to the intelligence agencies’ mis- or dis-communicating with each other about terrorists in 2001.

And yet it is to this haphazard, decrepit, ossified, lethargic and indifferent leviathan — state, local and national — called government that we turn in times of crisis.

Like the proverbial atheist in the foxhole, we call, in need, to the powers we usually disparage.

Do we really expect that the people who have let the bridges fall and the terrorists kill us will save us from a pandemic?

We do. For all our ambivalence about government, we must. It’s tough to fight a pandemic, or a Great Depression, or to go to the moon, or to battle AIDS, or the former Soviet Union, as rugged individualists.

One week ago to be called a “socialist” was political death. This week, everyone gets a check from Uncle Sam, an extended tax filing day, paid sick and family leave, and the free access to medical testing and the care that Uncle Joe insists has no lasting implication.

We are all socialists when the coronavirus hits the fan.

And we are back to the notion of adaptive social and political medicine. It’s situational. One public policy does not fit all. There is no one elixir for all situations and all times. Sometimes, to meet human need, government needs to expand and sometimes it needs to recede.

And some goods are public goods. Public health is a public good. That’s why we have a National Institute of Health. So, perhaps we are learning anew, is the private health of most Americans a public good. That’s why we talk about obesity and diabetes and alcoholism.

Both realities are true: Government is often lame. And the buffoonish elected public officials who stand behind the docs and cops and generals in crisis press conferences (after they have told us there was no homeless problem or that the markets were stable) are the visible sign of this.

But then we have the cops and soldiers and scientists who are also there, and have been there year after year, preparing to defend and care for us. It is the civil servants who save us from the politicians. It is the civil servants who make the government work for us when we really need it.

Yes, it often lets us down and is often a joke. But without government, or with a stripped back government, how would we manage national emergencies — problems or threats too large for private, state or local response?

We have to make government work in those instances. And the people who do that are the civil servants — career technocrats who actually know stuff and know how to put action plans into play.

I am glad the Corps of Engineers, NIH, NASA, the Coast Guard and the Marines are there.

I am glad Dr. Anthony Fauci, a lifetime civil servant, is there, aren’t you? The man is a hero, and a mensch.

“Look for the helpers,” said Fred Rogers. And if you meet a civil servant, tell that person, “Thank you for what you do.” He might be a drone. But he might be Tony Fauci.



Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (


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