The Government

I am always mindful when people say things about “The Government” as if it were an animal with a singular mind and unlimited power.  (“What was the government thinking?”)  I was in the Federal Government for 22 years.  Since 2003, I have been a ‘client’ of the government as a recipient of Social Security Disability benefits.  I have been on both sides of the desk and know a lot about  government and would like to share a few of my sentiments.

I was told recently by a friend that she exercised her right, granted by the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, to keep gun(s) and use them in the event of threat from the government.  I will use this sentiment as a lunching place…

First of all, the government is not one person or one mind.  The idea that climatologists, programmers, accountants, social security clerks, graphics artists, astrophysicists, secretaries, managers, human relations specialists, librarians, customer service specialists, park rangers, biologists, chemists, doctors, nurses, or judges would open their desk drawers and take out guns and mow down the non-governmental population is ludicrous.  Aside from the fact that weapons of any kind are not allowed on Federal property, get real.  Government employees are sworn civil servants (who have sworn an allegiance to the President to uphold the law and abide by legal mandates…more on that, later) who have accepted low pay (relative to non-government workers doing the same job) and receive constant abuse, but do so because they believe in what they are doing.

I will tell you a true story to illustrate how and why government employees have integrity that you would not find among privatized contractors, for example.  In the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, my director was in a hurry to see the latest month’s global mean temperature in the time series of all mean temperatures for that month for the last 150 years or so..  As it was, that month’s mean was the highest of the entire series, so much so that the bar for the month that year extended above the chart.  As he was in a hurry, I did not take the time to adjust the range of values which controlled the outer dimensions of the graph.  That year’s value rose slightly above the upper edge of the chart.  The director thought it was a great depiction; it showed the current year’s monthly mean was “off the charts.”  The other climatologists, however, were outraged.  They refused to go along with such sensationalism.  Their credibility, integrity, and professional reputations were at stake and it was just plain misleading and wrong.  The director had to concur and the graph and legend were adjusted, appropriately.

I will add here an aside that explains why certain jobs are ‘inherently governmental;’  research that influences public policy must be under the control and sworn allegiance of the bureaucracy.  I’m introducing that word because it is the correct word and not a ‘dirty word.’  Bureaucrats are career civil servants.  Trust me, they are not in it for the money.  The money is not there (salary), they can’t be given it (there are laws) and there are stiff penalties (termination, fines, prison) if they try to accept it.  (There are laws that prevent a civil servant from accepting money or gifts, even in exchange for giving even a non-job-related talk on summer grilling, for example.)  Furthermore, you do not want to privatize ‘inherently governmental’ tasks because contractors can, and often do, receive ‘incentives.’  (More on privatization, in a minute.)

However, bureaucrats are under the control of the President; they are his staff and as such must follow his orders.  (Forget about the guns; there are no guns.)  This sworn allegiance does cause some stress in the bureaucracy when the President supports an industry that would suffer if he or she approved the logical interpretation of the data.  The bureaucrats are sworn to follow the orders of the President; the bureaucrat also knows the facts.  When a certain President, whose bush name I will not mention, was inaugurated, we were not allowed to use the words “Global Warming,” nor “Climate Change,” in our reports and websites.  The closest allowed terminology was “climate trends.”  Bureaucrats constantly stuggle between professional integrity, a sence of obligation to the public, and their sworn allegiance to the President.

The same struggle comes up in ‘the system.’  I will use the Department of Social Security, as an example.  The clerks and managers of Social Security are constantly in a similar but different struggle:  on the one hand, their clients (you and me) deserve to be treated individually and with efficiency…but also fairly and equitably.  Two people with the same situation should receive the same benefits.  That is why there are standards and guidelines to be strictly followed.  It is the law and these bureaucrats are sworn to uphold those laws.  However, ensuring fairness and equitability, requires the filling out of forms, the keying in of data, the processing of said data (printing and mailing letters, etc.)…what we all lovingly refer to as Red Tape.  Remember, fairness and equitability is what you want…unless you have a special circumstance, and most people would rather have a person and not a computer making the final decision in the case of your special circumstance.  On the other hand, Social Security has millions of American clients.  This is a lot of fairness, equitability, and special circumstance…hence the high number of pending cases waiting in the queue, of a lot of government employees…doing the best they can…and taking a lot of abuse…for little pay.  I have never met…and I have met many…a Social Security clerk who was not compassionate, sympathetic to my struggle, and passionate in his or her efforts to resolve my problem or issue.  Never.

This draws in another aside…the size of government.  When a terrorist falls through the cracks of a system designed to draw attention to suspicious people, the people cry, “Where is the Government?”  Well, let’s first agree that you don’t want contractors doing the screening because while they have signed contracts, to my knowledge they do not swear an allegiance to the President or the law and while they may be found in violation of their contracts, that’s not the same.  Furthermore, while it is advisable and necessary for computers to sift through data and highlight certain people and situations using sophisticated intelligence, you don’t want a computer to make a judgement call and deploy a drone.  No, you really don’t.  And there are laws.

So, you need people…lots of people to watch and pass judgement, with checks and balances, to make final calls.  (More on checks and balances, in a bit)  When there are many millions of people who need to be watched, you need a few people to do the watching.  That is the nature of government.

The role of government:  to do those things that are for the benefit of all of the people, in a way that ensures accuracy, fairness, and equitability…even if, and especially if, it is not cost effective to do so…otherwise, corporations would be doing it for profit.

I overheard a comment the other day about the need to cut government spending by eliminating wasteful agencies.  I will not deny that there is waste…and graft…and abuse of power.  But, to identify the abusers…which is warranted…requires more government employees.  (Remember, you don’t want non-sworn, non-law-adherers following up on graft and abuse.  Government employees outside that agency, yes. But at the end of the day, who do contractors answer to? )  And don’t think that privatizing a task and eliminating a branch of the government reduces government spending; those contractors are paid with government funds…your taxes.  (You certainly don’t want them paid with corporate funds, or anyone else with an agenda or a profit margin.)   It has been demonstrated that contracting a task does not save money.

I could go on and on and you have probably left this post by now, anyway, so I will wrap up with the honest truth.  Just as the Stock Market functions because of (and responds to the amount of) faith people have in it, the government functions on trust…trust that the sworn employees will honor their vows, trust that the bureaucrats will follow the laws, trust that the government employed scientists, economists, and other researchers will continue to have integrity and follow their consciences (as well as peer review with academics and researchers from other countries who do not have the same possible vested interests).  This is all included in our system of checks and balances.  This is why our government has not been over-thrown by a military coup, for example.  Trust.  Laws are only effective if you trust the majority to abide by them and law enforcers are given the power to respond accordingly to the others.  Trust. That’s why watch dog groups have a purpose…and the media.  That’s why we have freedom of speech…to allow those who object to something that is going on, to be able to speak up.

The Government is not the enemy.  While our system of government “is the worst form of government except for all of the others,” it has served us well (enough) and is the best we’ve got.  But, my main point is this, ‘the government’ is people just like you, with families, bills, problems, and illnesses, just like you, who for the most part are true civil servants…doing a job they believe in, within the tensions of rules, laws, and regulations, under the instructions and guidance of the President.  God, bless them.

To God be the Glory and in God do we Trust.

By the way,  when I took my oath of office in January of 1981, it was finalized with the vow “…so help me God.”

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