Thursday, June 30, 2011

Declaration of Dependence

July 4, 1776 the Representatives of the United States declared their independence from King George III of Great Britain. It was the culmination of years of petitions, diplomatic requests and ultimately a key rallying point during the Revolutionary War. The Declaration’s most famous phraseology is:

“…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The remainder of the document is a litany of complaints against King George III. Addressing those issues ultimately became the framework for the Constitution which would be fully ratified by all 13 colonies by 1790...14 years after the Declaration. The fundamental premise of the document is individuals have rights and that government exists only when the people who are governed agree to be. Government’s role is to preserve life and foster liberty and freedom. American iconography of the rugged frontiersman, the out-of-the-box entrepreneur, the immigrant who can go from rags to riches are a manifestation of the Declaration. Individual freedom is a great narrative. The facts tell a different story.

  • Social Security Recipients (2009): 52,522,819 (17% of population)
  • Medicare Benefit Recipients (2010): 47,500,000 (15% of population)
  • Medicaid Benefit Recipients (2010): 58,000,000 (19% of population)
  • Americans on Food Stamps FY2010: 40,301,666 (13% of population)Veterans receiving benefits as of 9/30/2010: 22,658,145 (7% of population)
  • Approximately 50 million Americans are on welfare (16% of population)
There were 308,745,538 Americans counted in the 2010 Census.

Each agency counts each benefit separately – the above list (which is a partial list of government programs) represents 270,982,630 disbursements from the government --- just about 1 disbursement for every man, woman and child in the United States. (This quick analysis also only looks at Federal programs.) Certainly some Americans who receive one of the above benefits might also receive others – such as people receiving food stamps are likely also receiving welfare.

There are virtues to each of the highlighted programs, and a discussion of the value of each can be had. Regardless of the merits, though, is the breadth to which the country relies on its government.

America didn’t lose her independent spirit by accident. We elected legislators and Presidents who in their best efforts passed law after law (after law) so that now whenever anything happens it seems that the first instinct is to turn to the government for a solution.

Tea Party activists have a rallying cry of “Take Back Our Country” – but from whom? The country is a reflection of voters: it’s the genius (and peril?) of Jeffersonian Democracy.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a record setting 12 years in office (supported by a Democratic Congress and Senate) realigned American politics and priorities. His legislative accomplishments created the modern government infrastructure under the philosophy of providing a federal program for any need. He aggressively moved America into World War II leaving a legacy of the military industrial complex.

FDR was effective not only because he was a charismatic, optimistic and brilliant leader who knew how to grease the legislative wheels – but because the country was suffering like never before during the Great Depression. There are differing views on why the Depression occurred - some indicate that it was a failure of capitalism and private enterprise while others blame government control of interest rates and inconsistent monetary policy. There’s ample evidence to support these and other analyses.

There was a crisis and the resolution came not from individuals or private enterprise, but from the State. The response to the Depression was government focused – through works programs, incentives, stimulus, benefits and a whole host of other ideas. Within a decade (coinciding with investment for World War II) the economy recovered. Economists who argue about the cause of the Depression are equally divided on the recovery – whether it was the New Deal programs, the military funding or private enterprise learning how to operate in the post-industrial revolution economy. Following the war the same infrastructure that was put in place to respond to the Depression has largely stayed intact. The legacy of those programs:
  • The U.S. debt is $14.3 trillion and $2 trillion more is being negotiated to get the country through the 2012 election cycle.  (Upwards of $46K per person.)
  • More Americans are out of work, underemployed or otherwise not contributing to the economy since the 1930s with no end in sight.
  • Federal Regulation (per the SBA) cost $1.752 trillion in 2008; or $15,586 per consumer.

For 235 years Americans have had a healthy and vigorous dialogue about the size and role of Government. That will continue for the next 235 years and beyond. As we celebrate July 4th patriotism and nostalgia will reinforce the mythology and imagery of individualism and independence.  By our actions, though, though we have declared ourselves dependent on government. What will it take for the fable to become real once again?

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