The “Nanny” State

February 23, 2020

Republicans complain endlessly about “The ‘Nanny’ State”. Do anything good for the people – that’s “The ‘Nanny’ State.” Can’t we do anything for ourselves? What happened to self-reliance?

Actually self-reliance doesn’t work by itself. We call it self-reliance when young people put themselves through college, but jobs have to be available and pay enough for young people to put themselves through. The college has to be there, affordable, with the support needed to to provide great educations. I remember hearing Marty Silverman, one of Albany Law’s major benefactors, describe putting himself through law school on the profits of a small gas station. That says a great deal about the relative cost of a law school education. I started law school in 1962 with a full $1600 scholarship. In today’s dollars it would have been about $14,000. Try that now. My father, by the way, was a high school teacher; mother had just died.

Based on his appreciation of knowledge workers, Peter Drucker, a leading business mind of the twentieth century, saw that our leading industries are where our best and brightest graduates had gone twenty-year earlier. Those graduates created the strength of the industries they entered.

The US built the world’s envy of an education system – everyone wants to study here – though, ironically, we are now letting that educational system atrophy. Power and economic success followed the creation of our educational system. When Kermit Hall was President of the University at Albany he addressed a breakfast crowd downtown at Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna. There were two messages he wanted to get across. One was that he had been to China and studied their university system. He wanted us to know that they were building great new universities with prodigious speed and scale. The other was that corporations that are based on technology, intellectual-property or other special skills locate where they can get the best and brightest to work for them.

That has nothing to do with a nanny state. It is about making excellent investments in workforce development. The same is true of the success of the rest of the so-called Brick countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China; and the Asian Tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. The newer so-called Mint countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey – are trying the same strategy, though international politics and civil wars hold some of them back.

By contrast, Republicans continue to feed us outmoded thinking, outmoded economics, outmoded ideas about how to strengthen our communities, our industries, our education and our people. They deserve an F.

Deriding the nanny state for investing in its people isn’t even efficient in the short run, forcing business to compete for staff on the world market and outsource their work to places where it can be done by the world’s best and brightest. That, by the way, used to be us. And it could be again. But it’s not magic. It’s based on investments in people, not handouts to corporations. Give people what they need to succeed and the values we inculcate into them will have a chance to shine. Deny them the basics and whistle our future into the wind.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 25, 2020.


Government and Our Trip South

August 1, 2015

Many people in this country believe that the Founding Fathers established our Constitution to get government off of people’s backs. My wife and I just traveled to North Carolina where that idea is big. They expect people to take care of themselves without the help of the nanny state. We are all expected to earn and pay our own way.

We were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Nags Head, and traveled to Ocracoke Island by ferry. It is a lengthy ferry ride, about ten miles as it winds around shoals that would stop and probably destroy the boat. I chatted with one of the crew, an employee of the State of North Carolina, and told him that I hadn’t yet been told how much the trip would cost me. Nothing, he replied. It’s free. We were certainly prepared to pay our way. That’s quite a gift from the State of North Carolina.

Still the good people of North Carolina, and certainly their elected representatives, know that government is nothing but a problem in the way of the people. So imagine our surprise when we stopped at the Ocracoke lighthouse to discover that the feds, those doggoned feds, built the light house in the eighteenth century, before the ink on the Constitution had much time to dry, and rebuilt a sturdier one in 1825 that is still working today to keep ships off the rocks and shoals.

Then we mailed a couple of cards to our granddaughters. You guessed it – we relied on the Postal Service that the feds set up and ran since Ben Franklin, that old self-reliant founding patriot, ran the thing even before the Constitution was written. The old Founders, they certainly knew how to use the government to benefit the people. Guess no one told them they weren’t supposed to.

Daily we checked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the weather service. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but all those private meterologists on every television and radio station are basing their forecasts on weather data collected, analyzed and distributed by the federal weather service. Lawyers by the way, contact the weather service for information about the weather at the time of events being litigated – there’s no need to replicate Lincoln and his famous use of an almanac to get an acquittal for his client. Weather service data are recognized and relied on as authoritative virtually universally.

We drove back on U.S. highways, both in North Carolina and between there and Albany. Yes roads the government built. In good shape too. In fact some of the first roads in the United States were postal roads, built by Uncle Sam.

We had some great dinners. But I sure hope the health department was checking up on those places – it’s pretty darn hard for a traveler to know much about what’s going on in the kitchen. And we have sometimes had some pretty bad experiences despite our best efforts.

I expect MORE from our government, not less.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 11, 2015.


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