How Much Government is Too Much?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 23, 2010 - 09:04:00 AM

The current discussion about what Americans now think of government, to which NPR has devoted this whole week, can be summed up in one very old Borscht Belt joke:

Two ladies discuss a Catskills hotel: “How did you like it?”

“It was awful. The food was terrible, and there wasn’t enough of it.”

That’s roughly what the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor: The People and Their Government” about the principal findings from a series of surveys designed to provide a detailed picture of the public’s opinions about government.

The bottom line? The government’s terrible, and there isn’t enough of it. 

Without getting into exact percentages, it’s safe to say that the perennial American undercurrent of distrust of government has always been coupled with complaints that government isn’t doing enough for some Americans. Numbers come and go, but the attitude festers in the body politic, sometimes dormant, sometimes active. 

Here’s a telling excerpt from the study, headlined: “The Regulation Paradox”. 

Despite the public’s negative attitudes toward large corporations, most Americans (58%) say that “the government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system.” This is about the same percentage that agreed with this statement in October 1997 (56%). 

Along these lines, the public opposes government exerting more control over the economy than it has in recent years. Just 40% say this is a good idea, while 51% say it is not. Last March, the balance of opinion was just the opposite. By 54% to 37%, more people said it was a good idea for the government to exert greater control over the economy. 

While the public is wary of too much government involvement with the economy, it suspends that concern when it comes to stricter regulation of major financial companies. A clear majority (61%) says it is a good idea for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business, which is virtually unchanged from last April (60%).


What does this tell us about our fellow citizens? Well, for one thing, they seem to be a fickle bunch. And for another, they don’t seem to have a very clear idea of what they’re talking about. Of course, this phenomenon could be an artifact of what the questions were—they sound confusing. 

Here’s another sample: 

As in the past, poor performance is the most persistent criticism of the federal government. Fully 74% think that the federal government does only a fair or poor job of running its programs, which is on par with opinions in the late 1990s. 

But another strain of criticism is that the federal government’s priorities are misguided and that government policies do too little for average Americans. More than six-in-ten (62%) say it is a major problem that government policies unfairly benefit some groups while nearly as many (56%) say that government does not do enough to help average Americans. 

Since 1997, there has been a substantial increase in the percentage saying that middle-class people get less attention from the federal government than they should; 66% say that currently, up from 54% thirteen years ago. In contrast with many opinions about government, this view is shared by comparable percentages of Republicans (68%), Democrats (67%) and independents (65%). Conversely, about half of Republicans (52%), Democrats (52%) and independents (47%) say that Wall Street gets more attention than it should from the federal government.


How should this be interpreted? The central fact here is that if asked the vast majority of Americans would describe themselves as middle class—incomes from $30,00 to $250,000 all lumped in together by most people.  

So when “average” Americans (is this median or mean, anyway?) complain that “middle-class people get less attention from the federal government than they should”, they are really saying that “I’m personally feeling neglected.” As well they might, since a lot of things aren’t working out for a lot of people right about now. 

And of course, governments—all governments—often get it wrong . In a recent book about Britain in the 50s, as quoted by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books, historian David Kynaston describes a “profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon.” In the book’s account, says Spice, “ ‘ordinary people’ in the 1940s and 1950s were persistently spoken for and over the top of, their views often ignored, their voices shouted down.”  

Case in point: Britain in the ‘50s, when slum clearance was the order of the day. Spice paraphrases Kynaston: “In nothing were these ‘top-down’ assumptions more evident or more insensitive than in the matter of housing and town planning…Time and again…architects and planners simply ignored the wishes of the people whose world they were re-building. All the surveys showed a clear preference for houses over flats, but it was flats that were mostly built, those ‘streets in the sky’ that the modernist ideologues knew for certain were the way to promote community…” 

Does any of this sound familiar? Think San Francisco’s destruction of the Western Addition, or the push to redevelop West Berkeley. And any one who’s been to any of the innumerable public discussions of the Downtown Plan or Bus Rapid Transit in Berkeley should recognize the syndrome. 

A Planet reader wrote a recent commentary about how the proposed Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance (BSO) might illuminate discussions of such topics. He got these emailed comments from a critic (forwarded to us with the writer’s permission): “Do BSO supporters genuinely think that commissions and the council should vote on an issue based on the majority of spoken opinions at meetings?...any physical meeting attendance cannot, for multiple reasons, be considered 'representative'…the voice of a self-selected mob is not the same as the voice of representative democracy.”  

Spiro T. Agnew’s old Silent Majority once again rears its ugly head. The real voice of the people, in this view, is the one that doesn’t speak up when the opportunity is offered at a public hearing. 

Is this an endorsement therefore of the vociferous Teabaggers? No, of course not. But the reason they’ve gotten as much traction as they have so far is that they’re voicing genuine problems, even though their solutions leave a lot to be desired.  

Berkeley’s perennial tax and bond ballot measure opponents, almost all of whom would describe themselves as good liberals, are expressing some of the same sentiments. When they see the government doing a poor job, the strong temptation is to want to abolish or at least de-fund government. When planners come up with obviously flawed schemes again and again, Do Nothing is easy to view as the preferred alternative. 

And yet, we need housing for low-income Berkeleyans, and we need buses. But elected decision-makers and hired planners need to listen to the voices of ordinary people--yes, even at public hearings--and not substitute heir own limited and often flawed judgments.  

The people of Berkeley are saying, loud and clear, that they don’t want their sky filled with massive looming luxury condos just to get a few affordable apartments with views of blank walls in the package. Listen to them.  

They’re saying that if buses were free, comfortable, close to home and frequent, they’d use them more often, and that they don’t need those speedier trips to Bayfair Mall. Listen to them. 

They’re saying that they want a Sunshine Ordinance because they think that even with the Brown Act on their side, the city government continues to ignore them. Listen, just listen.