The Forgotten Achievements of Government

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  • Anti-Discrimination Policies. Since the 1960s, policies like the Civil Rights Act and Title IX have chalked up impressive gains in decreasing discrimination against minorities and women. Racial segregation in hotels, restaurants and other public facilities has been eliminated. Housing discrimination and workplace discrimination, while not completely eradicated, have been substantially reduced. College enrollment for minorities has greatly increased, jumping 48% during the 1990s alone. In terms of gender, workplace discrimination and sexual harassment have decreased and record numbers of women are now attending colleges and graduate schools. There is still room for improvement – particularly in the area of equal wages – but it is clear that these policies have made substantial progress in eliminating racist and sexist practices that had existed for hundreds of years.
  • Clean Water and Clean Air Programs. America’s water and air are significantly cleaner than they were in the 1960s, thanks to federal legislation. The levels of four of the six air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act – nitrogen dioxide, smog, sulfur dioxide, and lead – have been reduced dramatically, by an average of 53%. The quality of the air has significantly increased in virtually every metropolitan area in the U.S. The Clean Water act has been similarly successful. When it was passed in 1972, only one-third of the nation’s waterways were safe enough for fishing or swimming. Today that has doubled to two-thirds. And while only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants in 1972, that figure has now risen to 170 million.
  • Workplace Safety. Businesses love to complain about the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and sometimes its policies have been a bit overboard – but it has clearly been very effective in greatly increasing the level of protection for American workers. In 1970, the year before the creation of OSHA, 22,000,000 people were injured on the job and 14,000 died from job-related injuries. Since then, OSHA has helped to cut occupational injury and illness rates by 40 percent. Even more important, between 1980 and 2002, workplace deaths fell from 7.5 per 100,000 workers to 4.0. Particularly impressive has been its success against brown lung disease among textile workers, which has been virtually eliminated.
  • The Military. Even Rush Limbaugh, who has never met a government program that he likes, admits that the U.S. military is a great success story. Although debates continue to rage over how the military should be used, there is complete agreement that our Army, Navy, and Air Force are the most effective military organizations in the world today. We have the best trained and the best equipped armed forces, and they have an unparalleled ability to effectively project military force – as was demonstrated in the two recent Gulf wars. In the case of the military, the government has clearly done an exemplary job of creating a well-working and effective organization.
  • The West. Although few Americans think about this, much of the Western United States as we know it today is the creation of various federal programs. It has been that way from the very beginning, starting with government-sponsored explorations of the West in the early and mid-19th century. It continued with the federal government providing the money and troops for the depressingly efficient program of “Indian removal.” The government also sold public land to settlers for low prices and sometimes even gave it away. The railroads, which spurred so much growth in the West, would not have been built without massive subsidies from the federal government. And today, much of the farming in many Western areas is made possible by federal water projects, substantial parts of the ranching are subsidized by the artificially low grazing fees on federal property, and much of the mining is made more profitable by dirt cheap access to federal land. Cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas would dry up and blow away without the federally funded dam and canal projects that provide water to those arid regions. So it is ironic that while anti-big government sentiment is very strong in parts of this region, the West literally would not and could not exist as it does today without the sustained help of the federal government.
  • National Weather Service. This government agency not only makes your life more convenient by forecasting your daily weather, it also helps to ensure the safety of planes in the air and ships at sea and it has saved countless lives with its hurricane and tornado warnings. It also just keeps getting better. It’s predictions of hurricane paths has improved by fifty percent during the past 15 years; and its forecasts of weather 72 hours in advance is now as reliable as 36-hour forecasts 25 years ago.
  • Poverty Policies. This may seem counter-intuitive. Everybody knows that poverty policy is the classic example of government failure. How could it possibly be considered a success when the poverty rate is essentially the same as it was thirty years ago? The answer is that most of the policies aimed at the poor in the U.S. were never intended to get them out of poverty. They were only intended to alleviate the suffering of the poor – and studies have shown that they have been very successful in doing this.8 For example, food stamps have worked to greatly reduce hunger and malnutrition among the poor. The poor are much healthier and have more access to medical treatment thanks to Medicaid. And rent subsidies have allowed many of the poor to move out of places with leaking roofs, inadequate heat, and faulty plumbing. These three programs form the backbone of our anti-poverty efforts – their combined budgets are eight times larger than that for welfare – and in terms of achieving their stated goals, these programs have to be considered impressive government successes.
  • Student Financial Aid Programs. College is getting increasingly expensive and more and more students require financial help to attend. The federal grants, loans, and work study money provided by the Department of Education form the largest source of college financial assistance, providing billions of dollars in funding each year. These programs have worked to remove financial barriers for students and thus create more equal opportunity in higher education. They have been a major factor in producing the rapid increases in college enrollment seen in the last 50 years, and they have also contributed to the increasing class and racial diversity of the college population.
  • Food and Drug Safety Programs. The federal government enforces extensive rules to protect the public from tainted food and directly regulates both the meat and poultry industries. It also plays a key role in ensuring the safe use of pesticides on agricultural products, both from here and abroad. Federal authorities are also on the frontlines in combating new threats to our food system, such as mad-cow disease. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration ensures that the drugs we take are pure and effective – an enormously complicated enterprise. Every year the FDA identifies almost 3,000 products that are unfit for consumption and ensures their withdrawal from the marketplace. Americans are undoubtedly safer and healthier thanks to these government programs.
  • Funding Basic Science Research. Most research on basic scientific topics – in physics, biology, chemistry, etc. – does not have immediate commercial applications and so this work is highly dependent on government funding. Federal funds pay for 80% of the basic science research in this country, through laboratory facilities in universities and in government agencies such as the National Institutes for Health. For this reason, the government deserves a great deal of credit for the important scientific and technological breakthroughs produced by these efforts. In just one area – biomedical science – basic research has provided the foundation to develop new diagnostic technologies, such as nuclear magnetic resonance machines, and new treatments for cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. It is revealing that nearly half of the most important medical treatments in the field of cardiovascular-pulmonary medicine have their origins in basic research attempting to unravel the mysteries of the lungs, heart, and muscles – work done by scientists not working in this specific disease area.9 Beyond such practical payoffs, government-funded basic research has also made important progress in answering many of the most profound questions that have baffled humanity for centuries: What is the nature of matter and energy – and the nature of reality itself? How did the universe begin? How will it end? Are we alone in the universe? What is the nature of life – and how did it begin? The achievements of basic science in the United States have been many and stunning – and these are achievements of government as well.


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