Tough times: Beware of geeks bearing gifts

A look at the headlines today is like one of those weird dreams where your beloved Great-Aunt Nancy is topless, smoking a pipe and riding a unicorn.

In the Financial Times, I see “U.S. retains top competitiveness ranking.” I flip through other newspapers to read “The end of America, Inc.” and “This is not a Great Depression,” followed by “Housing sales up: Is the worst of the crisis over?” and “Can China save capitalism?” and “OPEC nervous as oil prices collapse.”

So, we’re desperate, no we’re not; the good times are over, no, the worst is over. Lost in the mix is the headline that would have been the good news of the century a month ago: “Oil prices way down.”

There are two things about this economic crisis I know for certain. One is that people are stressed and afraid, and two, politicians know this and will use it as leverage to advance their political opportunism. I’m sorry if that seems cynical, but the evidence is everywhere — and pretending it doesn’t exist is foolish pride.

How else do we explain how easily the massive bailout package got through Congress, even while switchboards were on fire with voter disapproval? Voters were unusually united on this issue and the politicians were unusually united against us. When Senators Barack Obama and John McCain so flippantly ignore and resist explaining details of this package, or defending it beyond the cursory “it was for your own good” comment, I have to believe that they are deliberately exploiting our fear, or at the very least, dismissing it.

There are two things about the economy in general I know for certain. One is that working people are better managers of their resources than the government; and two, when it comes to exploiting the little guy, big government and big corporations are merely opposite sides of the same coin.

The only difference is that as a consumer, I can choose not to support a corporation, but as a citizen, I am bound by the full force of the law to obey my government. This critical difference is why I am a conservative and not a liberal.

History reveals two very clear patterns about how governments transform themselves from “protector of citizen rights” to “taskmaster over the little people” — and it always begins when the citizens are fearful and willingly hand over their freedoms in exchange for security. In recent years, we’ve seen this fear play out in our national security fears from the 9/11 trauma.

Now, we see it flipped into the economic realm. Again, the difference being that our government is constitutionally bound to protect our shores. They are not constitutionally bound to make sure everybody has a toaster, a mortgage or even food. The government’s role in the economy, when operating at its best, is on the sidelines, ensuring that fair practice and equal opportunity is protected.

The government cannot be the insurer of equal economic outcomes without becoming at the micro-manager of our daily lives. Let me share an example from personal experience.

Years ago, I was hired by a pastor to work in ministry. The parish budget was tight, and he could only hire me part time. This was good for me, as I wasn’t ready to go back to work full time as a mom with young children. However, he was constrained by a regulation in our church administration that he was not allowed to let me work more than 19 hours, the point at which he would be required to provide me with full benefits. I did not need benefits. The ideal would have been to pay me a few more dollars per hour and let me work 25 hours without benefits.

Because of the good intentions of our official church teaching and a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all definition of “just and sustainable wages,” my pastor and I were rendered powerless to negotiate a better working situation. Ultimately, I could not afford to work because these constraints ended up making it more expensive for my family, after child care costs were factored in.

Thank you, mommy government, for looking out for my interests.

Corporations, such as big oil companies, might not be motivated by “just and sustainable wages,” but consumers respond where it hits the business most, in the pocketbook, by conserving. Evidence of Americans’ conservation is now showing itself in falling oil prices (and the recent strengthening of the dollar). We’ve reduced oil consumption in the past year significantly. This is not a good long-term strategy, but it makes the point that consumers can affect the behavior of corporations.

When the government establishes a program funded by tax revenues, the consumer has no power and is forced to fund the program in accordance with the law. Government never voluntarily gives back its power or closes down a program. Government programs grow regardless of their success or results.

Politicians will use the recent economic crisis to prove that capitalism is a failed experiment. They will continue to exploit the fears of people, who in the midst of their panic, are easily calmed with campaign promises that mommy government will make everything better.

It often escapes the notice of citizens that in a democracy, we the people are the government. There is no “they” running things independently of what we finance ourselves. Beware of geeks bearing gifts! We are the ultimate financiers of every government service.

Seems to me that in this chaos, there is definitely a crisis of confidence going on, but it’s not with capitalism. It’s with the government.

Federal Way resident Angie Vogt: vogt.e@comcast.net. For past columns and further commentary, visit www.soundupdate.com.

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