A great explanation of why (most) Minnesotans don’t complain about our relatively high taxes

First, rid your mind of the idea that government = evil.

Government is neither good nor evil; it depends on what government does. The same goes for corporations. Both have done a fair amount of what might be called “evil” over the past couple of decades.

There’s a great article on The Daily Beast today that reinforces an idea that’s pretty common around here in Minnesota: good government is worth paying for. In other words, if you get something of value from your taxes (or you know that other people do, and you’re not a self-centered bastard), it doesn’t feel so painful to pay them.

Now, in some parts of the country it’s pretty hard to come by the kind of generally honest, public-serving government that we Minnesotans tend to take for granted. But President Obama (who seems more Minnesotan than Illinoisan when it comes to the integrity and vision of his politics) is on the cusp of delivering this vision to the nation.

Let’s hope it takes hold. Reaganomics has just about driven us into the ground but I think it may not be too late.

Now I’m really mad about the $23 parking!

Back at the beginning of the month, as I ranted about, I had to go to the Hennepin County Government Center to apply for a duplicate title for my car.

Joy of joys, through the ineptitude of various government agencies (and/or specific employees therein — and believe me, I want to believe in good, efficient government, so it pains me to have cause for criticism), I had to go back today to apply to have my application expedited (now? after 4 weeks?) because for whatever reason, it hasn’t been processed yet.

This time I did not park in the privately operated parking garage directly across from the government center. I parked in a city-operated garage right next to it. The two are physically connected. I had to walk approximately a total of 100 extra feet, indoors, as a result of this parking choice.

The city garage charges $1.50 per half hour. I was there for an hour and a half, so I paid $4.50. But if I had been there for three hours, as I was during my trip downtown at the beginning of this month, it would have cost $9. $9, instead of $23. So for the convenience of avoiding a few extra steps of walking, and the privilege of feeding your money into a talking machine (it’s the wave of the future!) instead of interacting with an actual human at the exit of the garage, the private company charges a premium of $14 for three hours of parking.

Maybe the government isn’t so bad after all.

Speaking of the government being bad or not, on the way to the car I saw one of my favorite old Skyway buskers — the guy who looks and sounds vaguely like a mustachioed José Feliciano. He was singing an original composition, “Let’s All Throw Our Shoes at the President.” Now that’s something I’d have paid $23 for.

The Internet President

As a “web guy,” I now have even more reason to like Barack Obama as a soon-to-be-president than I did already. His website was no small part of his extremely effective and well-organized campaign, and I am pleased to see that he plans to continue to use the Internet as a core component of his approach to governing once he takes office. To wit: Change.gov, the official site of the “Obama-Biden Transition Project.”

As I’ve been saying for the past couple weeks, in a to-the-point if less-than-genteel way, he’s got his shit together. And as they say in Australia, “good on him.” 2009 is going to be an interesting year.

Are you a liberal and you didn’t know it?

I found this report on America’s “Progressive Majority” interesting. I’ve long held a sneaking suspicion that Americans aren’t as conservative as they think they are (or as the media tells them they are), but it’s nice to see some data reinforcing that point.

Some of the sections are a little fuzzier than others, and I noticed a few of the graphs were designed somewhat misleadingly, but the overall message is on. Americans lean to the left, even if they think otherwise. The final section is especially useful in this regard. It discusses the flaws in commonly cited polls that ask respondents to self-identify. The problem is, most people just aren’t that ideological, and they’re not really sure what “conservative” or “liberal” even means. But when you have Fox News talking heads barking at you 24/7 that liberals are Satan incarnate, it’s hard to have a (pardon me, I can’t help it) fair and balanced view of the issue. As the report states:

(A)t a time when the parties are more ideologically distinct than ever, one-third of the public can’t name correctly which party is more conservative. If this bare minimum of knowledge is unavailable to such a large proportion of the population, it is fair to say that their self-placement on ideological scales will not be a particularly reliable guage of their actual beliefs on issues.

In 1967, Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free famously observed that Americans were “ideological conservatives” but “operational liberals.” They didn’t like the idea of government, but they liked what government does and can do.

This last portion really resonated with me: I have an online acquaintance who’s a proud member of the Libertarian Party, and who rails whenever possible against the evils of big government. Yet, he was the same person who, when his family hit a rough patch and needed some financial support, became frustrated with the limited availability of public assistance and healthcare.

Which all leads me back to a potent quote from an unlikely source: I’m sure Ayn Rand is rolling over in her grave that I should be using her words in my argument. Unfortunately I think she failed to follow this maxim herself at a fundamental level, but it still bears repeating:

Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

Duct Tape and Plastic Sheets?

Disclaimer: Since writing this rant, it has come to my attention that both Home Depot and MacGyver were mentioned in a Jay Leno monologue on this topic last week. I’m not sure what’s worse: having people think I ripped off Jay Leno, or having people know I didn’t rip off Jay Leno — I just came up with the same jokes.

Recently, for approximately the 574th time since September 11, 2001, the federal government announced that, in response to vague and highly-guarded “intelligence” of undisclosed (and hence almost inherently dubious) origin, our “national terror alert” status would again be raised from the level 3 “code yellow” to level 2 “code orange.” Judging by the public’s general apathy or utter unawareness of this change, I would be inclined to say that the terror alert status codes have lost all meaning, but that would imply that they had meaning in the first place.

This time things seem a bit more serious than usual, however. Security is being beefed up in public places, both prominent and ridiculously inconsequential. Police are carrying gas masks. And the government has sternly advised citizens to safeguard their homes and their families by stocking up on plastic sheeting and duct tape, to seal their windows and doors in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Mmmmm… that’s goooood homeland security! Let me guess: In the Bush Administration’s modus operandi of stacking agency leadership posts with business executives, Tom Ridge’s assistant directors include former CEOs of plastics and adhesives manufacturers. This monolithic, Orwellian agency was created to protect the public from terrorist dangers, but when we’re actually faced with those dangers, the best they can come up with is a MacGyver-esque suggestion for us to do the job ourselves? Oh, and it’s an economic stimulus package, too… at least for our new “defensive sticky substances” industry!

I don’t mean to make light of what terrorists have done in the past, or of the potential for future action as bad as, or far worse than, what we’ve seen to date. But the thought of Americans by the millions responding to ill-defined dangers by racing to Home Depot to fight over rapidly dwindling supplies of these staples of modern ingenuity is, well, laughable.

Today we are confronted with a threat of unspeakable proportions, and yet the chance that any given one of us will actually succumb to such acts of terror is minuscule. Facing the remote-in-the-extreme odds of a horrible-in-the-extreme catastrophe, the government of the most powerful nation in the history of the planet tells its populace of hundreds of millions to defend itself with… duct tape and plastic sheets.

I am reminded of public service films produced at the height of the Cold War, showing school children responding in an orderly and disciplined fashion to the announcement that a nuclear attack is underway by kneeling under their desks and folding their hands over their heads.

I experienced those civil defense drills myself in elementary school during the dying days of the Cold War, the early 1980s. By then, we were no longer being led to believe that a Formica desktop and the feeble flesh and bones of our hands would protect us from the extreme heat and force of a nuclear blast, or from the subsequent radioactive fallout. Nuclear war was never even mentioned. I, at least, always believed that these drills were simply preparing us to deal with the inevitable eventuality of the school being flattened by a tornado — a far more present threat in the great wind-swept expanse of the American Midwest.

With the end of the Cold War, the monthly tests of air-raid sirens and the Emergency Broadcast System on TV and radio became a fading memory, and the omnipresent fear (and feeble means of personal self-defense) became almost-trite memories of a bygone day. Many of us spent most of the ’90s in a hazy delusion that a more “enlightened” time without war and mass violence was upon us, at least in America and much of Europe.

But now we’re back to constant fear — a slowly simmering, nagging feeling that at any moment, disaster, a disaster like none we’ve ever considered, could strike. We know the chance of that actually happening is fairly remote, and that gamble is what keeps us going.

Then something like this happens. When we’re inescapably presented with the futility of our efforts at safeguarding ourselves, the real danger we face becomes apparent.

The truth is, no matter how many billions of dollars the government spends on Homeland Security, no matter how much our civil liberties are eroded in the name of public safety, and no matter how many layers of plastic we duct tape to our windows, there is no way to guarantee safety.

Life is inherently risky, but in that risk comes the vitality, the urgency, that makes life worth living.

If we spend all of our time obsessing over how to protect ourselves from every nebulous threat that exists in the world, we lose no matter what. Even if we do fend off those daily threats, no one defeats old age in the end.

So stop fretting. Get out there and live.

And leave the plastic sheets and duct tape for me.