This post is long. But it's worth reading, and worth thinking about, and not just to get to the heartbreaking part where a man pleads with a government official not to take his son away from him... but that's worth reading, too.
It's worth reading because government works and you know it.
Not just in an abstract, metaphorical way, like "The government is protecting me from Communists and maybe asteroids." While that's true (kind of; I'm not sure the government is actually doing much against either of those threats, specifically), it's not really what I was thinking of when, this morning, I paused getting ready for work and thought to myself "Government works for me."
Nor am I talking about government working for me in the sense of "I pay taxes and so all you government workers are my employees." That's kind of true, too, but that's not what I was thinking of, either.
What I was thinking was very specifically, there are a lot of government programs that really work and really make my life better, and that if I noticed that, then maybe other people noticed that, too.
From there, I went on to thinking that if I and other people who actually realize how government actually helps us began talking about it, in specific terms, it might help show others that government is not a bad thing -- and bring home the point that needs to be made, which is this:
When we talk about cutting spending, and cutting government, we are talking about taking away money to do those things that many people find helpful or even necessary.
In the abstract, most people dislike government and dislike taxes. But poll after poll shows that when you aren't talking abstracts -- when you aren't relying on fancy graphics and giant numbers a la Paul Ryan (for whom government definitely works, given that it put him through college and that he's mostly worked for government in his career) -- people don't support cutting spending to the bone.
In other words, when people see the actual programs and actual people that are going to be cut, they don't want to do it.
I got to thinking about these issues this morning in particular when I read a sterling article in the Capital Times about compassionate conservatism. As a framing device for his discussion about the differences between old-school conservatives and the slash-and-burn Republicans of today, writer Shawn Doherty attended a public hearing in Fennimore where Wisconsin Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith pretended to listen to people's concerns and offered them platitudes rather than hope.
Doherty focused in particular on one man who testified:
A white-haired factory worker from Hazel Green walks in holding the hand of a 20-year-old young man who towers over him.
“This is my son Christopher,” he tells Smith when it is his turn to speak. “I’m here to ask you to find some way to keep Family Care going. My biggest concern is that Christopher gets to stay in our home so we can continue to care for him. Nobody can take better care of him than me and my wife. Nobody can love him more.”
Randy Hillary’s voice breaks, and he pauses. His son, who has been staring around the room and smiling at strangers, turns in the sudden silence to look at his father.
Christopher makes a questioning sound and brushes at the tears on his father’s face.
After a few moments, Hillary continues. “So I guess I’m just here asking if you can find some way to keep Family Care going.” Hillary says later that he has never asked for help publicly before or spoken about the pressures that his son’s cognitive disability place on the family. “It ain’t real easy to come out and ask for services,” he says. “I had to swallow my pride.”
Christopher is smiling again, this time at a stranger from the town meeting who bought him a candy bar. “We got to worry about you all the time and you don’t worry about nothing,” he tells his son, ruffling his hair. “He’s the happiest boy on earth,” he says.
Hillary wants to be sure Christopher stays that way, he explains, when his parents are gone.
But Hillary leaves still worried. Smith does not say that the state will provide the care for Christopher that his dad hopes will keep him out of an institution. Instead, Smith says that there are “other options” for the family. “There’s no freeze on personal care,” he says.
It's easy these days to listen to the political back-and-forth about cutting spending, or cutting more spending, and hear in the politicians' voices continued disparagement of government. On the right, Republicans routinely degrade the very entity they work for; meanwhile, Democrats (until recently) buy into the idea that they can't talk about taxes and they can't talk about nationalizing programs that are necessary to keep people alive, and they run from their accomplishments and the debate shifts from what can we as a society do to make sure that people can excel while also making sure nobody gets left behind? to how little can we do for everyone?
But how little can we do for everyone isn't the American way. It isn't our way. This country wasn't founded on and isn't made up of people who don't want to help others, and isn't made up of people who think that millionaires deserve tax breaks or that providing chemotherapy to the elderly is something we can't afford.
That's what it looks like, because the government is currently controlled by a small but very determined group of people who act in the interests of a smaller but very rich group of people, and the history of America is that for a short time, small-but-determined and small-but-rich groups can get their way.
Until, that is, the rest of America starts listening.
Most people, after all, don't care much about political issues on a day-to-day basis. That includes me: I'm a political science major and lawyer who has run for office a few times in his life. And yet I didn't pay that much attention to day-to-day political issues for a long time, until the 2004 elections got me more involved, and the 2008 elections and health care reform debates woke me up.
I didn't start paying attention because of grand issues like neoconservatism or anything like that. I started paying more attention because I saw, in my everyday life, the effect that the Bush presidency was having, and then I began to notice more things, like the fact that there were little boys who needed medical care but who ran the risk of not getting it because they'd used up their lifetime insurance cap.
That got me paying attention, and once I tuned in I stayed tuned in -- not because I cared about whether the proper role of the federal government was to manage the health care system, but because I cared about whether two little boys could get operations they needed to save their lives.
Then, things really hit home for me: My own two sons were diagnosed as autistic. The diagnosis was made just after their 3rd birthday, in September, 2009, by a teacher from our school district, the Middleton-Cross Plains School District. The teacher had come to visit because we had told the boys' doctor that we were concerned because they weren't talking much, and he'd suggested that we have a speech therapist check them out. The school district provides speech therapist services for free to parents who reside there, so we had the school come do it.
After the autism diagnosis, we were referred for treatment for the boys. The general consensus is that intensive therapy -- 20 or 30 hours a week, at times -- is best for autism and ensures the best results.
We had insurance, through a private insurer. My firm pays about 3/4 of my insurance costs and we pay the rest out of pocket. So we contacted the insurer to find out what coverage was available, and were surprised to learn that, at the time, our health insurance would provide... about six hours of treatment.
That's roughly 0.6% of the treatment the boys would need. And this was treatment to get them to talk and communicate with us.
The school district stepped in: they began providing almost 10 hours of therapy per boy per week, with speech and occupational therapists coming in to our house and working with the boys, and teaching us how to work with them, too. I don't want to give the idea that we simply said "Hey, professionals, raise our kids." We spent hours per day -- my wife, Sweetie is a stay-at-home mom -- teaching the boys, and almost every single thing we do has some sort of therapeutic or teaching aspect to it; when I swing the older twin around by his arms, something he loves to do, I have to stop about every third time to make him say More so that he learns to communicate.
The boys began coming along, slowly -- and we counted the time until August 1, 2010, because that was when government-mandated autism coverage would kick in, providing $50,000 per year per child for the therapy. And on August 1, 2010, a full team of therapists and other professionals began working with our family, and the boys' progress was amazing.
And also much-needed, because while one part of government was starting to work well for our family, another part of government saved one of our boys. Last summer, I took a day off to spend with the boys and give Sweetie a break. I was sitting in the living room of our house playing with the younger twin, Mr Bunches, while Mr F sat over by the kitchen table, just around the corner from me.
Every five or ten minutes, I'd go check on Mr F to see if he wanted to join us, but he was looking at a book and didn't want to be bothered.
On one of the checks, Mr F wasn't by the kitchen table. I went downstairs to the TV room, and he wasn't there. I checked his bedroom, and he wasn't there, either. I walked through every room in our house, methodically checking every nook and cranny, and didn't find him anywhere.
Then I noticed that one of the screens on a window by the patio was pushed out. I grabbed my cell phone and went out to the yard, calling him over and over. He wasn't in the yard.
We live near Lake Mendota, and in the summer I take the boys to go look at the lake and walk around the neighborhood. Thinking that he might have gone on that route, I called 911 and told them that my son was missing, and explained that he was only 3 years old and autistic and can't talk and was wearing just a diaper and had been gone for maybe 10 minutes.
The police had already found him; he'd walked nearly a half-mile in that ten minutes, going down the sidewalk of a busy street until he was stopped by a woman walking; that woman happened to be a nurse and realized that something was wrong. She'd kept him calm until the police arrived and then they kept him there until I'd run the half-mile to meet them and walked Mr F home.
Following that episode, the Dane County Sheriff came out and fitted Mr F, who has a tendency to run away, with a small bracelet used in their "Project Lifesaver" program. Using that, if he ever gets away again, they can locate him almost instantly.
Again, we're not relying on just the government. We've locked our windows and used duct-tape to seal them up. We put hooks on the doors where he can't reach them. My brother-in-law will help us this year put bars over the windows so that we can open the windows this summer. (We don't have central air conditioning.)
But once a month, a sheriff's deputy -- a government employee-- comes and makes sure Mr F still has the bracelet, which we test every morning, and the police and deputies in our area know about Mr F and are on the lookout for him.
And we can relax a little, knowing that if Mr F were to wander away again, it wouldn't take a search party to find him.
There are numerous other ways that government has helped me. The Income Based Repayment option for student loans helped keep my payments low enough that Sweetie could stay at home and take care of the boys; the government lets me deduct the interest on my mortgage so that we were able to stop renting a house and could buy a place where we were free to put hooks on all the doors. I attended public schools from third grade on, and got federally-subsidized student loans for college. When I graduated law school, I opened my own practice and subsisted largely on working as appointed counsel for the State Public Defender; I paid for my honeymoon with Sweetie using a large payment I got from the federal government for representing a criminal defendant.
So government works for me. And it works for a lot of other people, too -- directly or indirectly, government works for people in ways that we don't always take the time to quantify.
But if we're going to debate whether or not we should cut spending, if we're going to offer tax breaks to corporations and cut social spending and debate whether or not we should provide health care, it shouldn't be done abstractly with charts and numbers and rhetoric about reining in the beast.
It should be done honestly. If we're going to cut spending, then I want the Paul Ryans and Scott Walkers and others like them to look people like me in the face and explain why it's more important that corporations get reduced taxes than that my son be taught to talk. I want Glenn Grothman to go to a school full of 4- and 5-year-olds attending 4K and explain to them and their parents, face-to-face, why they shouldn't learn to read and thereby reduce the chances that they'll end up poor or criminal or both.
And I want all the people who support them, who vote for them and who won't sign recall petitions to get them back out of office once it's apparent what a mistake they made, to do that, too. You people who are sitting quietly, or, worse yet, attending rallies on behalf of Tea Parties, you James T. Harrises and Andrew Breitbarts, you look me and everyone else in the eye, too, and explain how it's better that kids not have school buses to take them to a real school, and tell me why we can use government money to pave roads we can't use government money to manage a woman's lupus and so we let her die instead.
The message will only get out if we, people who know that government can work and who know that because it works for us, tell people that. We have to tell people that in our blogs and Twitter accounts and in our jobs and through videos. We have to keep saying that government works for me, because, while the message might never get through to the Ryans and Breitbarts, it'll get through to the people who either voted for those people, or who sat on the sidelines and did nothing and let them get elected anyway - -and maybe those people will get motivated, too.
I didn't wait until I needed a deputy to find my son to begin believing it was necessary to have, and pay attention to, a government -- but I was darn close, and I don't want to let it slip any further.
So I started today, on my Twitter account, asking people to tweet whenever they used government and say how government works for them. My own first post was that I'd looked up, on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program (CCAP) a case in which I represented a party, to make sure that a hearing which was supposed to be cancelled really was cancelled. I was able to do that at 7:45 a.m., before the courts opened, and was therefore able to spend a little more time eating breakfast with my family, rather than hurrying to my office to call the clerk of courts.
That's a pretty minor example -- but since Gov. Patsy is trying to kill off CCAP, it's important to note it. CCAP helped my coworkers help ensure that none of my cases went unattended when I had a heart attack last summer, and CCAP helps my people keep informed about cases that are underway.
And minor as it is, it demonstrates my concern: most nights I go to sleep worrying that when I wake up in the morning my job will be harder or my health care costs will be more expensive or, God forbid, Gov. Patsy will turn his attention to that law that required autism coverage and my boys will lose all the benefits they've enjoyed. And if that worries me, as lucky as I am, it must frighten the hell out of others.
The response so far has been overwhelming; I lost track of the number of posts people put up, ranging from pictures of Mars to their kids being invited to sit in a garbage truck. The FDIC saving people's accounts from failing banks, libraries making books available... the list goes on and on (and can be read here.)
I didn't have time this morning to expand on the idea, because I had other work to do. But I want to keep this going; I know things tend to flare up and flame out on the Internet, but I think it's important to change the tone and nature of the debate, and the only way to do that is to begin selling ourselves and our neighbors on how government actually works.
So I'm asking you to keep it up: To keep on Tweeting every time you use a government service, every time you think of a regulation or law that helped you or helped someone else, every time you see someone else do that.
And, those of you who want to be more involved, I suggest that this be taken to an additional level: writing to people who want to cut down government or who criticize it, and posting videos to convey the message, too.
The videos don't have to be anything special, and neither do the letters; they just have to say Here's who I am and here's how government works for me.
Over the next few days, I plan to make the first such video and when I do, I'll post it on Youtube and share it with you here and on my other blogs. If someone beats me to it, let me know and I'll post that. (Heck, I'll post them all, if I can.)
And I'll post email and contact addresses for people who need to hear Government Works For Me.
And if anyone else has any ideas on how to further this, I welcome them. Already, @legaleagle really helped the idea take off and also made the all-important contribution of suggesting that we shorten my original hashtag; @danpotacke wants to use the hashtag for a cartoon (and I freely grant permission to anyone to use this idea in a way that's in keeping with the spirit of it).
I get frustrated with people and with government, but that's not the only way to deal with things, and I've offered legitimate proposals to address the problems, and I've watched as people marched and protested and wrote emails and filed recall petitions, and I'm trying to do what I can to help out. So I appreciate any help you can give this, and any attention you can give it.
In the meantime, click these links to send an email to the people and tell them Government works for me, and why, and get talking to your friends, neighbors, coworkers, mothers-in-law, and anyone else who'll listen; get posting videos and keep tweeting and blogging, and keep it up.
Email me with your suggestions, links to your videos and anything else you want me to knowI've already sent mine:
Click here to send an email to Gov. Scott (Patsy) Walker and tell him how government works for you.
Paul Ryan won't let you email him directly, so you have to do it through his site. Click this link to go directly to the page where you can email him, and enter "53545" and "3959" in the ZIP code boxes.