Dan Murphy: The Government Is Here to Help

Partisan views once considered too crazy to be seriously debated now occupy the mainstream in public discourse — especially mistaken ideas about who benefits from government programs. ( Free Images )

Partisan views once considered too crazy to be seriously debated now occupy the mainstream in public discourse — especially mistaken ideas about who benefits from government programs.

There is much to dislike about extremist rhetoric, no matter from which misinformed mindset it arises. But one of the worst such perspectives is the idea, first promoted by Ronald Regan 40 years ago, that the federal government is our enemy.

Reagan’s infamous statement demonizing the governing apparatus of We the People, saying that the “Nine most dangerous words are I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” have become a slow-acting contaminant that’s poisoning our public discourse.

Agree or disagree with the policies — put in place by legislators we elected, by the way — and regulations administered by professional staff persons — appointed by the occupant of the White House we elected, by the way — there’s no disputing that even the most vocal haters of “Big Government” love the programs that benefit them, their families and/or their constituents.

It’s only the programs or the funding they believe might go to people who don’t deserve them that are demonized as “proof” of government waste, fraud and abuse.

It literally takes only a few seconds searching online to link up with hundreds of commentators and consumers alike complaining bitterly about taxes (the ones that they have to pay), “wasteful” federal spending (if they’re not getting a share of it) and regulatory overreach (when it impacts their businesses, property or lifestyles).

The common refrain that “I don’t take a dime from the government” implies that anyone who does so is entitled, lazy, greedy or some combination of the three — in other words, undeserving. It’s a satisfying mantra, especially for business people, including those in livestock production and food processing.

Problem is, it just isn’t true.

A Wealth of Benefits

The reality is that the government provides billions of dollars in tax incentives, federally backed loans and outright assistance, and we’re not talking about social welfare; these funds go directly to the private sector business community.

Consider, for example, the federal government’s various export-import promotional programs. Foreign market development has been essential to the profitability of livestock producers, and the federal government funds programs to help finance exporting and provides export development capital and financing for facilities and project development.

Such programs include:

  • The Small Business Administration. SBA’s Export Working Capital Program provides up to $5 million in short-term, transaction-specific working capital loans to small business exporters to finance labor and materials. SBA also offers an Export Express Program that provides small businesses with up to $500,000 in financing to cover the initial costs of entering an export market or to buy or produce goods or services for export.
  • The Export-Import Bank. Under this program, the bank does not hand out funding directly to American exporters, but issues loans or loan guarantees to their overseas customers in return for agreements to buy products from U.S. exporters. Tens of billions of dollars have gone to customers of some of the biggest and most profitable corporations, such as Boeing, General Electric and Exxon-Mobil.
  • The National Flood Insurance Program. This program is intended to “reduce the impact of flooding on private and public structures” by providing affordable insurance to property owners and businesses. Sounds great, but it’s basically a government handout: Private insurers get to market and sell low-cost policies (and profit from the premiums) but when a flood actually occurs, taxpayers pick up the tab for the payouts. Thanks to the cheap, subsidized policies program runs tens of billions in the red annually, with some private-sector estimates putting the total risk — to taxpayers, let’s be clear — of insured properties at more than $1.24 trillion.

And of course, the total support system provided by a slew of USDA programs — crop insurance, conservation set-asides, commodity price supports, rural economic development and disaster relief — amounts to about $100 billion annually.

Add to that the multi-billions in federal funding for grants to advance agricultural science, for economic research and to promote international food aid programs that support U.S. commodity exports, as well as the billions spent to subsidize corn production diverted into ethanol production.

Don’t read this wrong: I’m in favor of most of these programs, especially the ones that support the farm community, help mitigate natural disasters and provide a financial foundation that maintains our national food security.

But I can do without the rhetoric from all the rugged individualists out there who never got a cent’s worth of benefits from government.

Collectively speaking, it’s more like hundreds of billions of dollars.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

Related stories: