Shrinking government shrinks lifespans and the economy

Among the many tall tales Republicans have spun, from Reagan to Trump, in their drive for political control of the nation, is the one about the virtues of the tiniest government possible. Grover Norquist, one of the intellectual leaders of the right, wished to shrink government so you could drown it in a bathtub. Reagan said one of the scariest things you will ever hear is “we are from the government and we are here to help.”

How has that principle, that has guided the GOP in recent decades, worked out in practice? It hasn’t, excepting for a miniscule number of magnates who own fossil fuels and other polluting firms that have become not just a menace to the health of individuals and communities but a threat to the future of the planet. Other big beneficiaries are the very rich in whatever industry, who have seen their taxes plummet. But for the rest of us, minimal government has been murder.

This is a life and death issue. Living in a red state, which is roughly equivalent to saying living in a minimal-government state, has huge consequences, including for life expectancy. Paul Krugman, the world-class economist and New York Times editorial writer, researched changes in life expectancy since the vogue for small government became the credo of all Republicans and many so-called moderate Democrats.

Krugman first establishes that living in a minimalist government country like the United States is costly in what counts most, human life.

“Back in the Bush years I used to encounter people who insisted that the United States had the world’s longest life expectancy. They hadn’t looked at the data, they just assumed that America was No. 1 on everything. Even then it wasn’t true: U.S. life expectancy has been below that of other advanced countries for a long time.”

Then Krugman shows the cost in life expectancy among people living in this country of residing in a Republican-run minimalist government red state.

“I looked at states that voted for Donald Trump versus states that voted for Clinton in 2016 and calculated average life expectancy weighted by their 2016 population. In 1990, today’s red and blue states had almost the same life expectancy. Since then, however, life expectancy in Clinton states has risen more or less in line with other advanced countries, compared with almost no gain in Trump country. At this point, blue-state residents can expect to live more than four years longer than their red-state counterparts.”

What accounts for the death gap between blue and red states? Krugman demonstrates that the emergence of the death gap coincides with a divergence in economic prosperity:

“Democratic-leaning areas used to look similar to Republican-leaning areas in terms of productivity, income and education. But they have been rapidly diverging, with blue areas getting more productive, richer and better educated. In the close presidential election of 2000, counties that supported Al Gore over George W. Bush accounted for only a little over half the nation’s economic output. In the close election of 2016, counties that supported Hillary Clinton accounted for 64 percent of output, almost twice the share of Trump country.”

Evidently, small government has not grown the economy at the state level. If anything, it has shrunk the economy or, at least, limited its growth. And that has all kinds of consequences for people’s lives and deaths.

In our state of Florida, one of the consequences of the minimal government mania is, among many other things, a horrible prison system. Not coincidentally, the state cut the prison budget. The result is that even the new Florida Department of Corrections Secretary, Mark Inch, recognizes the prison system is unsustainable:

“The status quo cannot continue because that’s, that’s — pick your metaphor — the death spiral, or the plane crashing into the side of a cliff or, you know, the tipping point.”

Inch fears that we may be headed toward a bloody prison riot like one that occurred in New Mexico. He is seeing warning signs similar as those in New Mexico.

And that’s just one area in which minimal government has failed Florida. The same is true for the environment, education, you name it.

Michael Lewis would not be surprised. The author of the just published ‘The Fifth Risk,’ Lewis discusses the rank incompetence of the current administration. This is not accidental. Competent government is only important if you think government does things that are important and good. In the mindset of Trump and his administration, government is mainly an obstacle to maximum profits. After all, what does government do? According to Lewis, its vital functions include “to protect us from threats, including nuclear weapons proliferation, devastating tornadoes, and food-borne illnesses; and to efficiently distribute services and benefits to those needing a hand — whether from Federal Emergency Management Agency or food stamps.”

Distribute services and benefits like food stamps? The only aspect of government Trump cares about is brutal law enforcement, by the regular cops but especially by the immigration cops. The Republican small government ideology is a failure and a fraud, part of the GOP top down class war.

I close with this note. In a recent interview, Mariana Mazzucato, who has just won the 2019 Nobel Prize for economics, cited  markets and technologies like the internet, the iPhone and clean energy — all of which were funded at crucial stages by public dollars — to argue that the state has been “an underappreciated driver of growth and innovation.” That’s consistent with Krugman’s conclusions about differences in the economic performance of red versus blue states.

Concerning the right-wing’s claim about the benefits of small government, she told the interviewer: “There’s a whole neoliberal agenda, [the received free-market wisdom that cutting public budgets spurs economic growth] and then the way that traditional theory has fomented it or not contested it — there’s been kind of a strange symbiosis between mainstream economic thinking and stupid policies.”