My youngest daughter helps run a water testing lab in the Fort Collins area. This private company is certified to test outflow waters from cities and companies to see if the water they are dumping back into the environment is safe and in accordance with the Clean Water Act.
It's a fascinating process, involving tubs of water being shipped to the lab, a variety of tests being done, and then certifications either given or not given based on the test results. The water samples come from across the country and we really do want labs like hers to keep running. It seems to me to be a quintessentially American process, in that there is a public need (clean water) and a partnership between the government (the EPA and other organizations) and the private sector in the form of the water testing company.
Currently, the lab is working hard to figure out whether they qualify as an essential service provider (which I am sure they are) or if they need to invoke the governor’s 50% force reduction order. She tells me they can’t really work far enough apart to meet social distancing rules, but they also help keep our nation’s water drinkable, so what’s a small company to do?
I thought of my kiddo’s company when I pondered what size we want our government to be.
Recall that back in the Reagan administration, the GOP was firmly in the grip of the doctrine of killing off as much government as possible. Grover Norquist was quite the Republican darling back then, having founded “Americans for Tax Reform,” which was really about reducing taxes so far that governance becomes near impossible. He famously stated, “I'm not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Government was seen as the enemy, as exemplified by President Reagan’s famous “joke” that “"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help. "
President Trump seems to believe in that credo, at least when it is politically expedient. But now we find ourselves, here in Colorado and nationally, in a very different situation. I have argued that the government should be no larger than it needs to be to provide the citizens the services they require. You can, of course, see the huge problem with that way of looking at things, in that what the government should provide is not a subject of much agreement.
There are certain things that only a government — be it local, state, or national — can provide fairly and reasonably. I think we all can agree that having a local fire department is a good thing. Likewise, the Colorado State Patrol is a public good, and the U.S. Army is a vital resource. But what happens to our view of the role of government when, oh, I dunno, a pandemic hits?
Has the coronavirus changed your thinking? The president regularly states that he inherited a lousy system, designed for a different crisis. Now, some of that is somewhat true, in that he inherited a system designed for less than a global pandemic. He also made things much worse for the U.S. by, for example, removing the CDC expert stationed in China and firing the entire pandemic team from the National Security Council. Having worked on the NSC staff (briefly, during two summer breaks from teaching at the AF Academy), I can attest to the vital importance of the NSC in crisis situations. These two failings, among many others, were frankly stupid and dangerous, and made things today much worse, but I digress.
It's been said that you don’t build a church based on Easter Sunday crowd sizes. Similarly, you don’t want your city to buy enough snowplows to handle the once-in-a-century snow storms. So how do you plan for pandemics without overspending? That, my dear readers, is the question that will haunt our country for a while.
As is often the case, states can prove effective testing instruments on such policies. Since this crisis began, two governors truly stand out in my mind for their excellent work: Andrew Cuomo of New York and our own Jared Polis of Colorado. Both men have taken definitive steps, but perhaps equally importantly, they have demonstrated true leadership. Polis has appeared both compassionate and strong. His 50% order, for example, is being implemented, albeit with challenges, because he took charge and lead. While President Trump has been denying any responsibility, blaming previous administrations, and bragging about how he should get a 10 out of 10 for his work thus far, Polis has been working with state and local officials to mitigate and protect.
Events like the Coronavirus show clearly that Norquist was wrong. We need a government that is flexible and efficient, and that can respond to a crisis with speed and skill. True leadership isn’t something that comes from starring in a reality TV show. Rather, it comes from women and men of character, who understand the big picture and lead with rectitude. We have it in this state, tis a pity we don’t nationally.
Oh, and I really like having Dr. Anthony Fauci working in government-run labs.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.