In defense of government

IN DEFENSE OF GOVERNMENT…. President Obama hosted a town-hall event in North Carolina yesterday at a Charlotte factory where they develop advanced battery technology. The event was primarily devoted to talking about the economy, and it was well timed — the president spoke shortly after the encouraging monthly job numbers were released.

Towards the end of the Q&A, an attendee asked Obama about health care reform and taxes, and the president proceeded to deliver an answer that lasted … just over 17 minutes. This led to some mockery from the media — for the record, I kind of liked the lengthy response, but I probably like in-depth discussions more than the typical political reporter — and Obama, at the end of his soliloquy, conceded, “Boy, that was a long answer. I’m sorry.”

What I found more interesting, though, was the president’s remarks in defense of government itself. He was talking about the need for an improved national electrical grid (“smart grid”) and the role government can and must play in tending to infrastructure needs. Obama told his audience that work on the grid “is an investment that only government, working with the private sector, can help to make.”

“You’re hearing a lot of talk these days about government, and government is ‘terrible,’ and ‘bureaucrats,’ and ‘they’re taking over’ and all this stuff. Look, I don’t want government any more than is necessary, but there are some things that Bob or any CEO can’t invest in. Bob is not going to build the roads to get to Celgard. No company is going to make investments for a public good. None of you would expect a private company to fund our military or our firefighters. There are just some things that you can’t do on your own, and the private sector is not going to do — it’s not profitable because if Bob was the guy who had to build the road, he’d have a whole bunch of other people driving on that road that weren’t paying for it. So it’s not a good investment for him.

“That’s where government comes in. The same is true when it comes to something like the electricity grid. We’re going to have to help create that infrastructure, just like broadband lines, just like a whole bunch of basic 21st century infrastructure, so we’ve got the platform in order to succeed and compete economically. That’s what the Chinese are doing. That’s what the Indians are doing. That’s what the Germans are doing. That’s what the United States is going to have to do.”

I’m always glad when the president does this. One of Obama’s larger, thematic tasks is changing the way people perceive the role of collective action through their government. The right’s response to his presidency is a hysterical attack on the very notion of government action, which makes it all the more important for the president to make statements like these.

Americans need a reminder that when it comes to some key policy challenges, the only sensible solution is for the country to use the government as a tool to act in the public’s interest, taking steps businesses won’t take, and that individuals can’t take on their own.

In other words, more of this, please.