Good government

Let's explore what our leaders do well for a change

Rather than capping on movie-premiere-length waits at the DMV or eligibility instructions written in Urdu, let’s reflect on what government does well.

Government doesn’t always hit the bull’s-eye, and sometimes, it misses the target altogether. But government was created to protect the health and safety of even its windiest critics. Unlike banks and credit-card companies, which make oodles of mistakes and care about health and safety only in relation to their assets.

Government offers a largely nonviolent forum for resolving ugly disputes, such as custody claims and marriage dissolutions and scope-of-practice dustups between optometrists and ophthalmologists.

Tap water is not full of poisons. Potholes get filled, and no one has to depend on Shel Silverstein’s Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout to take the stinkin’ garbage out.

Government is more than just public works and patrol cars. It’s a bully pulpit, to use Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase. Government can chastise, comfort or, most righteously, convince that it’s cool to take a few baby steps away from self-interest and sidle up to the greater good.

Is Mayor Kevin Johnson’s full-court press going to keep the Kings in Sacramento? Even if he’s mostly inoculating himself against inevitable failure, there’s still a warm afterglow following those press conferences where he gets all googly-eyed and golden tongued about how epically awesome is the Eden of Sacramento.

Less flashy—but straight from the bully-pulpit playbook—is Jerry the Elder calling a special session of the Legislature to address implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act is the biggest change in the delivery of health care since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. That means there’s scads of likely chances for disaster or fiasco. Calling a special session to spotlight how to avoid waves of cataclysmic shit storms saves taxpayers heartburn and money.

Generally, government is good at responding to disasters. Even an all-world, grade-A pooch-screwing like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Hurricane Katrina was a rolled newspaper to the nose that will help prevent debacles like this in the future. Bummer for New Orleans, though.

California now has cookie-cutter legislation ready for rapid introduction and passage that provide tax breaks, ease applications for relief, and hasten rebuilding for victims of famine, flood, fire, pestilence and rain o’ frogs.

There’s a place in this for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s forte—striding purposefully with firefighters in his militaristic gubernatorial windbreaker, squinting stoically and pointing meaningfully to highlight the state’s response and the needs of victims.

Like government itself, it’s the less flashy but more effective that seldom receives notice. Shortly after Gov. George Pardee’s election in 1902, the only doctor to serve as California’s chief executive quietly began eradication of an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His predecessor had spent four years denying the outbreak, despite medical evidence to the contrary and at least 113 corpses.

When the San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, Pardee and his staff moved to Oakland to better coordinate recovery efforts. All told, Pardee spearheaded the distribution of more than $4 million in food and supplies as well as $1 million in cash assistance.

Southern Pacific Railroad, which did the governor selecting in those days, didn’t think Pardee was slavish enough in his devotion and, despite the Republican governor’s skilled handling of the San Francisco disaster, anointed someone else to sit in the corner office, depriving Pardee of a second term.

Pardee moved back to Oakland and co-founded the Progressive Party, which swept into the statehouse in 1910 and created the initiative, referendum and recall, finally prying the greasy mitts of Southern Pacific from the throat of California government.

These century-old Progressive Party innovations are still referred to, rightly or wrongly, as “good government.”