I want you back

The media retrospectives surrounding the passing of Michael Jackson have put some of us (from the Jackson 5 generation, not the Thriller generation) in a nostalgic mood. Those old songs—not to mention the clothes and hair—bring back memories of summers past, when mowing lawns and baby-sitting provided just enough money for afternoons at the pool. We’d alternate between the cool, chlorinated burn of the water and the sizzling, rough concrete around it, while songs like “I Want You Back” and “The Love You Save” played on someone’s tinny AM radio.

That’s a far cry from the summer today’s kids will be having, as budget cutbacks—and continued resistance to actually paying for the services we’ve come to expect—close pools and parks. Those junior-high summers seem more like a golden age as the news of another cut or closure is announced daily.

But those junior-high memories are relevant, if only because our elected officials—and yes, some of the voters—seem to have forgotten the lessons of seventh-grade civics that we learned under the watchful eye of the much-feared Mr. Duncan, may he rest in peace.

Mr. Duncan started at the very beginning. “What is government for?” he’d ask. The answer was simple; even the goof-offs in the back of the room knew, by the end of the semester, that the purpose of government is to do for the community—as well as the state and the nation—what no individual can do alone. We pool our money—through taxes—to pay for things like roads, bridges, schools, libraries, parks and swimming pools, The list had grown to include, even then, assistance for the elderly and the poor, but the point Mr. Duncan made was that we had a civic responsibility to take care of each other, but it was also a general benefit. Because of government, we all had access to things that otherwise would have been out of our reach.

Taxes, he said, were the dues we paid for a standard of living worth having, one that included amenities like buses and swimming pools, and that didn’t let the poor starve in the cold or the sick die untended.

It made electing the class president more than a popularity contest, at least for those of us who paid attention. Apparently, it’s a lesson we’ve forgotten; Michael Jackson’s original cadre of fans were also the beneficiaries of the Great Society, a time when both voters and elected officials agreed that we should make the world a better place. California—under Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of conservatism, no less—had top-notch community colleges and state schools, good roads, bridges that didn’t collapse, swimming pools that were open all summer.

But somewhere along the way, the idea that government had a purpose fell out of fashion. In the time it took for Michael Jackson’s nose to disappear, the voices of “Government is the problem” and “Cut taxes” had drowned out the Great Society.

All it takes is a quick look at the cheap-labor, no-taxes result: no budget, an educational system that’s rapidly sinking to the bottom of national rankings, roads that are falling apart. Even the swimming pools are closed most of the time.

Perhaps it’s time, since we can’t hang out at the pool all summer, for a remedial class in seventh-grade civics. We can start at the beginning: What is government for?