Back to Work

One characteristic of governance in the COVID era is that it literally didn’t work. Parks and buildings were off limits to visitors. Schools were closed to students. The public was prevented from observing or participating in the legislative process. Even after the lifting of certain restrictions, basic public services could be still unavailable, spotty, unresponsive, inadequate or slow.

It’s time for government to get back to work.

I mean that in a legitimate sense, but I can’t help but think of how this statement has been used and abused for dishonest purposes in the past.

The need to get “back to work for the American people” was President Bill Clinton’s infamous way of changing the subject while in the midst of a scandal. He used the phrase twice in his remarks denying inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you.

I was humored to learn this week, upon searching the web, that Clinton also used this term as the title of his 2011 book, “Back to Work.” According to a summary, Clinton takes issue with conservative activists who a decade ago had cautioned against excessive government spending.

This brings us back to today, as government spending has ratcheted up again, causing inflationary pressures, making life miserable for the lowest income households and destabilizing the economy. The highest inflation rate in 40 years is driving up the cost of food, energy, consumer goods and housing.

The news media has noticed. CNBC is reporting that, “as inflation heats up, 64% of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck.” And FOX 13 Memphis is asking, “How much more can people across the Mid-South take before other expenses begin to fall to the wayside?”

Social media had a field day with a recent column by Teresa Ghilarducci in Bloomberg in which she offers suggestions for Americans earning less than $300 thousand who face the financial strain caused by inflation. Her tips include using public transportation instead of personal vehicles, eating lentils instead of meat, avoiding bulk purchases and depriving your pet of veterinary care (yes, really).

Inflation was a predictable outcome of government spending and massive bailout packages, but that hasn’t stopped some politicians from suggesting even more spending in response. Some White House officials evidently wanted to distribute gas cards to combat higher prices at the pump.

All of this spending was the government’s solution to a problem it created by forcibly closing the economy. When policy is crafted this way — when decisions are made by bureaucrats shielded from democratic input, and these authorities are focused on a single consideration — other, ignored factors have a way of reasserting themselves.

The goal to “shut down the virus” continued to dominate policy while deficits grew, product and labor shortages appeared, supply chains broke apart, prices rose, mental health challenges emerged, learning gaps deepened, and, oh, the virus stubbornly refused to shut down. It sure was a good try, though. Who knew we wouldn’t defeat an airborne virus with a colorful strip of cloth and a laminated hall pass?

Regardless, it’s time to get back to the basics. We need to execute the core functions of government well for the people who just want potholes fixed and mail delivered.

For example, those visiting the county clerk’s office. It would be nice if we could offer timely service to drivers doing their best to stay street legal. They should not be met with long lines, unanswered phone calls, inexplicable delays and missing license plates. They are going to the trouble of paying a tax; a hassle shouldn’t be their reward.

Instead of a return to restrictions we need a return of competent leadership. Government should stop making things worse and get busy making things work.