With respect to the essay, “We All Built That” [“Expert Opinion,” Jan|Feb], Steven Conn makes a number of ideological assertions without foundation. Nor does it sound like he has had much experience doing business in other countries. In Conn’s view, sewer systems, educating children, and “keeping us healthy” are all successes of the federal government. This is pure ideology.
Food costs have declined precipitously since the 1900s as a result of corporate farms improving their productivity and a logistics system developed by large chain stores such as A&P initially, and improved further still by corporations like Wal-Mart, Kroger, and others. Consumers demanding better and less costly food and the free market’s response to that is why America, and now much of the world, has greatly improved its health and standard of living. In particular, this freed women from the time-consuming acquisition of food each day, as free-market innovations like refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners—none developed by a central government—made daily living easier and freed the home spouse to pursue a career as well.
In countries with strong federal governments like Cuba, Venezuela, Egypt, Spain, Greece, the standard of living has collapsed. Nor am I aware of any innovations from companies or government agencies coming out of these big-government countries that have improved anything in the United States. With respect to education, do any students read books written by a central government? Virtually all are written by entrepreneurial authors—even those books written by authors promoting statism to our children.
As for Mr. Conn’s suggestion to ask “anyone who has tried to do business in a country where contracts may or may not be worth the paper they are written on,” I have conducted business transactions in China, England, Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, and Italy, and the government is not a fair arbiter in any of these countries. It is understood even in these countries that the litigant that can bring the power of the government on to his side will win, pure and simple. This is why for most contracts involving Americans, both sides insist the contracts involve US law, since the perception is that we have the least government intrusion, not the most.
Conn also simplifies and distorts history. His reference to “titans calling out the National Guard to resolve strikes” only occurred in a handful of cases, and in all cases it was when the federal government prevented the corporation from hiring a new workforce or when workers crossing picket lines were being attacked by strikers.
Conn also cites case after case where the government throwing its weight around harmed particular segments of our society. That is exactly the anti-big-government argument. If the citizens place unchecked power in the hands of the central government, who will stop the inequities? As a historian, surely Conn saw what happened to unchecked government power in Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, and China of the 1930s and 1940s.
Conversely, with limited federal power, if a family business decides to discriminate against certain consumers, that business will soon go out of business, as consumers will push back. But when a government decides it can confiscate wealth, or control healthcare with a 13,000-page bill, who will protect the freedom of the citizen? The very government writing the rules? Not likely. It has never happened before in history where a powerful central government improved the freedom of its citizens. Never. Not once.
Steven Gidumal W’79 Orlando, FL
No Reflection, Please
One must wonder if Steven Conn has ever read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, a strong and eloquent pronouncement against big government. Beyond that he should be reminded that the Founding Fathers’ main reason for writing the Constitution followed by the Bill of Rights was to protect the individual from the tentacles of an ever-growing government.
Also, one has to seriously doubt that they intended our government to be financing the likes of Solyndra, a role that private financial institutions and banks were intended to play and, if they determined that a company or venture was not worthy, then they would not capitalize or lend them money, and rightfully so.
That in the last 10 years employment by the private sector has grown by 1 percent and the government sector by 15 percent, and that the average compensation of the latter is around double that of the former, reflects a scenario that does not portend well for a country that attained its world stature because of a free-enterprise system that, when left untethered by over-regulation by “big government,” can work wonders, witness the likes of Microsoft and Apple.
And as for the writer’s closing sentiment that, “Our federal government is nothing more and nothing less than a collective reflection of ourselves”—I can say emphatically that I will do my utmost to keep my reflection out of that mirror.
Sydney Waud C’63 New York
It’s Always Our Money
Professor Conn’s essay on why big federal government is good for us was clearly ideological and littered with unsubstantiated assumptions. He alleges that the free market can only deliver goods and services at the best prices, but is incapable of educating children, providing medical care, and almost anything else. Has he compared the superior academic standing of home-schooled kids or those in many charter schools—mostly without government largesse—with kids from the monolithic public-school system? What about private colleges of medicine? What about Steve Jobs and Apple?
The fact that a city or state may have paved the street in front of the building has nothing to do with anything. He passes off states’ rights with a testy opinion that such rights “constitute less a theory of governance and more a facade to perpetuate traditions of bullying, bigotry, and oppression.” Really? It would be interesting to hear his defense of that bold assertion.
He mocks Presidents Reagan and Bush for pretending to be cowboys (perhaps forgetting that Bush spent most of his life in Texas). In doing so he refers to those early cattle-driving wranglers, hinting at their oppression by big bosses from pushing “other people’s” cattle across the dusty plains, dependent upon railroads and meat packers (more oppressors?) to maintain their livelihood. Reminiscent of President Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that!” speech, Conn goes on to relate all that big government has done by building interstate highways and offering land grants (which actually weren’t free) to railroads and homesteaders, etc., etc.
Does Conn think the government enabled Bill Gate’s parent’s to build their garage where Bill conceived Microsoft? He opines that railroaders and other powerful magnates of the 19th century were evil and corrupt, but it must be said that today’s politicians are not far behind in skullduggery. Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac are glaring monuments to the corruption of politicians, and this very week the USAID was accused of manipulating contracts for personal reward to their own colleagues—the very kind of disgraceful government shabbiness that is acceptable daily business in Washington.
He’s right that the free market is a fiction, mostly because government simply can’t resist manipulating the economy with far too many social experiments and restrictive regulations—new thousands already from the Obama administration since his reelection! I’ll concede that regulation was indicated in those older days when industrial titans ran roughshod with vast monopolies, but increasingly in recent years such interferences are more obstructive than useful. The EPA once had merit; now it has become a meddlesome religion of environmental zealots!
Most interesting, Conn had a second article published in the same issue, a review of author Dennis Drabelle’s recent book attacking the demon railroads [“Arts”]. Conn’s opening sentence unwittingly exposes why it may not be so beneficial to have the government meddle in every business in the land. It reads: “If you’ve ever been stuck on a slow-moving, late-arriving Amtrak train, or conversely if you’ve ever zipped through Europe on dependably punctual high-speed trains and sighed at the comparison ...”
The reference to Amtrak is a reminder of the long list of lamentable government failures with almost everything they’ve had a hand at managing, despite billions of dollars in subsidies. Besides Amtrak, a money pit in chronic failure, the Post Office failed under Washington’s auspices and is still grubbing money from the Treasury; Social Security is broke (notwithstanding the mythical “Trust Fund” that many believe in); Medicare and Medicaid are walking the plank; the government’s crony-capitalism “investments” in nearly a dozen now-failed solar-energy plants has wasted taxpayer billions—and it’s still pursuing more of the same today in Nevada! Page after page could be filled with more depressing stories of government ineptitude.
Conn concludes his second article with a strange quote from philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Americans knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business.” Is it enough “freedom” to consider that our taxes pay for all public endeavors? Big government doesn’t pay for anything—it’s always our money, shipped to Washington for considerable laundering, then the residue doled out in the form of government largesse by beneficent politicians seeking reelection!
Americans do share in business on the most intimate level, namely in those we entrepreneurs build ourselves. Most wish the government would simply go away and give us the freedom to plan for and run that business! Washington’s and Conn’s premise that this great nation would be nothing without the government “sharing” in everything is dead wrong.
Alan E. Deegan D’59 Surprise, AZ
Private Industry Beats Big Government
I was curious to see how anyone could defend the position that “big government is good for us,” but I was amazed to see that the author used education and healthcare as examples. Would you rather go to Penn or Penn State? Would you rather be hospitalized at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania or the old Philadelphia General Hospital? Why do so many American cities that border with (socialized medicine) Canada have hospitals that are frequented by Canadians?
As someone who has worked for private industry and big government, I have seen firsthand the tremendous superiority in efficiency, effectiveness, and decision-making of private industry vs. big government, much to the frustration of many big-government workers.
If the author, who is a history professor, would do some historical research, he would find the big government is a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to education and healthcare. Much of this nation’s educational, healthcare, and charitable institutions were established by religious groups, not big government.
Let’s have a little more scholarship in the essays.
Jim Robinson WG’79 Norcross, Georgia
Despite Benefits, A Long Term Threat to the Economy
While my conservative proclivity is to challenge Steven Conn on his position that “big government is good for us,” I’ll give him a pass because he does raise some valid points. However, he, like Obama & Co. in their drive to remake and transform the American economy (just read his speeches on this point), overlook the sine qua non factor that is behind every new business formation: someone’s willingness to “bet the farm” to start something new in hopes of a better future for themselves, their families, and the enterprise. This same willingness to “bet the farm” on a better future is behind every venture-capitalism investment as well.
President Obama, his advisors, and czars (just Google “Bios of Obama White House Czars”) lack not only the experience in the private sector where payrolls have to be met out of income every week, but the impact of government regulations on (1) starting a business in the first place and (2) the drain on time and resources from the business itself that coping with these growing regulations requires.
New business formations is at something like a 40-year low, and that sure as hell can’t be attributed to global warming, Wall Street, or John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. It’s because too many people with the power to impact individual business decisions simply lack the experience and credentials to know what they’re talking about and doing. And this leaves out the impact on business of the administration’s open bias toward unions.
Steven Conn may be right that big government has benefited us all, but he overlooks and ignores the long term threat to the economy that this same big government can have on the willingness of entrepreneurs to “bet the farm” for futures that will benefit the American economy. Equally as dangerous, but more galling, is the combination of ignorance and arrogance in the attitudes that they, and they alone, know more than those who have “been there, done that.”
Lewis R. Elin W’60 ASC’61 Chicago
Steven Conn characterizes those who oppose “big government” as ungrateful hypocrites. According to Conn, they hate big government unless and until they need big government to advance their interests. They do not appreciate properly the blessings of having clean water to drink, a viable infrastructure for communication and transportation, or a relatively honest and efficient bureaucracy. He creates a straw man whose identity is defined by “free market fundamentalism,” “the fetish of states’ rights,” and “the myth of the Marlboro Man.” The language he uses is so insulting to those of us concerned about big government that I have to shake my head in wonder that a professor would get down into the gutter and use such emotionally charged language.
Our concern for maintaining the proper balance in federalism is reduced to a perversion (“fetish”) of the states’ rights concept. Our love for free enterprise is likened to the most naïve and fanatical religious fervor, having little connection to reality as lived, and the Marlboro Man is invoked as the image of rugged, but ignorant individuality. Those of us who propose the ideal of the individual “pursuit of happiness” are presumably living in a mythical mindset rather than in reality.
Thus, the tone of the article is incredibly smug, but its real flaw lies in the fact that it is classical sophistry, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. His arguments—some of which were used successfully by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and President Obama during the recent elections—are only superficially plausible and sincere sounding, but are embarrassingly weak in the rationality department.
Suppose we are appreciative of some of the functions of the federal government—say, its exclusive role as protector of the people through the Armed Forces, or some of its regulatory functions. Would such appreciation in any way justify any and all expansions of government control? Those who are concerned about “big government” are giving their response to the very questions Conn suggests are legitimate when he writes, “So the question is not whether the government will play a role in the market, but how, on what terms, and for whose benefit.” Reasonable and informed persons like myself believe that in recent years the federal government has been overreaching in many areas.
The section of the article on states’ rights (remember, people concerned about states’ rights are ideologically perverted!) is so puerile that one can only gasp at how uninformed the presentation is. He writes that states’ rights goes back to the ante-bellum period (“to perpetuate slavery”). In fact, the South was arguing about states’ rights as early as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in the 1790s pertaining to the Alien and Sedition Acts, and again in the late 1820s and early 1830s, and South Carolina even threatened secession during the presidency of Andrew Jackson over the issue of tariffs, not slavery.
Further, there was a split among slaveholders and slaveholding states over the issue of secession, which was not “automatically” associated with states’ rights. Many slaveholders and states with slavery—the Border States—chose not to secede, as they understood that states’ rights did not include the right of secession. Andrew Johnson was added as Lincoln’s running mate for that very reason. I would refer Conn and the readers of the Gazette to the incredible writings of Rob Natelson, a truly great constitutional scholar (constitution.i2i.org).
Further, Conn mixes apples and oranges, mocking Southern states for accepting federal highway money while resisting desegregation. It should be noted that federal highways are legitimate activities of the federal government under its power to regulate interstate commerce, and the building of those highways is for the provision of the general welfare under a legitimate function that is constitutionally justified.
Further, the section of the article on states’ rights is slanted to make it appear that those concerned with “big government” are racists. However, it was more of a limited-government type, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (he warned us of the dangers of the “military/industrial complex”), who federalized the National Guard and sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the desegregation of Central High School. Instead, it was big government Dems like Senators William Fulbright and Robert Byrd who were the most diehard racists in government.
Now let us consider for a moment this business of gratitude for services rendered by government that Conn chooses to highlight … If I appreciated the role of government in maintaining the streets of Philadelphia, the police for protecting my person as I travelled to and from Penn during my undergraduate years, and SEPTA for its efficient carriage of my person to and from the West Philly campus, does that mean I would appreciate that selfsame government telling me what courses to take while a student, or what foods to eat in order to be less of a health burden on society?
If the government of Philly were to do such things, that would clearly be overreaching (for Conn it may not be overreaching because they would be showing concern for community [“collective”] needs). So, it would be “big government” even at the local level, and even more so for the federal government to come in and dictate my behavior in those areas.
Why is it overreaching? It is overreaching because my liberty as an individual would thereby be undermined. The Founders certainly were concerned about that, and did not, as my dear fellow alum claims, have a “collective rather than a strictly individual conception of the ‘general welfare’.”
The article in the Gazette is so seriously flawed and polemical in nature that I am surprised that someone with scholarly credentials submitted it over his byline. It is nothing more or less than propaganda written in a way to seem plausible to educated persons, yet devoid of honest and logical reflection.
E. Jeffrey Ludwig C’62 Brooklyn
Where Will It End?
I’m not sure how to take this whole essay, but do beg to differ with the author on his thinking that more and bigger government is a good thing—especially his quoting Ronald Reagan that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem,” and saying it is wrong.
I guess he is young and naive, and has missed what the government has done to many things: like having a whole generation or two of welfare addicts; Electronic Benefit Transfer cards/Obama phone/rent/food stamps/housing; unemployment benefits forever. Where will it end? These keep people from functioning on their own. It is very sad.
Then take the Post Office/VA system/Department of Education/EPA/Medicare/government unions/Service Employees International Union/teachers unions … all costing lots of $$$ but return on the investment in negative numbers.
And just wait till the Obamacare tax helps us all out. More taxes, more government, less freedom.
Steven Conn is another liberal left-wing journalist with his head in the sand. Sad again, especially when this is the nonsense reported to Americans.
Dotti Cahill Nu’75 Fleming Island, FL
Provost Harrison’s Daughter Brought Working Dogs to US
Molly Petrilla’s article, “Working Dogs,” [Jan|Feb] is very interesting, but arguably lacked a significant historical connection to the University of Pennsylvania. It is indeed fitting that Penn’s Veterinary School should have a working dog center. Working dogs were introduced into the United States by my great aunt, Dorothy Harrison Eustice, daughter of Provost Charles C. Harrison. Cousin Dorothy became fascinated by working dogs on a trip to Switzerland and subsequently founded the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, New Jersey.
I suggest that given the long association between the Harrison family and the University of Pennsylvania that the history of working dogs in America be recognized as part of Penn’s history.
Charles Harrison Davis W’52 WG’62 Philadelphia
Obvious Now, Revolutionary Then
I read “The Path to GO!” [Jan|Feb] the day the British parliament voted massively in favor of gay marriage. How the world and Penn have changed since my student days! As they say, “It gets better.”
In 1969 when I arrived as an overseas graduate student (B for “Bi” or Q for “Questioning”) there was no open LGBTQ community at Penn and no institutional support. The nearest I ever found was a student counselor who got me drunk at a welcome function in my first week, hurriedly sodomized me in the dorm, and disappeared into the night. Though I was a willing participant, this exciting but rather unsatisfactory experience was still a felony in Pennsylvania.
Everything was hidden. Nobody was out. It took me over a year to make normal human contact with someone else who was gay.
One Sunday morning in January 1971, I sat alone in a deli in West Philly, reading with amazement an article by Merle Miller in The New York Times entitled “What it Means to Be a Homosexual.” I have just re-read it, issued in book form by Penguin as On Being Different. It all seems so obvious now, but at the time it was revolutionary.
Mick Howarth G’71 Perpignan, France
Send Your Resumes Here!
Thank you to Trey Popp for the excellent article on the employment problem [“Home Depot Syndrome, the Purple Squirrel, and America’s Job Hunt Rabbit Hole,” Jan|Feb]. I have one bit of advice for alumni who want to beat the recruiting algorithms that filter people out based on specific keywords: don’t! That kind of software is a sign of a poor culture you probably don’t want to be a part of.
As a hiring manager myself, I read all the resumes that come in and often go out on a limb and interview and hire people whose experience, intelligence, and work culture show that they’ll be able to adapt and learn our environment, with the right training and coaching. Would you rather be a cog with just the right size and tooth count, or a dynamic contributor with room to adapt and grow?
Alex Kuhner C’98 Westport, CT
A Memorable Season
To Dave Zeitlin’s fine summary of Penn’s 2012 football season, “A Tale of Two Quarterbacks,” [“Sports,” Jan|Feb], permit me to add an observation from my perhaps unique vantage point:
As a former Penn football player, former DP sports editor, former professional sportswriter, author of a history of Penn football, and lifelong fan of the game at all levels, I’ve seen my share of memorable and forgettable football teams, at Penn and elsewhere. But I’ve never seen one as remarkable as last fall’s Penn team.
To lose your best running back, your two best receivers, and ultimately your first-string quarterback; to lose all your non-league games; to lose (badly) to the worst team in the Ivy League and come close to losing to the other six teams as well; and yet to keep bouncing back, week after week, to wind up with an overall winning record and an undisputed Ivy championship, finishing ahead of one of the most awesome teams in Harvard history—a nationally ranked squad that broke virtually every Ivy League offensive and defensive record—it boggles the mind.
The morning after the season ended, I suspect players and fans from the other seven Ivy schools were scratching their heads and saying, “Those guys won the Ivy League?” But those guys really did. Penn’s 2012 season was the ultimate character test, and its players passed that test with flying colors.
My Penn teammates still cherish the memory of a day in November 1963 when our last-place team played way over our heads to upset Harvard, which then boasted the nation’s longest unbeaten streak and had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated the previous day. But that was just one game. Last fall’s Penn team rose to the occasion week after week, no matter what the circumstances.
This grizzled old grad has heard more than his share of blather about “life lessons learned on a football field.” Penn’s 2012 football players made a believer of me. They demonstrated in practice what we’ve all been taught in theory: that in any given situation, character triumphs in the end.
Dan Rottenberg C’64 Philadelphia
Samantha Drake’s attempt, in “The Dorm From Hell” [“Alumni Voices,” Jan|Feb], to recount her unfortunate experience recuperating from a cerebral aneurysm in a nursing home in the manner of a comedy skit, falls very, very flat, to put it kindly. There is no denying that humor helps one cope with life’s upsets, but when it comes at the expense of her elderly and mentally impaired “dorm-mates,” there is no fun in it. I found her insensitivity breathtaking when she characterized one resident—obviously disabled by dementia—as a “Monkey Woman,” who had the “rather disconcerting habit of throwing back her head and screaming like a chimpanzee.” Shame on her!
The piece was deeply disrespectful and lacking in insight. What a missed opportunity to help those of us who are still in charge of our own bodies, minds, and lives to imagine what it is like for our fellow human beings who have lost this agency. I expected more from The Pennsylvania Gazette.
Michele Taillon Taylor Gr’97 Havertown, PA.
You Are Not Alone
Like Samantha Drake, I too suffered a brain aneurysm. It happened in November of last year. The hospital called it subarachnoid hemorrhage, or SAH. The onset, for me, was a bit different than Samantha Drake describes in her essay. One minute I was walking home after visiting friends. The next thing I knew, I was in a bed looking up at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling of a hospital hallway.
I vaguely realized that there were people around me—nurses, doctors, I guess. They were talking to me but I couldn’t understand a word they said. I also couldn’t talk or even move very well.
I like Drake’s phrase “four-lane highway route through my synapses.” That’s a pretty good description. Bottom line: if you haven’t experienced it (which you don’t want to if you haven’t) you can’t imagine the fear, desperation, confusion, and brain-fog that are all effects of SAH.
I think I was in the hospital for about a week. As of mid-January I have two months under my belt. I’m still alive. I have regained a lot. Every day is a gift.
Most difficult for me has been the sense of isolation, loneliness. I gathered from Drake’s description of the strong connections she had with individuals at the rehab center, that they were important to her. Fellow inmates, as it were. You go through a process of discovering people, relationships, and how you fit in all over again. I admire her courage in writing about her experiences. I’m sure there is much more to tell. Just know this, Samantha Drake: you are not alone.
Scott Dalton C’72 Portland, OR
Lost Link, but Useful Future
I read with interest the article “Over the River” [“From College Hall,” Jan|Feb] on Penn South Bank in Grays Ferry, formerly the location of DuPont’s Marshall Laboratory.
Marshall Labs was named for my grandfather—John Marshall, a DuPont scientist of some distinction—when he was dying of cancer, and my mother drove him to the building for the dedication. He had my mother pull the car over on the way home so he could weep—and crying was something that reserved, accomplished gentleman never did. Until DuPont shut the plant down, his portrait hung in the lobby of the building. I took my daughter to see it when she was very small, so she could know her great-grandfather.
Although I am sad that link with our family is gone, I am glad to know the site will be part of the University in the future. May it represent John Marshall well.
Delia Turner GEd’90 GrEd’96 Haverford, PA
In “Memories of War and Children” [“Arts,” Jan|Feb], we scrambled the title of the film described in the article on several occasions. The correct title is Niños de la Memoria. It was also incorrectly stated that the director of the film, María Teresa Rodriquez, was Salvadoran. We apologize to readers—and the film-makers—for the errors.
Previous issue's column
|We Welcome Letters
Please email us at email@example.com. You can also reach us by fax at 215-573-4812 or by regular mail at Editor, The Pennsylvania Gazette, 3910 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3111. Letters should refer to material published in the magazine and may be edited for clarity, civility, and length.