Have you heard the expression that a fish doesn't know it's swimming in water? I'm beginning to wonder if that applies to many of us when we think about government, so I invite you to take an imaginary walk around Ilwaco.
The sidewalk in front of the house where my dad was born was installed at least 70 years ago, when times were good, salmon were running in great numbers and we had relative prosperity. The street has been paved for as long as I can remember and was repaved when new sewer lines were installed during the 1990s. There's a new fire hall replacing the one that burned. Fire department, streets, sidewalks, sewer system all demonstrate past citizens' willingness to work together to solve problems for the common good, although that work certainly hasn't been flawless.
At the port, we encounter the physical manifestation of another government agency. Although some benefit more than others from this institution, a strong port can create economic development that ripples out to the wider community. Our walk takes us past the community college building to a view over the estuary, looking past Jetty A, and toward the north and south jetties built by the federal government to keep the Columbia bar open for ship traffic. There's a glimpse of the Cape D light and the Coast Guard station.
We trudge uphill, past the old hospital that was remodeled to house a branch of Timberland Regional Library, and a state highway patrol cruiser passes. The new hospital stands out with its brick and glass entry ... another government agency with a publicly elected board of directors.
We pass the state highway rest area and picnic ground, around Black Lake, past its little boat ramp, then walk the trail through the mixed forest that is being saved by the city for a time when native forests will not be easily accessed except in state parks. Over the ridge and down the hill, we walk past Hilltop School, the same building where my dad graduated from high school in 1933, once again a high school after substantial renovations, another government project.
When I look around Ilwaco, I see examples of government at work everywhere: the city, the port, state and federal government projects, junior taxing districts like the hospital, library system, school district and community college.
So what's our gripe with government? Why are so many people fired up about government spending? Is it that government shouldn't exist, as some people seem to think? Is it that government shouldn't get so much money? Is it that we think the money isn't spent properly? Do we resent the fact that we don't benefit from a particular government effort? Do we think, "My house hasn't caught fire so why do we need a fire department? I don't have kids, so why should I pay taxes for schools? I don't moor a boat at the port, so why should I contribute anything toward the port? Given that I never fly and only occasionally use the freeways, why should I pay for airports or highways?"
The discussion about government and taxes seems to have devolved into "What's in it for me?" without noticing what's already been received. I'm reminded of my former brother-in-law while he was doing a medical residency. Many of his emergency room patients were there for urgent care. My brother-in-law complained that these people were free loaders who didn't have insurance or money to pay for their medical expenses. "I worked for everything I have; I did it on my own," he said.
I knew better. Raised in Palo Alto, Calif., Craig attended public school in one of the best (and best funded) school districts in the country. Then he attended UC Santa Barbara, part of the world-class, publicly-funded California university system, working a little and getting substantial financial help from his family. But in my brother-in-law's mind, he did it all by himself. He didn't notice the contribution of far-sighted citizens who built and paid for the schools, universities, roads, airports and every other bit of infrastructure that had supported him through his first three decades of life.
If you haven't already voted, ask yourself, "What has government done for me?" Is it possible that you, like me and my brother-in-law, have benefited so often and so routinely that you don't even notice? Or are we like spoiled children, complaining because we haven't been given even more ... or like envious teenagers, complaining because we haven't gotten more than everyone else.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who has noticed the irony that old towns, with old schools, sewage treatment plants and streets eventually have to replace them, and that's expensive ... but necessary.