This phrase was the punchline to Ronald Reagan’s cruel joke about the nine most dangerous words in the English language. Well, maybe it’s getting to the point that those words can be used in a positive way. Paul Waldman, in an online article at The American Prospect, writes:

As hard as it may be for many progressives to accept it, scarred as they are by years of GOP abuse and the tepid, apologetic stance of their own allies, the time has finally come for them to defend, without reservation, the idea of a vigorous, engaged government. They can finally say, without fear of disastrous political consequences, that sometimes government is not the problem, it’s the solution.

On the other hand, Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune, writing in the New York Times op-ed page on August 6, seems to want us to not think about solutions:

Economic power lies with central bankers, global corporations and high-rolling masters of the universe. Military power is constrained by mutually assured destruction and the 24-hour news cycle. What remains are image, perception and identity.

That is, just watch the political fun and games, and strutting, and symbolism; don’t worry about global warming, the end of cheap oil, mass extinction, the dying oceans, rivers, and lakes, and the deforested landscapes. The “central bankers, global corporations and high-rolling masters of the universe” will be sure to keep business-as-usual going, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

In contrast, in the July/August issue of The Washington Monthly, James Galbraith argued that government must be rebuilt as a force for good. In the conclusion of a review of books by Benjamin Barber and Bill McKibben, he wrote:

Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush’s FEMA, is no one’s idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government — the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics — has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.

Therefore: government will have to be rebuilt. The competencies necessary will have to be learned. The necessary powers will have to be legislated. Safeguards — against corruption, against abuse, against predation, against regulatory capture — will have to be designed. The corporate consumer culture will have to be brought to heel, and the long food production chains McKibben warns against will, indeed, have to be shortened. At the same time, a new project of physical, technological, and urban social engineering will have to get under way.

(Thanks to Colin Wright for the Waldman and Galbraith references.)

Here at Gristmill, Sean Casten has written about the “regulatory capture” that Galbraith mentions, and Ron Steenblik has been warning of the “predation” of massive subsidies that lead us to a less sustainable society, such as subsidies for corn ethanol. For both of those phenomena, the problem is that the “masters of the universe” have gotten control of the governmental machinery and taken it away from the rightful decision-makers, the citizens of the country.

So why are no major environmental or progressive groups advocating sweeping visions or comprehensive programs for moving our society to a more sustainable path? Matt Miller, writing on August 5, 2007 in The Financial Times, says that:

Over three decades, America’s conservative movement has so deftly shifted the boundaries of debate to the right that even modest adjustments to the market system can be cast as the second coming of Marx without anyone blushing.

The public is not as scared as people think, because, according to polling, they favor public investment to solve our environmental problems. With the bridge collapse in Minneapolis and extreme weather sweeping the world, putting more strain on infrastructure, I think we are seeing the political pendulum swing away from Reagan’s interpretation of his punchline.