Stephen Gottlieb: Government Work | WAMC

Stephen Gottlieb: Government Work

Mar 23, 2021

Democrats pile onto misbehaving Democratic officials, as they seem to be in New York. Republican response to Republican misbehavior seems to be, “Go get those suckers; do it some more,” as in the last four years in Washington. When chief executives start thinking of themselves as untouchable alpha-males they need to be pushed out. But there’s a larger story.

Discussing the flawed roll-out of the Covid vaccine at a community event, someone remarked “That’s government.” I broke in to say that all of us here know people who work for government, some among the finest people we know. Many of my best former students work for government because that’s where the most socially valuable and interesting jobs are. One of my first neighbors in Albany directed the environmental bureau of the Attorney General’s office. We often talked about their effort to protect New Yorkers from the toxic waste in the infamous Love Canal, and generally to protect us all from destructive pollution. Few lawyers find more fulfilling work. Jim shuttled between offices in New York City and Albany to get his work done, and hired some of the best of my former students. Yes, that’s government too.

Complaints about “government” are mostly about government efforts to meet our conflicting demands. Satisfying us is tough and everybody’s a critic. Public servants don’t ask for recognition. In fact, when we discussed it, Rex Smith wrote me that many public servants are very averse to sticking their heads out above their colleagues. It’s enough for them to do their work well.

Along with the Covid heroes, those working inside the government also deserve to be celebrated: government lawyers who put dangerous people away, and those who try to prevent government from putting innocent people away; water, sewer and sanitation workers who do some of the dirtiest work in the area to keep our neighborhoods clean and healthy; health department workers who keep filth and toxins out of our food, and many more. My hat’s off to government workers who spent hours on the phone reading us what government lawyers asked them to before we signed up for vaccines. Yes, their bosses could have set that up better, but, with headwinds from every direction, thanks to them too for getting that job done.

We argue over choices between a clean, healthy environment or letting business ignore the damage they do; and choices between livable wages or allowing excess profits. Despite well-publicized exceptions, the difficulties come from our competing desires. Let’s have some sympathy, and admiration, for the people who try to give us what we say we want.

Let me suggest that news media devote a section to government work and workers whose jobs are well done. Good public service is a secret much too well-kept. The many fine public servants devoted to serving us makes it even more important to get miscreants out of their way and out of office, so they can do their jobs honestly, thoroughly and fearlessly. Cuomo’s misbehavior hurts all the more because it clouds our memory of all the good work done by many people dedicated to real science and public health. We need to find more ways to recognize the good work done in many government offices so that we don’t completely miss the importance of government work.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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