Goldilocks, the government, and Saint Gobain

August 30, 2016
By Dan Weeks

Also published in The Concord Monitor

One of my favorite stories to read to my kids is “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” According to the classic fairy tale, a mischievous young girl (red-headed like their dad) enters the unoccupied home of three bears and helps herself to their three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three beds. In each case, she finds that one is too large or too hot or too soft, the other too small or too cold or too hard, and the third just right.

That lesson about “right-sizing” to meet our needs might well be applied to government.

As America’s political discourse devolves into partisan bickering dominated by extremes, one might mistakenly conclude that there are only two opinions about government: “government can solve all our problems” and “government is the source of all our problems.” Both are misleading and wrong.

An outsized and overbearing government, like too-hot porridge or a too-soft bed, stifles innovation, squashes incentives, and lulls people into apathetic slumber. Likewise, a hamstrung and under-funded government, like too-cold porridge or a too-hard bed, leaves people unprotected from dangers beyond their control and prevents those without ladders of their own from rising to achieve their God-given potential.

It is hardly an original view. Although large numbers of Americans — especially conservatives — hold a negative opinion of government as a whole, few would like to see its basic functions curtailed. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found the vast majority of Americans want government to play a “major role” in keeping our country safe, responding to natural disasters, ensuring safe food and medicine, maintaining infrastructure, protecting the environment, strengthening the economy, and ensuring access to high quality education, among others. Smaller majorities also favor a major role for government in ensuring access to health care and helping people get out of poverty. We may not relish paying taxes, but 54 percent of us say we pay about the right amount considering what we get and 52 percent say we demand more from government than we are willing to pay for.

What is needed, therefore, is not big or small government, per se, but representative government — government that accurately reflects and faithfully implements the public will. When it comes to protecting our health and the environment, the people’s will is perfectly clear.

Enter Saint Gobain, the multi-national plastics manufacturer operating in New Hampshire. According to recent investigations by the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, Saint Gobain’s Merrimack plant appears to be the source of elevated perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical contaminant with suspected links to cancer and other health problems, in the water supply.

Nearly 200 private wells in Litchfield and Merrimack have so far tested above the EPA-approved threshold of 70 parts per trillion PFOA concentration, and public wells supplying water to thousands of Merrimack residents, including schools, have tested uncomfortably close to the line. So far, Saint Gobain has refused to accept responsibility for the contamination or agree to fund long-term remediation, although it is covering the cost of delivering bottled water to affected residents at the request of DES.

Saint Gobain did what most Americans reasonably expect business to do: focus on the bottom line. But like other businesses before it, Saint Gobain’s model of profit-maximization does not robustly account for public goods like safe drinking water and other externalities. That’s where government comes in.

For government to do what most Americans reasonably expect it to do, however, it must have the resources and authority to set and enforce fair guidelines that balance private-sector profits and public health. Steep cuts in state funding for health and environmental services since 2010, combined with federal cuts that bring EPA to its lowest funding level since 1989, have meant less in the way of testing and prevention of dangerous contaminants like PFOA and lead, not just in New Hampshire and Michigan, but across the United States.

In fact, current resource constraints and the slow pace of scientific research mean EPA is able to test for just two or three of the thousands of synthetic chemicals registered for everyday use in the United States each year, and countless at-risk water systems are effectively unprotected. The danger is not limited to public health alone but to the health of our economy as well.

Indeed, for the private sector to deliver the goods of prosperity and innovation we seek, government must be able to deliver the goods of infrastructure investment, education and workforce development, and impartial regulation/enforcement that it alone can provide. In the case of Saint Gobain, that means preventing future contamination and holding it accountable for the damage already done through the prompt extension of safe public drinking water to all affected people — before the current construction season wraps up. After all, unhealthy people are unproductive workers and ineffective citizens.

As my kids grow out of Goldilocks and get to know the world, I hope they will not have to contend with too big or too small government, but representative government that’s “just right” in size to do the things that We the People ask: protect us from dangers beyond our control and expand opportunity so every child has the chance to succeed. I know I’m not alone.

Dan Weeks of Nashua is the former executive director of Open Democracy and a candidate for N.H. Executive Council in District 5.