Like other members of my family about whom I have written on this website, I have spent most of my working life in public service. A few years ago, the local affiliate of National Public Radio asked me to write an essay reflecting on this work for broadcast as part of its “This I Believe” series. Then, last week, the national “This I Believe” organization contacted me to say my essay will be published this fall in an anthology. I was pleased that after the passage of some time my essay is still of interest. It will be a while until the book of essays is released, but for now you can read mine below. In addition, you can hear the audio of the original broadcast archived on the WHYY website by clicking on this link.
I believe in government.
My grandmother, Josephine, was the first in my family to enter government service nearly a century ago. She was a doctor in the women’s health clinic in Kiel, Germany. As a public health physician, she improved the lives of poor young mothers and children who otherwise would have gotten no proper medical care.
My father and mother, who fled Germany to escape the Nazis, made civil service their lifelong work here in America. Each of them built a distinguished career in agencies founded on principles of social and economic justice for all Americans.
As the son and grandson of civil servants, I grew up believing in the capacity of government to ameliorate human suffering and to improve the lot of ordinary people. While I was still in college, I, too, went to work in the public sector. I was thrilled when I landed a job as a summer intern for Senator Hubert Humphrey. I was able to be in the Senate gallery when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, guaranteeing the equal rights under the law that Americans take for granted today.
After college, I got a job with the National Labor Relations Board, where we worked to protect the rights of employees who wanted to be represented by a union. I will never forget the respect I was accorded when I entered a metal factory in Wilkes Barre PA or a nursing home in Millville, New Jersey. I was the government man responsible for setting the rules of fair play between employees and their employers. I will never forget being welcomed into the small town home of a man or a woman who had been fired for union organizing, knowing that these individuals were relying on their government — on me — to save them and their families from economic disaster. It was a huge responsibility, and the long days of hard work were repaid by the conviction that my colleagues and I were making a difference.
Now, 45 years after my first government job, I am a manager for the New Jersey courts. Our Judiciary has created drug courts that save the lives of addicts who were once criminals and turn them into responsible citizens. I have worked on programs to keep kids who went wrong from being locked up in institutions that too often only increase the likelihood that they will offend again. I leave my house at seven in the morning and I don’t get home until seven at night, and in between there’s hardly a minute of down time. But I take very seriously my responsibility to do the most that can be done with the hard-earned tax dollars that pay my salary.
So I believe in government. I believe in the good that government can do. My whole life has taught me to believe in government. No one knows the flaws of government better than those of us who labor under its maddening limitations. But government is still the best institution that we have devised to address the panoply of problems that beset the human condition.