Influenza and the government blues
Yesterday, my mother called me to tell me that three young people died from influenza in Southeast Michigan. Worried about my health, she urged me to get a flu shot. I was probably more scornful than I should've been (at least in my own head) at my mom equating the death of three young people into a worry to call me at 11pm to get something that I thought "wasn't necessary." I decided to take a break from my accounting homework, of course, to look into flu shots and whether they were actually important. I started googling and found my way to CDC.gov, the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency. I started reading and was skeptical at first. After all, I thought, this is a government agency. Can I really trust the CDC?
And then it hit me. I was starting to let anti-government hype lead me to make bad decisions.
The CDC is the worldwide authority on disease control. They are, in my view, the most reputable source on whether I should get a flu shot. I forgot this for a moment because I was influenced by anti-government politicking and the foul-ups of the Obamacare website. Because of government's perceived inadequacies - that are widely publicized with manipulative PR spin - I had the slightest bit of doubt about the reliability of government information.
This paranoid skepticism of government information - about science and health, no less - is dangerous because flu shots are indeed really important. As it turns out, getting a flu shot is a big deal because it prevents you from getting the flu and it prevents the flu from spreading. This is especially important this year because H1N1 is a particularly virulent strain of the virus and hits young people especially hard - because we haven't gained immunity in previous outbreaks. The list of reasons is very convincing.
Part of the reason we're so skeptical of government is because of how politicized government can be and the shenanigans that can happen in Washington. Maybe the head of the CDC used to run a company that makes flu shots, I thought. I further pontificated that the CDC didn't have the money for accurate research or that its website hadn't been updated in awhile. I had all these doubts about government because a lot of what we see publicly is government failure, even though a lot of time government makes the right call. When I worked at the State Department, I was quite impressed with the level of competence of many Federal workers.
Surely, we should expect a government that is competent enough for us to trust to serve the public interest. Surely we should also expect better from the government we have - government does make mistakes on things that are really important. But I don't think this will happen by us (or talking heads) chiding that government do better, cutting funding irreverently, and expecting government to just improve. It's not just government's responsibility to "get their act together."
It's also on us, as citizens, to participate in government.
The way I see it, lots of things get messed up in government because public stops playing its role as a gadfly (like my homeboy Socrates). We have to attend public meetings, vote, and write letters. We need to donate to political campaigns. We need to support candidates who want to run government in a way that's in the public interest, not just in the pockets of special interests. We have to read and make our own decisions about policies, instead of depending solely on our particular flavor of hyper-polarized political pundit.
In my view, citizens participating is the surest way to a better functioning government.
I don't think this notion is exclusive to government, I think it applies to all institutions - from families to Fortune 500s. If a company is ineffective or doing ethically dubious things, employees need to speak up. If a non-profit is highly ineffective, fill out a feedback card. Providing honest feedback and following-up is how institutions improve.
Of course, I'm not suggesting we should blindly follow institutions - like government or business - and trust their words and actions irrationally. What I am suggesting, however, is that we should want institutions that we can trust and that it's partly our responsibility. If we want a government that we can trust, we should make it our business to regularly participate in the activities of that government.
I'm also suggesting that it's a good idea to consult with the CDC's guidelines and your doctor regarding flu shots!