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Knowing America – BIG government, small government August 23, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, ideas, littlerockers.

Not out of nowhere ( I will tell you where from later on) was I reminded of an incident that showcases my early ignorance with regard to politics in general and American politics in particular. Here goes.

I went to Little Rock.

American nationals visiting my school used to be a commonality ; they probably came as donors and over the years we grew accustomed to a different bunch of them paying regular visits. In our early years, we hardly had any interaction with them baring an occasional waving hands from our classrooms and playgrounds, they didnt seem to address a mass audience nor did we have any interactive sessions with them that I can remember. There is however one exception.

One afternoon in September 1996 when the class was in progress, I was summoned to meet the Vice-principal. Every such summon meant either good news – an oppurtunity or bad news – retribution ! This particular summon though turned out to be the former and rather unexpected one at that. We had visitors from the mid-western American state of Oklohama over on campus and the school had chosen a small bunch of students – 1-2 from each of the senior classes – to interact with the American visitors in a round table meeting like scenario. It was mostly the students asking questions and so it appeared to me that the basis on which this bunch was chosen had something to do with that.

I remember asking two questions.

The first one was about how Indians in America have found recognition for their technical skills but that we were yet to hear of Indian managers making it big in the United States. I asked him if that had to do with cultural differences or quality of management education. That ofcourse was 1996 before Indira Nooyi or Rajat Gupta or Victor Menezes happened. I dont really remember his answer to this one and its not a subject of this post either !

The second question and his answer is what I find rather interesting when I think back to that event. I asked him why they have only 2 political parties ( I thought so, actually there are more than 2 ) and what the difference was, if at all, between the Republicans and Democrats in terms of policies. ( “Some naivete”, I tell myself as I read it now ! ) America then was seen politically hostile to India and that didnt change with administrations and to a 15 year old located 15000 kms away before nytimes.com existed, looking at American politics through the prism of Indo-American relations I wondered if there was any difference between them ( I ofcourse didnt ask him this ).

I have every reason to believe this person was a Republican – foreign christian donor from American midwest most likely is. He began stating that there was a big difference in the two parties – Republicans believe in a small government while the Democrats believe in a big government. I had no idea what that meant – what is a big government afterall ? My best guess then was that he meant that Democrats favor a huge bureaucracy as in India while Republicans are happy with a lean one, a rather literal ( and incorrect ) interpretation. He ofcourse was suggesting that the extent of government control in the markets and society is larger and so the democratic seek a larger role for the governments in society. Ofcourse for this reason democratic administrations may over time build up a big bureaucracy but thats not end in itself as my interpretation mistakenly lead me to conclude !

He then went on about how after the WW II post-60s , democrats gained control and the main slant of American politics was leftward. I remember his exact words as he said – “..and then 60s came along and there was Elvis Presly and god, was he awful !! “. He later made a remark about what I now think is the counter-culture movement of the late 60s. I wish I remembered what exactly he said after that – if he sang paens of Reagan-Thatcherite years and the conservative movement they ushered in. I really dont think he made any remarks about Clinton ( a democrat) who was then seeking re-election. ( yes, this was 2 whole years before Monica Lewinsky came out in the open but after an year or so after Whitewater accusations. ). If I am indeed right, its very nice of the gentleman not attempting to indocrinate us young pupils.

Although my queer interpretation of the big and small government didnt withstand the assault of time and accumulated wisdom, my knowledge and overall understanding of American politics was barely minimal until I came to the United States in 2004. There were brief periods like September 11th when my general interest grew but none of those proved sustainable.

Its weird when I think of it now that my impression as a 15 year old was that communism and capitalism differed only in who owned and operated the factors of production – only if Bengal had produced fewer economists and historians. Sigh ! I am sure even today that is what the textbooks say. In effect, although at school we were taught about capitalist/socialist and the mixed economy structure, the great political debate of the left versus the right was something that didnt excite me until 3 years ago. History lessons though infinitely more interesting to me than many of my classmates were engaging because of events and facts and details, not because they inspired a debate and made you think. Yes, you have heard this and other inadequacies of Indian education before but here I am giving you a concrete example.

The last two years have no doubt seen an increase in my interest in American politics and economics. The reason may be something as simple as continuous exposure owing to my presence in the country or as profound as a feeling that I have a direct stake in the present and atleast a medium-term future of America.

Coming to what spurred the post, well, here – this post from Marginal Revolution where he links to this. If its not clear as to why my post is connected to those images, please leave a comment or send me an email.



1. aquarianalien - August 24, 2006

Good post Sharath, I’m rather clueless about the Donkeys and Elephants my self…about the pictures.. was it something about the left-right stuff, or public work errors that spurred this ???

2. Sharath Rao - August 24, 2006


I’m rather clueless about the Donkeys and Elephants my self…

You are ? or you were ? And I assume you are referring to party policies and philophies and not the origins of the party symbols !!

The pictures – my understanding is that they are just taking a dig at extreme case of big government /collectivist/communist societies to suggest what an awful job government monopoly does.

That “emergency board” reminds me of how in Canada you have universal and free healthcare but for non-emergency surgeries etc., the waiting list tends to be 3-4 months.

3. aquarianalien - August 24, 2006

oops i meant I am somewhat unfamiliar the policies ( though i have improved over the past few months ..slightly):) ..i am familiar with the symbols 😛
Thanks for telling me about the pictures..

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