Skip to main content

A tale of lost luggage, and faith in government

By Eric Liu
updated 9:37 AM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: I had an experience that gave me more faith in humanity, bureaucracy
  • Liu: Many people helped me after I lost my luggage in a cab in New York City
  • He says one of the lessons he learned is that government is not the enemy
  • Liu: Government is not inherently inept; it's as bad or good as we make it

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- I had an experience recently that reinvigorated my faith in humanity -- and bureaucracy.

I'd left my suitcase in the trunk of a yellow cab in New York City and didn't realize it till 20 minutes later. I did not have a receipt or any way to identify the cab or the driver. I was at the start of a four-day, three-city trip. I was screwed.

For almost three hours, various people tried to help me -- two folks at my bank, whose credit card held the only record of the cab ride; three people at two yellow cab companies based in Long Island City; a service rep at the New York City Taxicab & Limousine Commission; people in my office back in Seattle. No luck. As the workday ended, I finally went to the drugstore for some toiletries. My fiancee shipped me some clothes, and I retreated glumly to my hotel room.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Then, at 9:48 p.m., Valerie from the TLC called me. She'd been working overtime on my case, used GPS records to identify the cab and located and called the cabbie -- and he still had my bag!

He was an African immigrant named George, and he remembered me (or, rather, my crew-cut hair). He hadn't seen my name card under a flap on the backside of the bag and was planning in the morning to ask the TLC to help track me down.

I called him -- he was working at his second job. We arranged for him to drop the bag off the next morning. When I thanked Valerie for navigating the system so relentlessly, she insisted she was just doing her job. When I thanked George for his help, he cheerfully said, "It's the American way!"

My happy-ending story offers a few lessons.

One is obvious: Always, always get a receipt. Another is that New Yorkers, contrary to popular belief and their own callous pose, are essentially nice. But the third, even more deeply contrary to popular belief, is that government is not the enemy.

Government is not inherently inept. It's simply us -- and as defective or capable of goodness as we are.

Today, several weeks into the botched launch of Obamacare's exchanges and several more since the shutdown, the faith of the people in government is weak and weakening further.

This trend long predates Obamacare, and its sources are bipartisan. Democrats who favor more active government have tolerated an ever-more complex and impersonal state, while Republicans who want to shrink government love to showcase the breakdowns that complexity -- and GOP-led underfunding -- can bring.

What's striking, though, is that both sides have learned to see and speak of government the same way -- as a disembodied thing, a mechanism separate from citizens.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

Democrats tend to forget and Republicans like to deny the simple reality that government is nothing more than our best attempt to do certain things together that we can't do alone. Like ensure that we are all insured against health catastrophes. Or keep toxic foods out of our babies' mouths. Or send humans to the moon. Or design smart transportation systems on Earth.

When government fails, the proper response isn't fatalism; it's activism. The question to ask in the wake of something such as the failure of the healthcare.gov launch isn't why wasn't I better served but rather, what could I do to make it better?

To be sure, there are reasons why "government bureaucracy" isn't a phrase usually said in gratitude.

Three times in my luggage adventure, I was abruptly disconnected from the TLC hotline after being on hold a cumulative 45 minutes. After the third time, I felt disillusioned. Sitting there in the midst of a vast uncaring city, imagining that my bag had been stolen and its contents dispersed, I felt awakened to the hard cold world.

But when I got the call from Valerie, that cynicism receded -- and so did the victim-story I'd started to tell myself. Though Valerie was an exceptionally dedicated public employee, she was only part of a web of people -- everyday citizens and workers in government and business -- who'd come together to solve this particular problem.

In the scheme of things, that problem and its resolution were utterly insignificant. But they reminded me that we Americans carry an often unspoken privilege -- the privilege of expecting that things should function as promised and that civic institutions should be trustworthy and responsive. This expectation of a working public sphere doesn't prevail in other less healthy societies.

My immigrant cabbie George described this willingness to trust, to look out for one another -- to do our part to make complex systems work -- as the American way. But it's only the American way if we make it so.

The cardinal rule of citizenship is that society becomes how we behave. If we behave as if the state is there to serve us perfectly or else be eviscerated, we'll get a society where citizens forget how to serve, help, forgive or collaborate.

Everyone has some say over whether government does well. Finding that voice and claiming that responsibility feels good -- almost as good as finding a lost suitcase.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT