Skip to main content

A tale of lost luggage, and faith in government

By Eric Liu
November 26, 2013 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
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.
ADVERTISEMENT