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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT