Skip to comments.Walter Russell Mead: Feeding the Blue Beast
Posted on 02/13/2010 8:35:56 AM PST by neverdem
The driving force in American politics today is a struggle to restructure and modernize some of our most basic institutions. Its only going to get more intense.
Back before the global warming mess blew up, I wrote a post about the breakup of the blue social model. Not to regurgitate the whole post, but the mid-twentieth century saw the US (like most advanced countries at the time) develop an economic and political system based on large and stable entities in the public, private and mixed sectors of the economy.
The private sector was dominated by large, regulated and mostly unionized oligopolies and monopolies like the Big Three automakers and the AT&T telephone monopoly. Government had a large and growing civil service protected cadre of professionals and bureaucrats and provided ever-increasing public services. The public schools and the universities were also built on the blue model: they provided lifetime employment to those who worked for them and were expected to provide more and better services each year. College education was expected to become more and more affordable for more and more people, with government subsidies making up the difference. Politics was a process of negotiation between large, organized interest groups: the Big Three automakers and the UAW hammered out the division of the industrys revenues at the bargaining table, but also negotiated through the political process to enhance the position of the industry as a whole and to shape government policy to the marginal benefit of either the unions or the companies.
The blue social model was a triumph of progressive social imagination and political organizing; for two generations it effectively reconciled capitalism with the demand for a better living standard and more security for the population at large.
The breakdown of the blue model is the core problem of American society today and the key to the troubles of the Democratic party. Blue states really are blue; the progressive imagination remains staunchly blue, and blue model interest groups like public school teachers, government employees, the remnants of the private union movement and the much healthier labor movement among public employees shape and mostly fund what Howard Dean famously called the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
Most Americans would like the blue model to stick around and are nostalgic for the security it once provided, but they understand that the great task of our times isnt to save the blue model but to move on. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party believes exactly the opposite: that the blue social model is the only way to go. If our city and state governments are groaning under the dead weight of inflated labor and pension costs, the only solution is to pump federal money into them somehow. If public schools arent working, they need more money but seriously restructuring the system is out of bounds. If college and university tuition is exploding as the costs of education rapidly and continuously outpaces the general level of inflation, the only solution is to pump more money into the system while leaving it to operate much as it does.
Democratic policy is increasingly limited to one goal: feeding the blue beast. The great public-service providing institutions of our society schools, universities, the health system, and above all government at municipal, state and federal levels are built blue and think blue. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party thinks its job is to make them bigger and keep them blue. Bringing the long green to Big Blue: thats what its all about.
Three problems: we cant afford it, people know that, and we desperately need the things that Big Blue cant give us.
Blue institutions arent productive enough and efficient enough to provide the services we need. Theres a hard and bitter truth here: workers in these sectors are going to have to accept lower wages and less security going forward and they will have to produce more than they do now. Much more. This sounds draconian and harsh, but with a relative handful of exceptions everybody else in the United States has been facing this reality for the last generation.
This has turned into a massive political problem for Democrats because more and more people are waking up to the fact that this just doesnt work. We dont have the money to keep throwing more and more of it into dysfunctional public schools, overpriced state colleges and government at all levels. In the competitive world we all live in now, our society has no choice but to learn how to do these things much more cheaply. Otherwise the blue sector will drag the whole country down with it. This is part of what drives the Tea Parties: theres a sense out there that the time for careful, limited reform is past. We need a crowbar, not a scalpel, to fix the blue beast.
Yet Democrats are right about one very important thing. We actually do need (most of) the services that the blue beast seeks to provide. We really do need good government at all three levels. We really do need more and better education. We need better health care and better access to it. The Tea Party movement is more about tearing down the blue beast than about building something that can take its place and until and unless Republicans figure this out the country will shift unhappily between two political parties that it dislikes and mistrusts.
What we really need in this country is a new generation of post-blue wonks who can think intelligently and creatively about how to dismantle the old structures and replace them with something that works. The political party that can figure this out and build a constituency for the massive and, inevitably, sometimes painful and disruptive restructuring this requires owns the future.
Can the Democrats unshackle themselves from their degrading and destructive servitude to the blue beast before the Republicans build a new cohort of smart policy wonks with a practical vision for the future? Can either party develop the capacity for innovative leadership before the social and economic dysfunction of the current system drives us into a massive social and financial crisis?
We will find out the answer to that last question fairly soon, I fear.
The GOP needs to come up with a better plan, or take Ryan's. Otherwise, we're going to go broke. Turning back the clock isn't a viable option, IMHO.
And here are the answers to the questions posed at the end.
Can the Democrats unshackle themselves from their degrading and destructive servitude to the blue beast before the Republicans build a new cohort of smart policy wonks with a practical vision for the future?
Can either party develop the capacity for innovative leadership before the social and economic dysfunction of the current system drives us into a massive social and financial crisis?
Some noteworthy articles about politics, foreign or military affairs, IMHO, FReepmail me if you want on or off my list.
Plus ça change, plus c'est etc., etc.
Doesn't Walter Russell Meade remember the much-touted Democratic Leadership Council? Doesn't the above quote echo almost exactly what DLC founder Al From and chief acolyte Bill Clinton were telling us in the early 1990's? And didn't their program collapse more-or-less completely due to a lack of intellectual substance?
Well, Walter, it's nice to see you seem to have taken the first baby steps on the road to enlightenment.
But I'd say what we need is not some high-falutin' "post-blue paradigm" that has been dished up by a new generation of academics and policy wonks.
No, I'll take a return to the limited-government fundamentals of constitutional republicanism and free-market capitalism that once made the USA a beacon to the world.
This seems backwards. Capitalism created the better living standard and the economic security. (Check out Europe for a contrast.) I grew up in the "blue period" of the 1950s and early 60s, when AT&T, by virtue of its regulation as a monopoly public utility, acted like an arm of the government. For instance, it defended its monopoly by threatening customers with taking away their phones, period. We weren't allowed to own our phones.
I remember when local doctor's offices treated patients like cattle, because it was a long drive in a cold, rickety car to another doctor. I remember watching a public library charge a young woman $16.50, in 1962 dollars, for one overdue book. I remember when the grocery store closed at 5 p.m., as did everything else. The First National supermarket was open till 6:00, wow. And speaking of living standards, I remember what food was like: White bread you would roll into doughballs, rather than eat; canned soup laced with sugar in the puree; meatloaf where meat was in the minority. People who grew up in ethnic Italian, Polish, or Hungarian neighborhoods may not know what I'm talking about, and good for them.
The exception to this was that the Post Office, public transportation, and public schools were much better. But this was before public-employee unions were legal.
What happened to all these institutions was the competition provided by free-market capitalism and people's physical mobility. Even though government itself was growing overall, most institutions, public and private, had to join the customer-service revolution or watch the customers move on or get in their face with fury. The only reason government could grow as it did was that people were earning so much more money than they were used to having that they didn't fight tax increases.
That period is gone. Now the Blue Institutions have over-spent us, there isn't extra cash around to fund them, and people aren't willing to keep paying. What needs to happen now is to resume dismantling the Blue Institutions piecemeal and replacing them with market functionsparing back to what the Constitution actually permits the Federal government to do. No one will starve. Services will actually improve.
Thanks for the ping!
>>>Blue institutions arent productive enough and efficient enough to provide the services we need. Theres a hard and bitter truth here: workers in these sectors are going to have to accept lower wages and less security going forward and they will have to produce more than they do now. Much more. This sounds draconian and harsh, but with a relative handful of exceptions everybody else in the United States has been facing this reality for the last generation.<<<
I’m a teacher - certainly one of the bluest of the blue institutions, as outlined in this article. The writer is spot on. I get paid well. I get paid well enough to have a comfortable middle-class home and a 10-year-old car and a 15-year-old truck and I can go on a Christmas holiday once a year out of state. I have enough food and belongings. The era when teachers were underpaid drones has long past.
My good fortune was that I became a teacher in my 40s, and having worked in the private sector most of my adult life, I came to the table with a solid work ethic. You have no idea how that single attribute makes me (and other like me) stand out among the other staff members.
You should see the waste in the school district. There are teachers who are literally nothing more than babysitters - getting the same salary as myself. “Literal” in this case means paying a teacher to watch a kid on in-school suspension sit at a desk all day doing nothing. There are administrators whose job is to... well, we still don’t know. Purchases are made unconnected to the needs of the classroom (as it always is in a command economy), while stuff I need comes from my own pocket. And talking about waste - let’s not forget the legal and medical leeches attached to the system who prevent us from instituting classroom discipline out of fear of violating some little thug’s due process rights or his need for medication.
I’m not a member of the Union Supposedly Representing Me, but they’re another black hole of unrepressed spending.
Personally, I’d love to be able to walk into town, set up an office, and offer my services in the same manner as a doctor or architect. I probably won’t live to see it, but it’s a good dream.
One of those items of dismantling needs to be by giving out vouchers, and breaking the lock of the government school semi-monopoly. Then you team with other competent teachers to form a competent school, and not just an individual classroom.
Exactly what I would love to see. Then, in the words of that old Negro spiritual, we could say that we are free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.
And that’s not satire.
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