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Posts Tagged ‘government’

About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)

I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.

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Government Works

For such a smart guy, New York Times “Upshot” Editor David Leonhardt made a surprising goof in the July 15th issue, writing, “When the federal government is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad (or at least deeply inefficient), it’s the norm.” One can understand how the goof – the snarky comment about “the norm” – happened. Leonhardt was focusing on special, targeted initiatives for the poor, many of which fail. But he missed the forest for the trees — or the government for the programs.

Americans commonly do not notice the successful operation of government, including the federal level; they, too, snarkily diss government. They do not notice the success because, like air, is all around them and taken for granted. To say government is generally successful is, of course, not to say government operations are optimal. We should strive for A-grade performance, not settle for B grades. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that attaining A grades for the government would call for more of it.

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Public housing in the United States has never sheltered a significant proportion of Americans, perhaps three percent at most, unlike in many western European countries where 10 to 40 percent of households, at various income levels, live in state-constructed buildings. But public housing has been a significant part of the debate over American government safety net programs, a significant factor in the history of large American cities over the last 50 years, and cruel disillusionment for social reformers (and many sociologists).

Pruitt-Igoe (source)

Pruitt-Igoe (source)

American public housing projects started in the New Deal, accelerated after the war, and then largely stopped in the 1970s, when they were widely described as abject failures. This verdict was hammered home by the well-publicized demolition in 1972 of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis. Federal support for housing since, skimpy as it is, has largely been in the form of “Section 8” vouchers and dispersed, low-density, mixed housing. The actual number of public housing units has shrunk in recent decades.

A new study in the Journal of Economic History, by Katharine L. Shester, fleshes out our understanding of what went wrong in this great social experiment. In some ways, large-scale public housing was doomed from the start; in other ways, perhaps different critical decisions could have made it work.

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You Call That a Shutdown?

As the post-mortems on the federal government “shutdown” pile up, here’s one more.

The exercise in brinkmanship turned out to be too painful for the GOP leadership to sustain. In the end, 27 Senate and 87 House Republicans voted to approve the lightly-cloaked surrender resolution last week. Taking a step back from the 24/7 coverage and furor, the shutdown says something about both how important government has become in American life, historically speaking, and how relatively unimportant it is, comparatively speaking.

The shutdown was both too much and not much.

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Back about a decade or two, as polarization widened among America’s politicians and political activists, most analysts concluded from the initial flurry of research that the general public seemed exempt. Officeholders and activists were taking more extreme positions on hot-button issues like immigration and welfare, but Americans in general seemed to be largely in the middle and not that exercised. (That’s what I reported in this 2010 post.)

Well, there are new developments. For one, Americans started to express greater loyalty to their own party and greater hostility to the other party (see this 2012 post). And increasingly they seem to recast their social views, even their religious identifications, to line up with their political positions (see this 2013 post and this one).

A just-published study (pdf) by sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza adds to the evidence that polarization in the general public is increasing. It also has an interesting message about whether and how reality – in this case, the economic crash in late 2008 – affects Americans’ views on government policy. If the Great Depression brought support for the New Deal, should not the Great Recession bring support for a Newer Deal?

Below, I summarize Brooks and Manza’s findings about changes up through 2010 in Americans’ support for government action. And then I look at the changes after 2010, a look that complicates the story.

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Extremely Local

So many people seem to be into being “local” these days. We are urged to shop locally, to eat locally, to act locally (even if we still think globally). This is a new enthusiasm of the left. The ideological right has always tilted local — opposed to the “cosmopolitan.” Americans have generally focused on the local anyway. Just pick up almost any newspaper (aside from that two or three that have tried to be national papers) and see what grabs the headlines.

American political ideas have long reinforced what some might consider people’s “natural” attention to the local community. More strikingly, American political structure reinforces this localism — with some dubious consequences.

This is the topic of my July/August 2013 column in the Boston Review here.

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The 47% Charge in U.S. History

There are many angles – and many comments on each angle – to Mitt Romney’s statement that 47% of American voters are “dependent upon government, … believe that they are victims, … believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, … that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” and “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Pundits have already dissected the political ramifications of the speech, what it reveals about Romney’s world-views, and have speculated about his resulting political prospects. Many have presented the underlying numbers. (That is, 47% of American households in 2009 paid no federal income tax; just about all paid other kinds of taxes. By far, most of the 47% were either households of people who worked at poverty wages or of retirees on Social Security.)

My two cents here concerns the emotional resonance of Romney’s claim. Whatever the facts may be, the charge that huge numbers of shiftless moochers live off hard-working taxpayers feels true to many Americans – and has felt true to many Americans for centuries. It is a sentiment rooted in Americans’ exceptional emphasis on individual self-reliance and insistence on conditioning help upon virtue. (I link below to earlier posts that expand on these points.)

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Between Dole and Market

Much of the recent debate over the proper role of government in the lives of the economically unfortunate poses a choice between letting Americans make as much of their opportunities as they can in the free market versus providing people with a stronger safety net, effectively a “dole” that some claim would undermine Americans’ work ethic. Newt Gingrich has, for instance, contrasted a food stamp system that claims to be compassionate to a work system that insists on work and thereby really is compassionate.

R. Lee LC-USF33-012380-M5

Even liberals have accepted this framing of the debate by emphasizing how much families in distress need help such as unemployment insurance, free school lunches, health assistance, and mortgage relief. Some of the Occupy movement’s rhetoric (e.g., “eat the rich,” “millionaires’ tax”) also seems to accept that the choice we face is either an uncontrolled market or monetary redistribution.

But there is a middle position here. America has often acted in ways that neither put people on the dole nor let them sink-or-swim in the market, ways that help the unfortunate and the fortunate at the same time.

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Home Owning Dreams

Owning one’s own home seems vital to being an American; it is intimately tied  to our understanding of the “American Dream.” The headline of a 2008 Newsweek story on the foreclosure crisis blared “The American Dream – Only This Time in Reverse.”  When NPR recently broadcast a story that rates of home ownership had dropped from a peak of  69% in 2005 to 66%, the voices on the radio carried the melancholy tone of loss.

MyEyeSees

However, the dream of home ownership, complete with a white picket fence, was not always considered the ultimate test of making it in America. There was a time when many affluent Americans preferred to rent, leaving home-buying to striving immigrants. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, Uncle Sam helped make home ownership the American Dream.

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American Exceptionalism

Ending his April 5th House floor presentation of the largest proposed cutback of government spending in history, Congressman Paul Ryan declared, “It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional.” It was the third time Ryan invoked American exceptionalism in his speech. The idea of exceptionalism has surfaced with some energy recently. President Obama, for example, was chastised for not thinking of America as exceptional and he seemed later to take pains to claim that he, too, believes it is exceptional. Exceptionalism has (again) become a buzzword. (A conservative columnist even cited my book as proof that a liberal sociologist acknowledges America’s exceptionalism.)

There are at least two different ways the term exceptionalism is used and it is worth sorting those out. Congressman Ryan’s use of the term is quite appropriate and worth close attention. The exceptionalism he means may, however, go deeper than he imagines.

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