It’s more difficult than ever to talk about what’s right with America these days, both because we’re still languishing in a persistent economic downturn, and because the most visible movement in America today is a single screaming complaint against everything that America, as a nation-state, does. As Susan Greene discusses in her column in today’s Denver Post (http://www.denverpost.com/greene/ci_16418853), it is political fodder for both candidates and citizens to decry the alleged laziness and inefficiency of public servants, without acknowledging the hard work, low salaries, and deep commitment that is widespread among them.
Certainly, there are inefficiencies, there are the issues of “goal displacement” and “agency problems” that are inherent to large bureaucratic organizations. These are authentic institutional challenges posing a legitimate need to address them to the best of our ability. But that demand on our ingenuity should not be confused with condemnation for the essential work that is done, and must be done, through our public agencies.
The problem is that the many indispensable things that America does, and that American public servants do, are so fully incorporated into our lives, so much a part of our expectations of what is and what should be, that they have become invisible to most of us, taken for granted and unacknowledged unless and until they’re gone. And even then, the competing streams of often inaccurate information allows people to blame the decreased quality of their lives resulting from the lack to other forces altogether, perversely leading to an increased demand for the shrinkage of government that caused the material and palpable decreased quality of life in the first place.
Such is the dilemma we’re in now. A decades long Republican-driven agenda of deregulation led to underregulated financial markets, the consequences of which were well foreseen (and frequently trumpeted on shows such as 60 Minutes, as was the inevitability of a major large-scale terrorist attack in the United States and a clear identification of our vulnerabilities) at least as long ago as the 1990′s, resulting in 2008 in “the biggest economic crisis since The Great Depression,” driven by a financial-sector fabricated housing bubble collapse and subsequent crash in values of mortgage-based securities.
If, at the end of the Bush administration, a deal had been offered to the nation that we would be in the economic condition we’re in today less than two years later, with a weak but stabilized economy, with an end to net increases in job loss and less than 10% unemployment, with the fairly clear prospect of a gradual return to economic growth and prosperity, every sane human being would have wiped their brow in relief, and screamed, “God yes! I’ll take that deal!”
But instead, the disingenuous Right gets away with trumpeting that 3.3 million jobs have been lost during the Obama administration, and even stating that that loss is a direct result of stimulus spending, disregarding that the rate of job loss was accelerating right up until the passage of Obama’s first stimulus bill, and began decelerating right after (http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-of-the-day-jobs-lost-in-the-bush-and-obama-administration-2010-2), and that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that the stimulus bill created between 1.3 and 3.4 million jobs that would not otherwise have existed (Organized Ignorance and the Amplified Echo-Chamber of Disinformation).
More importantly, those of us who have actually studied the legal, economic, and physical complexities of things like energy and financial markets, and recognize the role of information asymmetries in the ability of those in centrally located market positions to play markets to the advantage of a few at the sometimes extreme expense of the public (such as happened in the Enron-fabricated California Energy Crisis of 2000-01, and the financial sector collapse of 2008), are aware of the immensity of the task of creating regulatory regimes sophisticated enough, and well-enough funded, to keep up with and police the opportunities for socially disastrous mischief. (See, e.g., Monday Briefs: Labor Markets, Mandela, & High Frequency Trading, Regulation of Financial Markets)
Not only the large demand on the nation-state to provide, maintain, and grow an extensive enough and sophisticated enough regulatory architecture to keep up with technological and institutional advances in insiders’ ability to game the system at the public expense, and unsure the smooth and efficient operation of our markets, but also the large demand on necessary infrastructural maintenance and improvement to reduce transaction costs, attract investment capital, and, in general, grease the gears of the market economy in ways that no private investment capital can’t fully accomplish (due to long time-horizons of return-on-investment, for instance).
We have been underproducing these public goods essential to the smooth functioning of our markets, with Democrats fighting to better approach the optimal level, and Republicans fighting to reduce our investment even more, moving in the direction of increased dysfunctionality. Doing as much as we are doing (and, preferably, considerably more) on these dimensions is what’s right with America; the populist and corporatist pressure to do less is what’s wrong with America.
Beyond these demands on the government to provide the material and regulatory infrastructure necessary to the maintenance of a robust market economy, is a duel-natured demand to make a similar investment in our human capital. As I argued in The Real Deficit, there is both an economic and social imperative to do so: We need a well-educated work force capable of competing in the global economy both to be economically competitive as a nation, and to enable our citizens to occupy the high-skilled high-salaried jobs that contribute to individual prosperity and financial security.
What’s right with America is that, until recently, we have maintained a vibrant system of state universities and government subsidized student loans which have enabled most academically capable young people to take advantage of higher educational opportunities. What’s wrong with America is our diminishing commitment to continue these policies, the erosion of higher education opportunities for middle and lower class Americans.
Of course, those young people need to have not only access to affordable higher educational opportunities, but also the academic preparation necessary to utilize those opportunities successfully. American public education is the target of widespread and, in some ways, much deserved criticism. But the problems with American public education are much more a function of factors outside the schools than within the schools. What our schools themselves have been doing, to the extent that we have allowed them to do it, is very much what’s right with America, for we have gotten an enormous return on our investment in public education. We have, on average, a far higher-quality teacher pool than the salaries and benefits themselves alone would be able to purchase, because many people who simply love to teach and love children go into that profession because it’s what they were born to do.
Even so, there are many deep structural problems with American education, within the schools as well as without. The profession attracts not only the highly committed, but also those who are not competent but can pass the threshold of entry into education, because the demand is so high and the compensation so relatively low. We cannot improve the teacher pool simply by eliminating tenure and removing “bad teachers,” because unless we alter the supply-and-demand equation, all we would accomplish by doing so is to stack the deck just a little more against attracting the highest quality human capital in the first place (by reducing incentives to enter, without counterbalancing the change in incentives elsewhere).
But, despite this weakness in a generally strong teacher pool, and the overwhelmingly risk-averse, ossified, autocratic administration of large school districts (qualities which further undermine the efficacy of the elimination of teacher tenure, by ensuring that almost as many excellent teachers as poor ones are likely to be weeded out as a result), the biggest problems with American public education are, in combination, the deep and widespread cultural anti-intellectualism that continually undermines the educational mission in most out-of-school social contexts, and the general failure to create robust school-community partnerships and programs to better prepare and include parents in the educational mission.
What’s right with America is that we currently counterbalance the relatively low professional salary we provide to teachers with an attractive package of benefits, ample vacations, and unusually high job security. What’s wrong with America is educational reform that kicks responsibility for deep structural and cultural problems down the hierarchy, blaming and punishing those who are, by and large, the strongest component of American public education for defects over which they have virtually no control, and, by doing so, undermining that strong pillar without strengthening the weaker ones. What’s right with America is maintaining the revenue streams that schools require to address these challenges. What’s wrong with America is the zealous movement committed to continuing to reduce and eliminate those revenue streams. (For more on education and education reform, see, e.g., Real Education Reform, A Positive Vision For Colorado, Are We Civilized?, and Education Policy Ideas).
Beyond the regulatory architecture and material and human infrastructural investment that only government can provide, and our commitment to public education as the foundational institution in preparing our citizens to prosper individual and contribute to a robust state and national economy, there are a host of challenges that society faces, and commensurate demands on government, that can be met at considerable present cost in return for both far greater future savings, and a generally improved quality of life for a larger spectrum of the population. I have discussed these at length in essays such as The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services, Community, Family, and Crime Prevention, and Sound Mind, Sound Body, Sound Society; Sound Good?.
What’s right with America is that we have, by and large, elected people to public office who are more often than not pretty well-qualified for the job, people who know some economics and some law, are aware of the devastating suffering of millions of children, recognize the magnitude of social challenges we face that can only be addressed through the agency of government, and, in general, have some understanding of the real demands of governance. What’s wrong with America today is the massive and massively misinformed populist movement, financed by corporate money eager to keep the candy store unlocked and unguarded, pushing to put people who reflect and embody their own lack of comprehension and misconceptualizations into office, and threatening to do so successfully, at great and enduring cost to all Americans.