Copyright 1995 by Paul Starr.
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Preferred Citation Paul Starr, "Who Owns the Future?" The American Prospect No. 21 (Spring 1995): 6-10.
They claim to be riding a wave of historical change. The wave is global in its reach and unstoppable in its force. Those who get in the way are representatives of an old, obsolete order; they may put up a fight, but they will be beaten in the inevitable transformation.
So Newt Gingrich and other conservatives describe their movement and the fate of its opponents. If the picture sounds familiar, it is because it recalls other movements, notably Marxism, that claimed a mandate of historical inevitability as well as popular will. Just as Marxists consigned their liberal and social democratic opponents to the dustbins of history, so conservatives are now loudly and confidently doing the same. And just as many liberals lost self- confidence in the face of communism's triumphs in the first half of the twentieth century, so many have resignedly accepted the conservatives' claim to own the future.
The recent history of the future suggests skepticism. Many once-popular visions besides the future that Marx envisioned have proved ephemeral. In just the past few decades, Americans have elevated every twist of the zeitgeist into a new age. During the 1960s, many observers thought America was entering a post-materialist era; we had allegedly solved the problems of basic living standards and could afford to worry about long-ignored injustices and experiment with new lifestyles and states of consciousness. By the 1970s, the future had changed. Oil shortages and stagflation augured a new era of scarcity; extrapolating from the trends, social scientists predicted dire consequences in a decade or so from vanishing resources. Since then, the shortages have disappeared, commodity prices have actually dropped, the information revolution has seized the imagination, and the future--that fickle child of our latest experience--has metamorphosed once again.
Political prognosticators have had the same penchant for overgeneralizing from the latest events. The Democrats' 1964 landslide showed the Republicans were finished; four years later Richard Nixon was elected president. In 1974 Watergate finished off the Republicans again, but six years later Ronald Reagan was elected president. Reagan's re-election in 1984 showed Republicans had a lock on the presidency; eight years later Bill Clinton was elected president. The 1994 election, now often described as a "landslide," was immediately endowed with transcendent historical significance. Actually, the Republicans barely won more than 50 percent of the popular vote for Congress and now enjoy the smallest majorities in Congress of any party in 40 years. The election was sobering and reveals powerful trends, but it scarcely discloses new iron laws of history or proves that the Democrats are incapable of recovering.
With some historical perspective, the lesson of recent years might more aptly be how quickly and dramatically things turn. Some of the groups and ideas now seen as part of the conservative ascendancy were only recently pronounced dead. A few years ago, no political cause seemed more out-of-date than right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Yet Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition now controls the Republican Party in several states and is widely identified as the most powerful grassroots movement in America. This is testimony to the power of an organized and highly motivated minority, not a widening and inevitable trend.
A few years ago, no view of race seemed more untouchable than genetic theories of group inferiority; no view of social policy seemed more antiquated than putting poor children in orphanages and cutting their mothers off from public assistance. Yet today Charles Murray, the champion of these positions, has a platform in respectable publications and is welcomed as a savant by Republicans in Congress who have embraced his views of welfare and orphanages.
In the realm of political ideas, the dead really can return. And if they have been dead long enough, they may even be heralded as fresh and innovative. Today, the forces of the nineteenth century are laying siege to the accomplishments of the twentieth cen tury in the name of the twenty-first. In a great reversal of rhetoric, conservatives who used to stand squarely for tradition now posture as revolutionaries and cast liberals as the forces of the past. By calling for a series of amendments to the Constitution and the abolition of social programs, conservatives do indeed put liberals in the position of defending long-established political institutions and ideas. No group attacked from the rear can simply ignore the assault, but self-defense is not evidence of obsolescence. Rather than being stuck in the past, liberals have been engaged in a decade-long process of reshaping ideas and policies, reflected in the Clinton agenda and the efforts of many groups, including this magazine. The difference between conservatives and liberals is not a simple contrast between past and future. Liberals want to build on different traditions to create a different future from the one held out by conservatives. Nowhere is this more evident than in policies toward the role of government in the pursuit of national well- being.
The 1994 election, according to Gingrich, signaled the end of the welfare state. Yet he and the Republicans swear they have no intention of reducing Social Security--which is, of course, the very core of the welfare state.
A movement that genuinely reflected both popular will and the march of history should have no need of double-talk and subterfuge. But there is plenty of both in the conservative crusade against the welfare state. To the average American, "welfare" means handouts to the poor and does not include earned benefits such as Social Security. Thus, in everyday political parlance, Gingrich's declarations about the end of the welfare state seem to have a narrow reference. In its broader, historical meaning, however, the welfare state includes not only Social Security pensions but also Medicare, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, workers' compensation, and much else that Republicans do not publicly oppose. Gingrich the former history professor clearly has this broader meaning in mind when he talks about historical watersheds; Gingrich the politician then distances himself from the implications. In effect, the use of the term "welfare state" gives Gingrich what is known in Washington as "deniability." He can talk about epochal change and then say that only unscrupulous Democrats would unfairly attribute to him any intention to tamper with Social Security.
What the Republicans know they cannot accomplish through a frontal assault, they hope to accomplish through indirect means. As Philip Harvey, Theodore R. Marmor, and Jerry L. Mashaw argue in this issue, the Contract with America is a fiscal time bomb set to go off just after the turn of the century. To balance the budget, raise military spending, and avoid new taxes would require massive spending reductions, inevitably affecting Social Security and Medicare. If the Congress passes the Contract's new tax breaks ("backloaded" so their costs climb sharply after five years), the pressure would be even greater to undo social programs. Gingrich's strategy is clearly to create a crisis that will force Americans to accept measures they would otherwise be unwilling to swallow. It is strange how revolutionaries who believe their cause to be popular, just, and inevitable nonetheless find so much need to manipulate people into actions they don't want to take.
Conservatives have been rehearsing their case against the welfare state for decades; what is new is that they have succeeded in harnessing false analogies on behalf of the idea that their views are in step with contemporary history. Supposedly, there is a straight line between the fall of communism and what conservatives anticipate to be the fall of the welfare state. But this is nothing more than the old false charge that Social Security and Medicare were stalking horses for Moscow. Social Security and other welfare-state programs have not transferred the ownership of property or the planning of production into the public sector. They have provided people with security amid the risks and insecurities of capitalism, giving the system greater stability, softening its harsh edges, and spreading its benefits. The elderly have been its chief beneficiaries in the United States; indeed, the transformation of old age, which for millions used to be a sentence of poverty, has been the great glory of the welfare state. Just as important, welfare-state measures have reduced the severity of economic downturns and cushioned their impact. Spending on unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other entitlements automatically increases when the economy slows down, and these "stabilizers" boost aggregate demand during recessions while helping people to cope with adversity.
Republicans have not directly criticized this stabilizing role of the welfare state. However, it would greatly diminish under their policies, which would cut entitlements for the poor and fold them into block grants to the states, with no provision for recessions. A balanced budget would also aggravate the severity of economic downturns. Instead of increasing, spending would have to fall as revenue declines. Taken as a whole, the Contract is a contract with trouble--a recipe for a future economic and social crisis. The destabilizing effects of conservative policies are one reason to be dubious about their inevitability. Their prospects depend not only on whether they are enacted but on whether they would prove durable.
Their prospects also depend on whether they would prove relevant to the economic problems that Americans face. Deep-rooted changes in the economy are now eroding the living standards of families with incomes below the median even during periods of economic growth. Globalization, deregulation, the decline of unions, and changes in technology and jobs have undermined labor's bargaining power. Conservatives attribute persistent poverty entirely to the failures of the welfare state, as if no changes in the economy had aggravated the conditions facing the poor. They have no response to the growth of market-driven inequalities; indeed, the regressive tax and spending measures they propose would only aggravate the pressures facing low-income Americans.
Similarly, conservatives have failed to recognize, much less respond to, the breakdown of the private welfare state. As more people work part-time or as independent contractors, fewer receive the health benefits and pensions that they formerly received from a job. The recent campaign for universal health insurance stemmed in part from the long-term decline in employment-based coverage. And while conservatives celebrate their victory, they have no remedy for the continuing shrinkage of occupational benefits.
Conservatives also seem oblivious to the social implications of the economic policies they favor. The anti-inflation policies pursued by the Federal Reserve and applauded by Gingrich and most other conservatives assume that unemployment much below 6 percent is an unacceptable risk. Yet welfare reforms proposed by conservatives assume that if poor families are cut off from benefits, they can find jobs. Even in the best times, a significant number of people will remain without work, unless the government provides it (which conservatives will not abide). And when unemployment hits 10 percent, as it will some day despite our best efforts, what then? It is one thing to promise blue skies, but it is another to refuse to provide your family an umbrella.
Conservatives may privatize government programs, but they cannot privatize public expectations. Since the Great Depression, Americans have expected the federal government to manage the economy. I will believe the conservatives have won when we are in a deep recession and the public agrees with conservatives that the federal government should do nothing about it, except cut spending.
The conservative claim to the future now also draws on a theory of sweeping social change. In this view, a new emerging civilization based on new technologies requires the devolution of economic and political power down to lower levels of government and to small business and individuals. The political argument is summed up in the line that the federal government is a "mainframe in a PC world." Supposedly, conservative policies reducing government are just the political software appropriate to this new world.
The most highly publicized version of the theory comes from Gingrich's court futurist, Alvin Toffler, who argues that a "third wave," comparable to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, is now transforming our civilization. In the second-wave industrial era, mass production, mass marketing, and mass communications went with big government bureaucracies. In the emerging third-wave era, the systems of production, marketing, communications, and government are all being broken up or "demassified." Toffler refers to big corporations as well as big government as "dinosaurs"--presumably headed for extinction.
There is something to be said for the general argument, and other people have said it with greater discrimination. In many industries, mass production is giving way to more customized and flexible forms of production. The new information technologies do create a plethora of channels, breaking up the centralized control of broadcasting networks and telephone companies and encouraging more specialized, diverse, and decentralized communications. And the traditional bureaucratic model is giving way as the dominant paradigm of efficient organization.
But bigness per se is not disappearing; at least, big corporations sure don't look like they are on the verge of extinction. On the contrary, they continue to grow, merge, and consolidate into firms of astonishing global scale. If Gingrich has any doubts on this point, perhaps Rupert Murdoch can straighten him out on it the next time they get together to talk about royalties.
To be sure, many companies have been downsizing, and conservatives often say that just as the private sector has cut back, so must the federal government. The difficulty with this analogy is that corporations are downsizing not to do less, but to do more with fewer employees. In fact, as President Clinton points out, the federal government itself now has fewer employees than at any time since John F. Kennedy was in office. The administration's effort to "reinvent government" is aimed partly at reengineering agencies to provide better services more efficiently. That is the counterpart to private-sector downsizing.
The idea that new technology dictates the shape of a new civilization and politics is replete with ironies. Just when the Marxian version of technological determinism had fallen into hopeless disrepute, Gingrich has picked it up from Toffler. Toffler's book The Third Wave repeatedly disparages the influence of political values or institutions; in his discussion of the second-wave industrial era, for example, Toffler frequently describes the Soviet Union and the United States as essentially the same--a view of the "convergence" or "equivalence" of industrial societies that, for good reason, used to be heresy to conservatives. Toffler also suggests that contemporary changes in the family are not evidence of decline but of a third-wave shift to "polymorphic" family structures--an intellectual residue of the 1960s that conservatives generally regard as morally obtuse. Conservatives have excoriated other writers for lesser sins, but the Gingrichites love Toffler because he gives them a rhetoric for labeling their liberal opponents as obsolete defenders of a dying, second-wave civilization.
A close look at conservative policies to reduce government and devolve responsibilities on the states shows, however, that they have almost nothing to do with the Toffleresque logic of "demassification." The Contract with America does not actually pursue a consistent philosophy of devolution at all. The same Republicans who want to devolve welfare and education to the states want to shift products liability law to the federal government. They want to set new national requirements for the states in criminal sentences and the operation of prisons. In welfare reform itself, they want federal law to bar the states from providing assistance to various categories of poor people. In health care, they are unwilling to give states waivers from ERISA, the federal law governing private employee welfare plans.
The selective devolution they favor has little, if anything, to do with reducing national bureau cracy. Most of the programs in question are already run by the states; what they propose to abolish is national standards for programs that benefit poor people. States don't want to become magnets for the poor, so they will be under tremendous pressure to cut benefits--all the more so as federal funds decline. Republican enthusiasm for devolution is best understood not as "demassification," but as the old-fashioned avoidance of blame. For example, when House Republicans voted in February to abolish the federal school lunch program and nutrition assistance to women, infants, and children (WIC), they could say that they were not cutting food for the poor but just shifting responsibility to the states. In fact, under their program, the money for these purposes was being reduced and would have to be cut much more in years to come. But, then, it will be the states' responsibility to decide who won't eat.
The key element in these changes is the abolition of federal entitlements. In elite circles, the term "entitlement" has acquired a pejorative tone, but there is another way to look at it. Every entitlement, like every right, implies a corresponding obligation. When conservatives propose to abolish entitlements, they are talking about ending national obligations. Most of these obligations, it turns out, are to the poor and, more exactly, to poor children. The abolition of entitlements is not some high-minded act on behalf of our children; it is, quite literally, a cancellation of national obligations to the most vulnerable children in our society. It is striking that the grand future of our conservative futurists has so little to do with the grim future of those children.
Half a century ago, drawing on accounts from anthropologists, the physiologist Walter B. Cannon coined the term "voodoo death" to describe how people subjected to curses or magical incantations in some cultures actually fell ill and died. One anthropological account cited by Cannon portrayed a victim of "bone-pointing":
The man who discovers that he is being boned . . . is indeed a pitiable sight. He stands aghast, with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and with his hands lifted as though to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy. . . . He sways backward and falls to the ground. . . . From this time on he sickens and frets, refusing to eat and keeping aloof from the daily affairs of the tribe. Unless help is forthcoming in the shape of a counter-charm administered by the hands of the Nangarri, or medicine man, his death is only a matter of a comparatively short time.
Ever since the fall elections, some liberals and progressives have been acting like victims of voodoo death. They have accepted the curse pronounced on them, withdrawn from politics, sickened, and fretted. Counter-charms are unavailable; the only known remedy is for the victims to snap out of their trance, organize, and fight for what they believe in. As they used to say when labor was a movement, "Don't mourn, organize."
No laws of history lately discovered by right-wingers convey to them clear title to the future. Like the Marxists who once were sure their opponents would end up in history's dustbins, the conservatives are likely overestimating the trends in their favor, deceiving themselves about the popularity of their policies, and underestimating the damage that their coming to power may do to their own cause. But events will not inevitably humble them. It will take hard work from people who know that history is not on their side or anybody else's. o