The conventional wisdom today holds that deep splits between conservatives and liberals have paralyzed the United States government. The country needs major changes, fast, writers like Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum say in their recent book That Used to Be Us, but polarized politics have stopped change dead in its tracks.
Actually, the situation is a little bit more complex — and the news is substantially better than Friedman and Mandelbaum fear. Yes, there is partisan gridlock and bad feeling in American politics. But we are not as stuck or as deadlocked as it may appear. The forces driving change are stronger than many understand while the forces resisting it are weaker and more divided than things sometimes look. The blue social model is breaking up; the outlines of a new social order are beginning to appear.
Politically, it’s clear that of the two parties Democrats tend to be most closely tied up in the blue social model, and Republicans, though not without some blue sensibilities of their own, tend to promote more aggressive reform. But the necessity to move toward something that takes us beyond the blue model is increasingly felt on both sides of the aisle. The public union wing of the Democratic Party and its close allies want to defend the old model and even expand it, but increasing numbers of Democratic officeholders — including the governors of New York, California and Illinois — are moving (sometimes out of conviction, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of both) toward something beyond the old style of liberal governance.
There is an anti-government case for moving beyond the blue model and there is a pro-government case. Some people will push to transform the civil service and increase the productivity of workers in government and government-related services (above all, health and education) because restructuring and re-engineering government is the only way they can provide the services they want the public sector to provide. This is the pro-government case for converting blue institutions into something new: if the government and the social service sector tie themselves to a less productive, more expensive way of working, government will inevitably do less — and do it more expensively — than necessary.
This is what motivates people like New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo. He is a Democrat and by historical standards a liberal Democrat, but he understands that Albany simply doesn’t get enough done at a price the state can afford. He understands that whatever your opinion on how much free healthcare the state should provide, the current system — including powerful unions who keep wages high, push for unsustainable pensions, want to preserve arcane job descriptions that make management inefficient and keep uneconomic facilities open — simply has to change.
Look for this perception to spread among the advocates of government power. Clumsy, inefficient and expensive government doesn’t work for anybody; the old style of organizing and managing government with 1950s style bureaucratic structures and post office-style staffing patterns of a large but inefficiently deployed unionized staff is a Democratic dream-killer as well as a Republican nightmare. Progressive-era lifetime bureaucracies using midcentury administrative and management procedures can’t address the issues of our times.
The field in which bipartisan blue bashing is most advanced is education. The incompetence, mediocrity, high cost structure and all-around dysfunctional nature of backward blue staffing and management patterns in large public school systems increasingly appall Democrats as well as Republicans. Many of the things President Obama says about education are more radical (in the post blue sense, not the Jeremiah Wright sense) than many Republicans were willing to say ten or fifteen years ago. Deep blue Democratic bastions like the District of Columbia and the City of New Orleans are on the cutting edge of the charter school movement — not that charter schools are a panacea for the complex and intractable problems of urban schools.
The teachers unions are fighting a bitter rearguard action, and by no means have they lost their influence in Democratic Party politics and state and local governments, but across the country the unions are often fighting Democrats rather than Republicans as Democratic elected officials work to do something about the state of our schools. The New Republic attacked the very idea of tenure for K-12 educators in a recent editorial, saying essentially that the concept is indefensible.
This isn’t going to fade away. Democrats once explained their votes in favor of rent control by saying that there are more tenants than there are landlords; in education there are more parents and taxpayers than there are teachers. Ultimately even most Democratic officeholders in deep blue cities can’t keep raising taxes to please teachers while parents fume about poor educational results. Something has to give, and increasingly, that something is the traditional school system as charter schools and other forms of innovation push ahead.
This process has a long way to go; ultimately the command and control bureaucracies (typically blue in being overstaffed, rigid and inefficient) in school districts will need to be disempowered and/or restructured as teachers and parents and local school leaders move to disintermediate clunky and increasingly unnecessary layers of administration. Here the decentralized nature of American federalism will accelerate reform. With fifty states plus the District of Columbia, and with many local units of government enjoying substantial autonomy within each state, there are many places where innovation can happen. And given the rapid circulation of information in this country, what succeeds in one place will soon be tried in others.
American public education today is alive with experiment, innovation and competition. Driven by relentless cost pressure on the one hand and by the dissatisfaction of parents and the educated public in general with the system’s results, American K-12 education faces anything but gridlock and stagnation.
After education, the area where Democrats as well as Republicans are moving to trim or even abolish blue model programs is pensions: more and more Democratic politicians — including Governor Brown in California — understand that the old system doesn’t work. Generous pensions were fine as long as you didn’t have to make much of a tradeoff between paying pensions and covering current expenses. But after years of evasion and deceit, the bills are coming due. The underfunding of state and local pensions isn’t just showing up as shadowy future deficits projected ten and twenty years down the road; it is showing up as actual costs that have to be paid out of current revenues right now. Do you pay off the geezers and fire the cops, or do you keep the cops on the beat and stiff the retirees?
Again, the unions want Democrats to fall on their swords for an unsustainable system. Democratic constituencies need good state and municipal services; they need policemen and firefighters. But pension costs are exploding so rapidly that many jurisdictions around the country are having to cut current services to cover the unpaid commitments they made of old. And there isn’t much room left for tax increases in most blue havens; sales taxes, gas taxes, sin taxes, income taxes, property taxes, tolls, corporate and small business taxes: about the only rich source left is the old Henry VIII pot of gold — the revenues and endowments of charitable non-profits and above all private universities.
In the end, Democratic officeholders are looking at the same math Republicans see: they cannot maintain current levels of service at current pay levels and also pay off their pension obligations. They are attacking the weak first — cutting pay and benefits for new state and local government hires. With their own union leaderships in league with politicians to protect the geezers rather than advocate for new hires and young workers, new state and local workers around the country are getting it in the neck.
This looks more than likely to undermine public unions before too much longer. Why should the young pay dues to those who betray them and sacrifice their interests to protect pensions the youth will never receive?
But the math will continue to force change. Democrats will have to streamline government, trim fat, stop featherbedding and generally remake state and local government into something leaner and meaner because they have no choice. (This logic will be felt at the federal level last because Congress has its own printing press; still, in the end the powers of arithmetic will be felt even in the halls of the Congress.) Whether it involves outsourcing, radical restructuring, an end to job tenure, or more flexible forms of organization in government agencies, look for waves of change in the way government works.
This won’t just be about structure and administration; it will be about finding new ways to regulate — and new ways to cut the costs and delays associated with compliance. There is more than one reason that Democrats will be looking to reorganize the state: they want a powerful and effective state, and the bureaucratic-administrative model we have inherited from the pre-computer Progressive Era isn’t good enough to get the job done. Life-tenured bureaucrats, many of whom are incompetent time servers (just ask anyone who has worked in the government about this), wedded to rigid procedures and addicted to routines are increasingly incapable of responding to real demands for governance. The Deputy Associate Commissioner in the Office of Circumlocution follows laboriously written guidelines that were crafted in another era and can’t now be reworked without an act of Congress. Vacancies can’t be filled and orders can’t be placed without torturous procedures being followed, regardless of whether the procedures actually work.
This isn’t just a problem with one particular office or one particular hiring manual or purchase order guidelines. It is a general problem of bureaucratic administration. Our models of governance and administration have become counterproductive. They are outmoded. They are overwhelmed.
The modern bureaucratic government is like Philip II of Spain, the Spider King. He sat at the center of his labyrinth at the Escorial, endlessly toiling, never resting, as he painstaking scratched comments, queries and instructions on the teeming piles of documents his officials brought in from his globe-girdling domains. The king was overworked, the realm badly governed. The system wasn’t adequate to the circumstances; the kingdom had outgrown the government; the volume of business to be done, the complexity of questions to be addressed and the speed at which decisions needed to be taken quite overwhelmed the capacity of the world’s most industrious monarch until it was hard to say who was worse off — the king or the kingdom.
Despite occasional feeble and halfhearted efforts to “reinvent government”, the structure and culture of the Executive Branch and its administrative offshoots today lags far behind contemporary best practice. Whether it is managing information or making decisions, the government structure today is simply not up to its task.
Republicans and anti-blue statists will want to fix this because bad government is big government and takes a terrible toll on the economy (cumbersome procedures, bad decisions, a large and expensive staff). But smart proponents of a strong federal government will also want to change this status quo because the state as presently constituted is simply not able to take on all the missions they would like to see addressed.
Just as we once saw competing Republican and Democratic versions of Progressive politics, so going forward we will see competing Republican and Democratic versions of post-blue politics. I can’t predict how these partisan battles will come out, but it seems likely that through it all, the government will be remade and the bureaucratic administrative state that has dominated American life since the New Deal will transform.
The big changes that come in American history may originate with or be primarily based in one political party, but because both parties are rooted in society neither can ultimately be unresponsive to the cultural and political shifts that affect the whole body politic. The Republican Party was the anti-slavery party par excellence, but the Civil War could not have been won without the support of Northern Democrats. At the turn of the twentieth century there were Republican and Democratic progressives and populists. The Republicans of the mid twentieth century largely embraced the New Deal legacy, and Richard Nixon (wage and price controls on top of Keynesian economics, support for the EPA) was well to the blue of many Democrats today. The Civil Rights Act had a majority of both parties behind it.
The shift to a post-blue society is one of these great historical developments that over time moves the whole country. Senator Ted Kennedy supported airline deregulation; the Bill Clinton administration relentlessly pushed forward financial deregulation and trade policies that helped push blue America to the wall. Welfare reform was an issue on which many Democrats supported policies that broke with some of the most hallowed tenets of blue social thought.
This is not to say that there is no difference between the parties or that Democrats remain closer to the blue model in many ways than their GOP rivals. But it does suggest that the move beyond blue is not just an aberration, an ideological itch being pushed by a radical faction belonging to one political party. It is one of those many-sided, complicated stories of political and institutional renewal that have marked American history from the beginning. It’s the real thing, and it has a long way still to run.
I’ve written before that this isn’t just an American challenge. Virtually every advanced country in the world faces some combination of economic stagnation due to blue model rigidities, tight government finance and mind-boggling pension debt. America’s comparative advantage isn’t that we avoid these problems better than other people. It isn’t even that we are all that much smarter about them. It is that the responsiveness of our political system, the ability of federalism to promote experiments and a forward-looking, optimistic approach to change, combine so that we tend to overcome these problems faster than other big countries.
Ritual wailing and heart rending cries of doom to one side, it appears that the US is once again reinventing itself and shedding an old social model faster and with less fuss than, for example, the European Union. We won’t do it perfectly and we won’t do it instantaneously, but once again the US looks like it will get to the future a little bit faster than the rest of the advanced world.
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