Thursday, December 01, 2011
Rod Dreher likes what George Packer has written in Foreign Affairs:
And excerpts big chunks. On the failure of institutions:
The Iraq war was a kind of stress test applied to the American body politic. And every major system and organ failed the test: the executive and legislative branches, the military, the intelligence world, the for-profits, the nonprofits, the media. It turned out that we were not in good shape at all — without even realizing it. Americans just hadn’t tried anything this hard in around half a century. It is easy, and completely justified, to blame certain individuals for the Iraq tragedy. But over the years, I’ve become more concerned with failures that went beyond individuals, and beyond Iraq — concerned with the growing arteriosclerosis of American institutions. Iraq was not an exceptional case. It was a vivid symptom of a long-term trend, one that worsens year by year. The same ailments that led to the disastrous occupation were on full display in Washington this past summer, during the debt-ceiling debacle: ideological rigidity bordering on fanaticism, an indifference to facts, an inability to think beyond the short term, the dissolution of national interest into partisan advantage.
We can upgrade our iPhones, but we can’t fix our roads and bridges. We invented broadband, but we can’t extend it to 35 percent of the public. We can get 300 television channels on the iPad, but in the past decade 20 newspapers closed down all their foreign bureaus. We have touch-screen voting machines, but last year just 40 percent of registered voters turned out, and our political system is more polarized, more choked with its own bile, than at any time since the Civil War. There is nothing today like the personal destruction of the McCarthy era or the street fights of the 1960s. But in those periods, institutional forces still existed in politics, business, and the media that could hold the center together. It used to be called the establishment, and it no longer exists. Solving fundamental problems with a can-do practicality — the very thing the world used to associate with America, and that redeemed us from our vulgarity and arrogance — now seems beyond our reach.
On our economic trajectory:
What was that arrangement? It is sometimes called “the mixed economy”; the term I prefer is “middle-class democracy.” It was an unwritten social contract among labor, business, and government — between the elites and the masses. It guaranteed that the benefits of the economic growth following World War II were distributed more widely, and with more shared prosperity, than at any time in human history. In the 1970s, corporate executives earned 40 times as much as their lowest-paid employees. (By 2007, the ratio was over 400 to 1.) Labor law and government policy kept the balance of power between workers and owners on an even keel, leading to a virtuous circle of higher wages and more economic stimulus. The tax code restricted the amount of wealth that could be accumulated in private hands and passed on from one generation to the next, thereby preventing the formation of an inherited plutocracy. The regulatory agencies were strong enough to prevent the kind of speculative bubbles that now occur every five years or so: between the Great Depression and the Reagan era there was not a single systemwide financial crisis, which is why recessions during those decades were far milder than they have since become. Commercial banking was a stable, boring business. (In movies from the 1940s and 1950s, bankers are dull, solid pillars of the community.) Investment banking, cordoned off by the iron wall of the Glass-Steagall Act, was a closed world of private partnerships in which rich men carefully weighed their risks because they were playing with their own money. Partly as a result of this shared prosperity, political participation reached an all-time high during the postwar years (with the exception of those, such as black Americans in the South, who were still denied access to the ballot box).
At the same time, the country’s elites were playing a role that today is almost unrecognizable. They actually saw themselves as custodians of national institutions and interests. The heads of banks, corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, and media companies were neither more nor less venal, meretricious, and greedy than their counterparts today. But they rose to the top in a culture that put a brake on these traits and certainly did not glorify them.
... that archetypal 1978 couple with the AMC Pacer was not voting to see its share of the economic pie drastically reduced over the next 30 years. They were not fed up with how little of the national income went to the top one percent or how unfairly progressive the tax code was. They did not want to dismantle government programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which had brought economic security to the middle class. They were not voting to weaken government itself, as long as it defended their interests. But for the next three decades, the dominant political faction pursued these goals as though they were what most Americans wanted. Organized money and the conservative movement seized that moment back in 1978 to begin a massive, generation-long transfer of wealth to the richest Americans. The transfer continued in good economic times and bad, under Democratic presidents and Republican, when Democrats controlled Congress and when Republicans did.
Packer's essay - and Dreher's commentary - include harping about the change in manners and morals (1960's alert!) that isn't convincing. And the establishment in the past wasn't all that wonderful. But as to the broad outline of what's happened in the last 40 years, Packer is pretty much on target.
It is easy, and completely justified, to blame certain individuals for the Iraq tragedy. But over the years, I’ve become more concerned with failures that went beyond individuals, and beyond Iraq — concerned with the growing arteriosclerosis of American institutions.
Of course Packer would rather consider institutions, given that that takes the spotlight off of individual scum who supported the war...like himself.