In recent months a heated debate has been taking place on the past, present, and future of social policy in the United States. In an effort to explore the major issues involved in this debate, we invited a number of writers representing diverse political and social views to discuss the following questions:
- It is frequently said that the Great Society was a failure. Do you agree with this assessment? If not, to what particular features of the Johnson program would you attribute its success? If so, where would you place the blame? Was it insufficient financing? Was it the “services” approach?
- It is also frequently said that Richard Nixon is leading a “counterrevolution” against the general trend of social policy of the last thirty or forty years. Do you agree with this characterization of the Nixon program? If so, toward what objectives would you say the “counterrevolution” is aimed? If not, how would you characterize the general thrust of the Nixon administration’s policies, especially as reflected in the new budget?
- What, in your judgment, would constitute a sound program in the area of social policy? In the light of the experience of the past ten years, what do you think the possibilities are in the foreseeable future? What are the limits?
Edward C. Banfield:
1) The Great Society was a Great Cornucopia overflowing with all sorts of goodies: civil-rights laws, the Office of Economic Opportunity (a cornucopia within a cornucopia), Model Cities (another cornucopia), manpower-training programs, compensatory-education programs, and so on—hundreds of items altogether. Their diversity resists any one-word verdict.
Many millions of dollars were spent monitoring and evaluating, but the products of these efforts are of little value for the present purpose. The evaluations are mostly of bits and pieces of certain programs—Community Action in some cities and from certain standpoints, for example. So far as I am aware, not a single program has been evaluated systematically and in detail. That would be impossible in most cases because of the vague and contradictory nature of the goals. Model Cities, for example, was intended to concentrate resources in order to make a “substantial impact” on poor neighborhoods, to improve decision-making procedures in the offices of mayors and city managers, and (among other things) to foster coordination, innovation, and institutional change. No one had, or has, any way of knowing exactly what was meant by such words and, apart from that, there was, and is, no way of judging how much of one goal (say, innovation) ought to have been sacrificed in order to secure more in terms of another (say, coordination).
It must be remembered, too, that much of what is associated in the public mind with the Great Society had long been in existence. When Secretary George Romney called the Federal Housing Administration programs “a $100-billion-dollar mistake” he was not referring to those of the Great Society: the national housing goal was set by Congress in 1949 and even at that time the principal housing programs were a decade old.
Despite these considerations, I believe it is possible to separate out the Great Society programs and pass judgment upon them collectively. The Great Society had two general goals. The more widely publicized was that of bringing incomes up to what came to be called the poverty line. The other, which was more important from the standpoint of most of the professionals who participated in the design of the programs, was to bring “culturally deprived” persons into the “mainstream.” The chronically poor, especially the young among them, were to be given training in schools and work places so that they could get steady, high-paying jobs; their civil rights were to be protected and extended; and they were to be provided with better health, housing, and recreational facilities—all with “maximum feasible participation” on their part. This, it was thought, would reduce frustration and “alienation” and engender self-confidence, self-respect, and a healthy desire for political and economic independence.
Judged against these goals, almost all of the Great Society programs (the exceptions that I have in mind are the civil-rights laws) range from unsuccessful to counter productive.
The number of the poor did, it is true, decline by one-fourth between 1965 and 1970. Without any doubt the Great Society programs accounted for some of this (OEO alone spent nearly $10 billion) but the Social Security program established by the New Deal accounted for more (mostly old people whose incomes had not been much below the line to begin with) and there were others—no one seems to know how many—whose increase of income was due to the natural growth of the economy. Indeed, on the whole poverty seems to have decreased at a slower rate in the 1960’s than before. Robert J. Lampman, in his valuable Ends and Means of Reducing Income Poverty (Markham, 1971), reports that the percentage of the total population in low-income status fell from 26 in 1947 to 19 in 1957 and to 12 in 1967. The principal factors affecting the rate of movement out of poverty are not the good intentions of legislators or the generosity of taxpayers: rather they are changes in the composition of the population, in occupations (especially farm versus non-farm), and in the size of the gross national product. According to Lampman and other economists, it is reasonable to expect that by 1980 no one will be below the existing poverty line. This would be the case no doubt even if the War on Poverty had never been declared.
There has also been progress toward the other goal of the Great Society programs—that of bringing the “culturally deprived” into the “mainstream.” But here again most of it is not attributable to the programs. The income return to blacks who finished school in recent years is now about equal to that of whites; this has encouraged young blacks to want—and to get—somewhat more schooling than do whites of the same ability as measured by test performance. The Great Society’s civil-rights laws deserve some of the credit for these developments, but surely the fundamental fact of the situation (accounting, among other things, for the passage of the laws) is that there has been a dramatic decline in white bigotry and insensitivity since the Second World War, resulting in vastly improved employment opportunities for the “culturally deprived” and making it possible for the motivated among them to find their way into the “mainstream.” There is no evidence, so far as I have been able to discover, that the Community Action and other Great Society programs designed to stimulate upward mobility have succeeded in doing so. Where motivation developed it may have done so in spite of these programs rather than because of them. There is no doubt but that the injection of many billions of dollars of public funds benefited the black communities. The people who gained most, however, were middle class, not “culturally deprived.”
That compensatory education programs have not worked and probably cannot be made to work is a conclusion now widely accepted even among those who expected most from them. Robert Levine, OEO’s director of research in the Johnson administration, has written (in The Poor Ye Need Not Have with You, MIT Press, 1970) that in general “. . . the evaluation of educational programs shows that very little is known about what [will work] and even throws doubt on the importance of anything that might work. . . .” Much of the same has been said by others with respect to delinquency control, manpower training, community action, coordination, and most of the other programs. Indeed, in a paper presented in March at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Political Science Association, Professor Robert J. Leonard of the University of Evansville showed that anti-poverty expenditures (OEO, VISTA, Community Action, and Head Start) in 1968 had no effect on poverty, education, employment, and crime in the cities to which they went so far as could be judged by such crude but plausible measures as proportion of employed males per capita before and after.
Whatever judgment one makes as to the benefits of these programs, one must face the fact of their costs. These have been, and are still, very-large. It has been estimated (by Charles Schultze and his collaborators of the Brookings Institution in Setting National Priorities: The 1973 Budget) that federal expenditures on the major Great Society programs increased from $1.7 billion in fiscal 1963 to $35.7 billion in fiscal 1973.
These money costs are far exceeded, in my judgment, by many other, more or less intangible, costs, especially the following: the multiplication of categorical-grant programs beyond the capacity of the executive branch to administer them, with the result being delay, confusion, waste and corruption, and the “elbowing aside” (as the President recently put it) of state and local governments and of the private sector and their further decline in vigor and capacity; the raising of expectations to unreasonable levels, leading to widespread disappointment and frustration and, on the part of quite a few, to the conclusion that this is a “sick” society “not worth saving”; the use of public funds in some cities to underwrite the “leadership” of known criminals, revolutionaries, and mountebanks who exploited—and in some instances terrorized and ultimately destroyed—neighborhoods and institutions over which they were enabled to gain control (for a case in point, see the account of the destruction of the Woodlawn area of Chicago in the Winter 1973 issue of the Public Interest); and, finally, the cooptation of most of the young potential leaders of the poor neighborhoods and their subsequent neutralization and, in many instances, demoralization.
It was not for lack of money that the Great Society programs failed. Some of the principal efforts—Model Cities, for example—had more of it than they could spend. Others spent prodigally without measurable achievement. Federal aid to public schools, for example, increased from $19 to $52 billion in the 1960’s, but the test scores of pupils, which had previously been rising, declined. (However, it should be remembered that in this decade the schools were holding more low-achieving pupils for longer periods; presumably they had some success with a considerable number of them.)
If an “income” (as opposed to “services”) strategy means giving money to people rather than to governments, it is doubtful whether—except perhaps in the very long run—it would have succeeded any better in changing the style of life of those whose handicap was not simply, or even primarily, lack of income—that is, the “culturally deprived.” In my opinion, putting millions more on welfare (which is what the “income strategy” seems to mean in practice) would permanently seal a great many people off from the world of work. I agree with the authors of Work in America (MIT Press, 1973) that “the key to reducing familial dependency on the government lies in the opportunity [I would add also the disposition to accept the opportunity] for the central provider to work full-time at a living wage.”
It is a virtue of the “services strategy” that the conspicuous failure of a “service” makes it politically vulnerable. Not so with the “income strategy”; whatever ill effects that produced would probably pass unnoticed or, in any event, not be charged against it. Politically it would be unassailable. Thus we have recently been told by Joel Handler that the theory that “if enough people get on welfare it will be politically untenable to treat them as ‘undeserving’ . . .” is “both brilliant and humane” (Reforming the Poor, Basic Rooks, 1972).
2) President Nixon no doubt wishes that Americans would do more for themselves and expect less to be done for them by government. Nevertheless I do not think that he is in the least likely to lead a “counterrevolution” against the trend of social policy. He knows, better perhaps than any man alive, that it is an indispensable condition of the working of the American political system that it offer strong incentives to all sorts of interests to press for advantages (not always “selfish” ones of course) and that incentives exist only as there is expectation of at least partial and occasional successes. He knows, therefore, that unwise and even outrageous measures must frequently be adopted, and that if it were otherwise (if, say, Congress were somehow made “responsible”) the result would be to deprive the system of the energy that makes it work. That he is himself a very strenuous exerter of influence is evidence that he knows how to act effectively within the system, not that he wants to change it.
Although he may deplore it, the President must also be fully aware that the volume of demands placed upon the government is bound to increase. As Americans become more affluent, schooled, and leisured they discover (and also invent) more and more “social problems” which (they fondly suppose) can be “solved” if the government “really cares” (that is, if it passes enough laws, hires enough officials, and spends enough money). That one whose business it is to come to terms with reality, and who has shown himself to be extraordinarily adept at this business, will lead a “counterrevolution” against so conspicuous a feature of reality seems most unlikely. The President is a politician, not a preacher. His task and talent are for making things work, not for changing them.
The view that I am taking is in no way contradicted by the current budget proposals. The President is trying to curb inflation, avoid increases in taxes, get rid of programs that almost everyone knows have not worked, consolidate others for better administration, and turn responsibility for a wide range of matters back to the states and cities. Even if his budget contained no new initiatives (in fact it contains several major ones), it could not reasonably be taken as a portent of “counterrevolution.”
The President’s efforts to shift responsibilities to the states and local governments might perhaps be judged “counterrevolutionary” if he were leaving it to them to finance the programs. But this is not what he is doing. The fact is—although one would never guess it from the howls of mayors and governors—that the 1974 budget proposes to give state and local government more federal aid than they received this year (to make the figures comparable one must take into account that in 1974 public assistance for the aged, blind, and disabled will go to them directly rather than via grants to the states) and about four-and one-half times what they received a decade ago. And this although state and local governments are presently enjoying an aggregate revenue surplus which, if they do not lower their tax rates, is expected to reach some $13 billion in 1975.
I see revenue sharing and the New Federalism in general as a sort of domestic Vietnamization strategy under which Washington will provide the “villagers” with material resources and technical advice while allowing them to fight the “war” in their own way. This is not necessarily a strategy for winding down the “war.” It may merely represent a facing of the fact, obvious in the Johnson administration but not faced by it, that federal programs have become too many and too complex to be administered from Washington. Another possibility—I find this more probable, although I do not suppose that it is the President’s wish—is that the new strategy is preparatory to an escalation of the “war” and the opening of vast new fronts (health seems to be the most likely one now that education and welfare are both stalemated).
3) In my judgment a sound program in the area of social policy would involve a radical devolution of federal activities to state and local government and, beyond that, of many public ones to competitive markets. Such a program is, however, incompatible with the nature of our political system, which is energized by the pressures that interests exert to get things from government. Since I believe that despite its evident faults this political system is vastly better than any practical alternative, I am in the awkward position of having to conclude that a sound program is really unsound. When constituents begin asking politicians, “What have you undone for me lately?” the situation will improve.
1) Writing in 1973, ten years after the planning of the poverty program began in Washington, I still find it very hard to give summary judgments on the Great Society programs. Whether one speaks of Medicare and Medicaid, Elementary and Secondary Education and all its titles, the programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity; and whether one considers Community Action programs, Head Start and its progeny, Legal Services, Neighborhood Health Care Centers, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Job Corps, or all the others; or leased housing, rent supplements, Model Cities, Section 235 (homeownership for the poor) or Section 236 (rental housing for the poor), or a great range of manpower programs (and one can of course expand this list considerably)—it is almost impossible for those of us who are not experts in given programs and their variants in fifty states and thousands of communities to give a simple verdict of “success” or “failure.”
Even though I have spent most of my time for ten years on the study of such programs and teaching about them, I find it difficult to say with any great confidence that this should go or that should stay; or to propose improvements with any greater confidence. I believe some of the implications of such a confession of non-competence are: (a) because of the federal system and the great variety of situations we find in regions, states, and cities, and indeed in neighborhoods of cities, many of these programs—such as Model Cities and Neighborhood Youth Corps and Community Action—have meant very different things in different places; (b) the design of these programs (e.g., emphasis on local variation, experiment, demonstration) often guaranteed that they would be infinitely various and thus difficult to evaluate as programs; (c) we have not had in any case very good systems of reporting and evaluation to enable us to make summary judgments—in the nature of the case (see points a and b) we probably couldn’t; (d) the objectives of these programs—were they to relieve state and city budgets? employ more blacks and minorities? overcome deeply-rooted social problems? pay off the professionals enough to permit some non-professionals to get into the act? punish Republican governors and mayors and reward Democrats, or vice versa, depending on who was in power?—were often so mixed that for this reason alone the question of success or failure was a difficult one to decide; (e) the independent evaluations of these programs by outside social scientists suffered of course from all the problems described in a, b, c, and d above, as well as some special ones. Thus, it turned out we had much better studies of the beginnings of programs than of how they operated once started and once the initial phases of conflict were overcome. We know from Stephan Thernstrom’s Poverty, Planning, and Politics in the New Boston: The Origins of ABCD, Peter Marris and Martin Rein’s Dilemmas of Social Reform, Daniel P. Moynihan’s Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, and other studies, what was wrong with the design of the central part of the poverty program, the Community Action program, and how much unrewarding conflict was built into it. After it was more or less running at the end of the 1960’s our data—at least in the form of good studies by social scientists—become sparser. Yet we may well be ending the program on the basis of what it was intended to be when it began, the confusion with which it started, the criticisms made of it then, rather than on the basis of how it is actually conducted in hundreds of cities.
I say we may be—I don’t know. In each of these areas one must go, not to general pundits or experts, but to special experts, who have detailed and comprehensive knowledge. Yet when one does go looking one discovers in despair that no one has detailed and comprehensive knowledge. This is not a general confession that we never know enough to act; in some philosophical sense, undoubtedly we don’t. It is a confession that we have designed our programs so that it is very hard to know enough to act. Thus, we know enough generally about Social Security to act (although there are plenty of complexities in that program, too). The same amount of money is sent out from a central point to everyone in the same status. The program’s objectives are clear and simple, and thus it is easy to evaluate. It is not meant to solve the complex social, emotional, personal problems of the aged—what could? It has no input at all from cities and states and thus does not vary from location to location. It cannot be used to reward some areas and punish others, though of course Congress and the President scheme to see how they may take credit for one or another proposed change in this huge program.
Obviously Social Security is not a sound model for all social programs. There may be no way of dealing with the problems of juvenile delinquency, or declining neighborhoods, or manpower training, or medical care for the poor, using such a model. At the same time, of course, it could have been predicted that the design of many of the Great Society programs was one which meant that evaluation would be difficult or impossible. It was a design for pluralism, for conflict, for a mix of forces, for varied outcomes in different places.
Having said all this, let me pronounce a tentative summary judgment: the Great Society program was clearly not a uniform failure. No one basically challenges Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the affirmative-action programs, expanded manpower-training programs. The housing programs are more of a mixed story. The shift away from conventional public housing represented by the legislation of 1965 and 1968 was necessary and a major achievement. It increased the rate of building of subsidized housing units tenfold by fiscal 1972. Most of these units were being built outside the blighted central city areas. It is also true that the new programs offered a good deal of possibility for corruption and excessive profit-making, and increased the required subsidy payments on subsidized housing units enormously. Clearly some changes in these programs are necessary. But certainly one must pronounce partial success.
The most difficult judgments to pronounce are in the most original area, that of neighborhood-controlled social programs, as in Community Action and Model Cities. My overall guess is that as of 1973 most of the money in these programs (it is, by the way, not very much—about a billion dollars) is providing useful social services to children, youth, and old people, and a good deal of employment to people who are doing no damage and who will not in the future find it easy to get jobs as good as the ones they now hold.
If we ask, did these programs overcome “poverty” and its problems, clearly we have to answer no. I put poverty in quotation marks because I do not think it was really poverty we were talking about. We were concerned in the early 1960’s with the anti-social behavior of large numbers of young people, with the failure of such institutions as family and school to socialize them into some form of decent behavior, and with the destructive effects of their behavior on city life. We were confused about why the transition from school to work was not taking place easily for so very many. If anything, the situation became considerably worse between 1963 and 1973. I do not know what the sources of such behavior are. Clearly they are in some way related to the experience of blacks in the United States, though Puerto Ricans in New York share in the behavior, and whites in other groups have also shown such behavior—perhaps not as marked—in the past, and still show some of it in the early 1970’s. I will not list all the potential hypotheses. The fact is we did not know what to do about it, and still don’t.
Would more money have helped? Frankly, I do not know—and I also do not know where it might have been spent to be a help. At first we defined the issue as that of the “drop-out.” We have had a good deal of research on dropouts since, and our conclusion seems to be that there is no particularly useful way of keeping all young people in school until eighteen or whatever age we define as being appropriate to earn a high-school diploma, and it is not particularly clear that drop-outs suffer by dropping out if there is an alternative for them to drop into (the army, an apprenticeship program, or something else). We tried to set up alternatives or supplements to school for drop-outs and potential drop-outs—Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Upward Bound, and endless other programs. Have they been successes or failures? Should we have spent more on them? Could we have? Once such programs were launched they were not necessarily overwhelmed with potential clients—nor did those selected necessarily stay the term. It is not easy to pronounce an overall judgment. One can tell horror stories on the one side ($11,000 a year per trainee for training), and presumably success stories on the other—a rather substantial number of people who had gone through episodes as drug addicts and juvenile delinquents ended up in college programs (how we evaluate this is another story, yet in almost any college I would guess there is some attrition of the most self-defeating and community-damaging kinds of juvenile criminal behavior, as well, of course, as a considerable importation of such behavior into institutions that would not have experienced it had they been more selective).
Among the rather severe criticisms of this type of 60’s program was the argument that it represented a “services” strategy rather than a “jobs” or an “income” strategy. One should give Paul Goodman credit for making the simple division of the sums that were expected to be spent on Mobilization for Youth in the early 60’s on the Lower East Side and pointing out that we would be better off giving the juveniles the money. An ingenious observation: but was it true? I wonder. As it was, we hired great numbers of social workers and consultants, increasing their income. Many of these—few at the beginning, more later—came from minority groups; we were providing the jobs through these programs for the barely college-trained that other programs were producing; and from the same communities. This was a minor benefit, but many pointlessly overpaid social workers are now finding it hard to get a job where their qualifications or experience mean much. (I say this without being sure it is true. Perhaps private business is taking them in, in view of the affirmative-action pressure. I think it may be.) The services themselves generally provided a place out of the cold for young people, might have led back to school or to college, and, less positively, offered opportunities for hustles. If the sums had been distributed in income to young people, their effects would have been frightfully disruptive. The already damaged families, with fathers absent or earning little, would have found even more power shifting to the adolescent young. Presumably they might have been paid not to be delinquent, as they often were in summer-work programs, and one assumes that would have helped somewhat in reducing anti-social behavior. But it sounds like a difficult program to police and evaluate. Had it been income instead of services, we would have been in the same quandary of evaluation we are in today.
Of course, “jobs” instead of “services” was always the more attractive approach. And yet we should not underestimate the difficulty of this approach, either. It was no simple matter to provide jobs for the young unemployed (the area where the problem was most concentrated and most severe) or better jobs for the large numbers of black men who had already dropped out by their twenties, and indeed were not to be found by the census until they began returning to be counted in their forties and fifties, burnt out. After all, we were not dealing with a mass unemployment situation during most of this period as we had been in the 1930’s, when men with the experience of working, with the expectation of working, with habits that permitted work, were easily and usefully employed in vast numbers at subsistence wages. By the mid-1960’s, such a population did not exist, and many of those who were not working would not work at subsistence wages. All sorts of developments, apparently good in themselves, had conspired to produce such a result: lengthening the years of required schooling, raising the minimum wage, liberalizing welfare. At the bottom was the race problem in American life. So even if we had moved to a large job-creation program, we would have had to build services into it.
The other great alternative to services, the guaranteed annual income, as it finally emerged as a feasible political proposal in the Family Assistance Plan in 1969, was superior to what we had, but it too did not reach the problem of the anti-social behavior that was destroying the possibility of decent life in the older central cities. While formally of course not a product of the Great Society, FAP was created by Johnson men, even if accepted by Nixon and Nixon men, and was part of the thinking of Great Society architects from the middle 60’s. Its great virtue was that it was a way of distributing money to persons in families, money that would be less stigmatized than welfare, would go to men, and would go to workers. It would lift people some part of the way out of poverty without imposing the concurrent damage to family and work that the welfare system did. One of the reasons some of us were less than fully enthusiastic was that we saw something like FAP already in existence in the advanced states (New York) without the concurrent advantages which might have been expected.
I do not feel the problem was insufficient money—there was often more than anyone knew how to spend usefully. I do not think the problem was services instead of income and jobs—many people needed the services. Jobs were certainly the best area for reform, and job-creation was neglected. Yet it is also true that unemployment was low in the later 1960’s, and inflation a threat, and even job-creation would have involved an array of supportive services and considerable care to limit inflation. I would conclude: the new services were necessary, but they turned out not to be adequate for dealing with our severe problems; more jobs would have been the best supplement, but a job program would have had its own problems. Of course the awful Vietnamese war was in a way a job program—we were spending up to $30 billion annually more than we would have in job-creation, which served to devastate Vietnam rather than to rebuild the United States. But it did employ minorities, and in jobs which bore no relief stigma. Would things have been strikingly different if this money had gone into domestic jobs, doing all the things we need so badly in this country—rebuilding the parks, cleaning the streets, more housing and public facilities, etc.? This would have been infinitely better for the country, but one wonders how much it would have done for our social problems.
2) The Nixon program, as presented in the budget for 1973-74 and the supporting statements, can be read in many ways. As I see it, there are a number of major decisions: (a) taxes will not be raised; (b) if they are not, there is not much money available for new social programs, in view of the enormous share in the “human services” budget that now goes to Social Security and Medicare; (c) as for the programs of the Great Society, the aim is to shift more and more of them into revenue sharing which will go to states and cities.
What is the effect of these decisions? It is not particularly to reduce money to functions, but it is to change the way in which these functions will be met. Instead of having education money mandated to the use of poor children, we will have education money to be spent as the local authorities decide. Instead of having manpower money spread over a variety of federal programs, it will be spent the way local state and municipal authorities decide. Money for community plans and programs will now come in the form of revenue sharing for community development, spent as states and cities wish, rather than under Community Action programs and Model Cities programs. There are a number of still undetermined questions here. Will there be as much money as there was, growing to take account of inflation? Apparently less. But that is owing to decisions (a) and (b) above, decisions in which Congress concurs and which indeed it has made. Will less of this money go to targeted groups, the poor and minorities? That will depend on the local political situation. On the whole, less will. But will the agencies that have developed a claim on funds in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere, have any less claim on these funds if they come as different kinds of revenue sharing rather than as grants from the federal government? Certainly the politics will change. If the poor and minorities get less it will be because of insufficient clout at the local level—just as the proposals themselves reflect insufficient clout at the national level.
What of the programs for minorities specifically, stemming from the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s? Obviously nothing can undo Negro voting power established by the Civil Rights Acts in the South—unless the Negroes of the South follow those of the North in not registering and voting. I do not believe that the administration has been particularly remiss (the comparison for purposes of defining a “counterrevolution” must be with previous administrations) in implementing the laws against discrimination in education and employment. The problems we are facing in this area are problems any administration would have faced, and the thrust to implementation from the courts and the lower bureaucracy seems to me scarcely to have weakened—in many cases it has been strengthened under Nixon, though of course it is less the administration than the bureaucracy and the courts that have been responsible. The fight for the opening of the suburbs to the minorities and the poor is a complex one—no one could claim there has been less progress under Nixon than under Kennedy and Johnson, though once again whatever progress has been made is, one assumes, less the result of administration initiatives than of the change in the economic capacity of the blacks.
A counterrevolution? Not quite. Little will change in the gross sums available for education, though a good deal may change in how they are spent. Medicare and Medicaid will grow (the new charges which add to the outrageous complexity of Medicare will hopefully be dropped, and both systems may yet be folded into a necessary larger plan for health insurance). The increase in families on welfare seems to have stopped, but that is owing to the actions of state and local elected officials, liberal as well as conservative. The neighborhood-controlled programs are now threatened—Community Action programs and Model Cities. They are already under mayoral authority, however, and already have their claws clipped, or have been incorporated into the legitimate political system, depending on one’s political perspective.
Low-cost housing programs are under moratorium—but everyone agrees they must be coordinated, clarified, replaced by something else. The pipeline is fairly full, and Congress, which almost passed new housing legislation last year (and which in any case tends to pass its own rather than the administration’s), can get to work again.
3) This is not to say I would not argue with the Nixon budget, but I would not use so large and loose a term as “counterrevolution.” My own thinking goes along the following lines:
(a) When I read the criticism of the effect of dropping Community Action, Model Cities, and other programs oriented to neighborhood-level services, I am struck by how many of these services seem to be doing things that should be a part of any decent modern society. Thus, I see on the local Boston television that a program which provides one hot meal a day to older people confined to their homes is funded under Community Action. This, it is my impression, is what much of Community Action has become—various kinds of day care, summer and other recreation programs for youth, programs for older people. We huffed and puffed and fought to do what every modern welfare state considers a matter of course. We should have hot meals for old people, places where mothers can leave children so they can get to medical appointments or attend courses, more recreational facilities for youth, more centers where one can get advice on schooling and jobs, and so on and so on. All these require money. I do not think that on the whole the level of public services in this country is so high we can cut back on them, even if they are being maintained through untidy arrangements. I would prefer best of all to tidy up and upgrade the arrangements, so that the level of services available in such a well-run upper-middle-class community as Palo Alto, let us say, is increasingly available everywhere. The most important service is hardly available anywhere yet: comprehensive health care available to all, including the poorest.
My point can be expanded. If schools are in bad physical condition they should be improved. If teachers have large classes they should be reduced. If poor areas have insufficient clinics and doctors, something must be done to provide them. And so on, through the range of services of the modern state. Our object, to use the English term, would be simply “provision,” not solution.
(b) Of course we should understand that these services will do little to reduce the truly agonizing problems of the inner cities (though some modest effect might be expected—reducing the strain on families reduces the need to break up families, better services for the very young may help in reducing anti-social behavior, and so on). We should undertake these programs because this is what a society should do—just as it should clean the streets, maintain lighting, insure clean water, etc.—rather than because we expect any “output” that deals with basic social problems.
Is there any direct attack, however, that might help? I believe the most useful tack for new social programs at the present is to consider the problem of low-paid, unstable work with poor or no fringe benefits, and to see what can be done to make it more stable, to attach fringe benefits, increase its security, and in effect make the low-income work which at present supports and must be the major support of the low-income population more rewarding and more attractive. Here is the one great area in which social inventiveness is needed, and surprisingly enough the one in which the least effort has been made. Consider—in order to see what is possible in such a field—what happened when the government introduced insured amortized mortgages on government-inspected houses in the 1930’s. The entire trauma of house-owning—the prospect of losing a house because one could not meet the payments—disappeared. A mortgage was turned into something like rent, simply by a financial and administrative reform. Because the mortgages were insured and given on a property of known worth, they became marketable. Thus more funds flowed into housing, and more housing could be built. The banks still earned interest—indeed, more than ever—and people who owned homes still owned them basically on the payment of interest, but home-owning became possible for a good part of the American population because the Federal Housing Administration-inspected and mortgage-guaranteed house was devised. Can one devise such a government-guaranteed job for the worker—a job which offers a minimum wage, a guarantee of that wage as long as he is willing to work, health insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance and social security, vacations with pay, all attached to the job? It would take organizational innovation in the low-wage and unstable-job area, akin to the innovation once exercised in the unstable home mortgage-area.
Much of our ingenuity in recent years has gone into the effort to provide more money to the family without a worker or with a worker who provides less than a poverty income. We have made non-work more and more attractive in at least our more advanced states. Is it possible to do something now for work? While there are few incentives for employers to provide the work benefits that go with standard jobs to those less qualified (primarily in service occupations), it might be possible for the government to set up something like a “minimum job standard guarantee” program. The government would not provide the job, no more than it provides the FHA-guaranteed house. But it would provide the fringe benefits and the security that make it a real job. I have defined the objective of a program rather than a program. It has a good deal in common with other proposals—for example, house-cleaning by a salaried, uniformed service, rather than by an individual hired by the hour by a homemaker.
In addition to this form of job development, one can see almost limitless possibilities for additional employment in local public services, along the lines of the work done by paraprofessionals and in the Emergency Employment program. There are problems here of the relationship of such work to the civil service, of job security, and the like, but I think our experience by now should permit us to design good programs for public employment of the underqualified. Should the federal government design and mandate such programs in view of the shift to revenue sharing? I believe we should have a mechanism whereby, if the cities and states do not do their share, a federal job-creation program for public services would come into operation.
If one could provide a full array of welfare-state services on the one hand, and on the other hand do something to upgrade and stabilize the kind of jobs into which and out of which the low-income population drifts, we would, I believe, be doing the most important things the state can do to deal with our domestic problems. Our hopes would be modest. We would provide the means for people to lift themselves out of the mire, rather than requiring that they do so. And more than this a democratic state cannot do.
Even this much would be expensive. But there is no reason to think that the United States will be able to solve its problems by taxing its people less than do the governments of England, France, Germany, or Sweden. And here is a task for Congress, the administration, and for all those among us who criticize both. When we are ready to support higher taxes, we will be in a better position to criticize the Nixon program.
1) The Great Society scored some significant success which must be defended against Nixon’s reactionary onslaught in 1973. At the same time, it was a fundamental—and structural—failure, and that point must be carefully understood. The Great Society’s inadequacies were not due, as the neo-conservative wisdom now has it, to “throwing money at problems,” to the hubris of planners who acted far beyond the limits of their knowledge, or to too casual, and radical, innovation. The hidden agenda of the Great Society was suffused with corporate and anti-social priorities, and the disappointing outcome of the effort proves not that we are somehow unable to translate our intentions into federal policies, but that basically flawed intentions articulated in a progressive rhetoric will yield basically flawed policies.
The point of my critique is not to argue for a retreat from the Great Society, as Nixon does. It is to demand new departures in which the excellent and far-reaching goals so often enunciated by Lyndon Johnson will be expressed in programs which can achieve them.
First, the Great Society did not “throw money at problems.” In The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, Daniel P. Moynihan summarizes the evidence shrewdly: “The social reforms of the mid-decade had been oversold, and, with the coming of the war, underfinanced to the degree that seeming failure could be ascribed almost to intent.” Yet in the Brookings Institution study, Setting National Priorities: The 1973 Budget (from which the statistics in this article, unless otherwise noted, will be taken), it is shown that, during the 60’s, “federal civilian expenditures as a percentage of GNP almost doubled.” It is clearly this latter statement which provides the statistical basis for Nixon’s assertion that Kennedy and Johnson (or, more precisely, Johnson, since the quantum leap occurred between 1965 and 1970 and not at all under the New Frontier) were prodigal with public monies. How, then, does one reconcile Moynihan and Brookings? Why do I insist that the Great Society was not so lavish?
The answer is to be found when one looks at where the expenditure increases took place. Between 1960 and 1970, there was a $44.3 billion rise in the funds spent on Social Security and on Medicare ($33.9 billion for the pensions, $10.4 billion for health). That was three times as much as all the increased expenditures on public assistance (welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, and student aid). Therefore, the overwhelming bulk of the 60’s increments came, not in radical innovation, but in providing money for one program which was a generation old and inadequate (Social Security) and in achieving a very limited installment of a proposal (national health insurance) which had first been seriously urged by Harry S. Truman in 1949. Moreover, both of these expenditures were, and are, overwhelmingly popular precisely among those white working-class voters who are said to be the chief critics of the liberal prodigality of the 60’s.
When one examines the Great Society programs which might be termed innovative, Medicare alone accounts for well over half the total expenditure during this period. The Office of Economic Opportunity, low-cost housing, and other ventures which might be thought of as new departures were, precisely as Moynihan says, “underfinanced to the degree that seeming failure could be ascribed almost to intent.”
But if the problem with the Great Society was not the result of giving princely governmental support to the untested schemes of social engineers, where was the central flaw? It was not in the adoption of a “services strategy,” though some failures in that area are particularly relevant to the underlying error. In the case of medical and legal care for the poor (and, for that matter, for the not-so-poor, too, most of whom are priced out of both markets) a service strategy is obviously needed. Fee-for-service medicine and law are neither practical nor economical ways to deliver such protection; both should be socialized.
However, Medicare (and Medicaid) does give hints of the basic problem, which is, that for all the grandiloquent rhetoric, the Great Society acted quite timidly. Medicare and Medicaid were partial installments on national health insurance, an area in which this society can hardly be accused of super-innovation (we have yet to catch up with Lloyd George—or perhaps even Bismarck). Because they were such limited increments they had perverse effects. They bid up the price of health, but not the ability to pay, for the working people who were neither retired nor poor enough to qualify for Medicaid; and Medicaid did provide an incentive for staying poor. In both cases, if the United States had acted boldly we would not have had such difficulties.
We did not act boldly, and the cause was inherent in the Great Society strategy itself. Lyndon Johnson built his programs upon the foundation of that amazing coalition which he assembled in the election of 1964. It included Henry Ford, Walter Reuther and George Meany, the more moderate Dixiecrats and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was therefore imperative that no Great Society proposal disturb the fundamental power relations of the society. As a result, the social programs were often suffused with corporate priorities.
Manpower training is a paradigmatic case in point. Throughout the decade, there were important individuals and social forces insisting that full-employment policies required that government become, at a minimum, the employer of last resort (some of us wanted it to act in some cases as an employer of first resort). This was the position taken by the labor movement and by economists like Leon Keyserling and John Kenneth Galbraith during the 1961 debates within the Kennedy administration on the relative merits of a tax cut and social investments. It inspired A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget in 1966 and was a recommendation of the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress in the same year. This proposal was repeated with even greater urgency by the National Commission on Civil Disorders in 1968.
At no point did the Great Society respond to this suggestion. The manpower-training programs of the Kennedy administration were continued—but without the crucial element of guaranteeing a job to every graduate. And then Mr. Johnson created the Job Opportunities in the Business Sector program (JOBS) in which the government subsidized those employers who hired marginal, hard-core unemployed workers. JOBS announced remarkable achievements, most of which we now know were imaginary. It scored some very limited success in the auto industry but that became problematic with the recession so carefully started by Richard Nixon in 1969 as part of his “game plan” to deal with inflation.
The point is that the Great Society rhetoric often concealed corporate priorities. Thus, there was tremendous talk of great strides forward in housing for the poor, including the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act’s target of 26 million new units for the nation in ten years, 10 per cent of them for low-income people. But the actual outlays were small—a recent estimate has us 45 per cent behind the pace—while the subsidies for the rich were enormous. A Joint Economic Committee staff study last year estimated that tax expenditures for the homes of the (primarily) affluent were worth more than $12 billion a year. That is a radical housing program; it is also, one might add, a conservative, and antisocial, one.
Therefore I would not argue that the failures of the Great Society derive from utopianism, or from the hubris of the planners. They were the predictable consequence of the relatively conservative way in which so many of the programs were designed. (I say predictable because I did predict these results in Toward a Democratic Left, a book which was completed in 1967 and published in the spring of 1968.)
But if I am thus fundamentally critical of the very foundations of the Great Society, how can I propose to defend any of its works against Nixon? The answer is that there were some real successes, even if they were partial and inadequate. Under Kennedy and Johnson, unemployment was steadily reduced; under Nixon it was deliberately raised to Eisenhower levels and still remains at an intolerable 5.1 per cent. Medicare and Medicaid have all the flaws which I have noted, but they do represent an advance in human decency. Thus I find it outrageous that Mr. Nixon proposes to deal with some cost “overruns” in Medicare by cruelly pricing some of the aging out of care they desperately need. This is done on the basis of the undocumented assertion that it is the overutilization of services by patients which is the problem and without even a thought of the fact that doctors’ fees are the main inflationary factor.
And the War on Poverty—even though it turned out to be only a skirmish before Mr. Nixon announced his peace without honor—made gains. Certainly the legal services for the poor, for all their limitations, were an effective innovation. Governor Reagan’s rage, and Mr. Nixon’s maneuvering to get the program under his centralized control, are witness to that. Community Action, for all of the hustling and foolishness done in its name, did contribute to legitimating the struggles of the impoverished. And the various employment programs—which the President will now phase out of existence—were progress, even if insufficient progress.
2) Does all this mean that Nixon’s 1974 budget is a “counterrevolution”? I think not. It amounts to a reactionary turn, a cheap, mean-spirited version of the already inadequate welfare state which he inherited, but not a new departure. Indeed, I take the first Nixon administration as the story of the President’s conversion to corporate collectivism and the beginnings of his second administration as simply a process of making the conservative priorities in that approach more barefaced. When he took office, Nixon tried to act upon the true faith of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, by trading off unemployment for price stability. The 1970 elections convinced him that the recession-inflation he produced instead would ruin his hopes for reelection, so in 1971 he announced his conversion to Keynesianism, applied wage-and-price controls, and indulged in the largest deficits since Franklin Roosevelt. Some liberals mistakenly thought that the President was coopting their program. That was not at all true. He was using Democratic techniques for impeccably Republican ends.
The result of these policies was, as George Meany told the Ways and Means Committee in March, to produce a “one-sided shift in the nation’s income and wealth into the hands of corporations and stockholders.” It was designed that way. Now the President is applying his conservative—but newly sophisticated—priorities to the welfare state. He pretends that he is simply attacking the inefficient and overly lavish innovations of Lyndon Johnson, but he really assaults the aging, the poor, and, as Meany understands, the working people. In some cases he is truly audacious. He attacks the scandalous mismanagement of the housing programs under his own administration as if it had occurred under Kennedy or Johnson and ignores the fact that the debacle of the “235” program for housing subsidies resulted, precisely, from relying on the genius of the free market with a minimum of government intervention. Only the genius of the free marketeers turned out to be a talent for mulcting the public rather than housing the poor.
But the basic thrust of Nixon’s proposals, like everything else about the man, is political. He pretends to want to return power to the grass roots, to avoid bureaucratic centralization in America. That is the rationale of revenue sharing, and it is a fraud. The real point is to return power to the conservatives.
City Politics by Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson is helpful in elucidating this point (and not the least because its authors can hardly be accused of Bolshevism, of membership in the “new class” or the “conscience constituency” or any other such pariah group). It was the conservatives, Banfield and Wilson write, who insisted on planning provisions in the housing programs of the 50’s. They “thought that local planning commissions, which in most cities had always been closely allied with real estate and other business interests, would afford some kind of check on the liberals who (as it seemed to the conservatives) dominated the housing and urban renewal programs.”
So it is with Mr. Nixon today. He wants to refer as many decisions as possible back to state, municipal, and county government because he understands—perhaps the point became clear to him in the fight over urban renewal—that the “grass roots” as thus defined are usually conservative. Most of them can be counted on not to spend funds on behalf of the poor or the minorities or even the white working class, as the first reports on the use of revenue-sharing monies already make clear. And those big-city mayors who, because of the new political potency of the poor and minorities, might want to act on behalf of those in greatest need can simply be shortchanged. That is already being done.
In all this I do not want to picture Richard Nixon as some kind of moral monster who rejoices in the suffering of widows and orphans. That is neither true nor serious social analysis. He is a conservative ideologue, politically bound to corporate interests which demand that all innovations put the rich first. Out of sincere conviction, Nixon has been, and is, acting to make life worse for those who have the greatest claim upon our concern.
3) What, then, should be done? I assume that the foregoing makes it perfectly clear that nothing serious can be done unless the Republicans are defeated in 1976. Now that they have become avowed reactionary Keynesians, they are much more dangerous, much shrewder, than when they remained the spiritual descendants of Herbert Hoover. (I am quite sure, for instance, that, if the current inflation goes on, as it likely will, Nixon will reintroduce some controls.) Therefore, the program which I want to urge is one which will unite a majority around a liberal Democratic candidacy. Those who think that the Meanyites should purge the McGovernites, or vice versa, as a way of winning in ‘76 are objectively playing the Republicans’ game. So my proposals will seek to bring together the recently fratricidal factions of the Democratic party, for that is the only way to win three-and-a-half years hence.
Secondly, it should also be obvious that I cannot agree to the neo-conservative (or deradicalized liberal) proposition that, if only we would humbly aspire less, we would achieve more. The programs of the 60’s worked; they effected the priorities for which they were designed. The problem was that too often those were the wrong priorities, and that when they were the right ones, we acted timidly and unimaginatively. Within this general framework I would propose:
(a) Tax Reform. The excellent proposal for some $20 billion of loophole-closing made by George Meany in March is quite close to George McGovern’s campaign plank of last fall. Both Meany and McGovern understand that taxes must be raised by levies on unearned income. So I am for this idea on the political grounds that it can unify the college-educated alumni of the anti-war movement and the trade-union doves and the trade-union hawks.
However, my concern with the issue is not simply tactical. Insofar as tax reform might achieve even a modest redistribution of wealth—or at least neutralize the present impact of the tax code which is to shift burdens from the rich to the workers—it has a structural character. Tax reform might, for instance, limit the enormous power which the wealthy achieve because they own the assets of the society (the top 1 per cent of income recipients, Business Week recently reported, has 25 per cent of the wealth; the bottom 50 per cent has 3 per cent). And that could even mean a redistribution of political power.
(b) Full Employment. Nixon has been scandalously inept in this department, and his failure is apparent not simply to blue-collar workers but to Ph.D.’s, engineers, and college students. Moreover, a genuine full-employment program provides the context in which affirmative action to eliminate discrimination against racial, national, and sexual minorities can really work. A tight labor market in which employers desperately need blacks, Chicanos, and women would do wonders for their relative position (as World War II so dramatically proved within the domestic economy). Moreover, the way to full employment is through massive social investments to deal with the needs, not simply of the poor and the minorities, but of the majority.
(c) Health Security. Everyone in this society, except the very rich, is threatened by the inflated cost of medicine. The Kennedy-Griffith bill does not, of course, go as far as socialized medicine (which is desirable) but it is a gigantic step in the right direction. It even has some ingenious proposals for controlling costs whereas Nixon’s bill—for all the President’s rattling on about the Protestant ethic—would socialize the profits of the private health-insurance industry, i.e., of one of the main sources of inflation in this field.
(d) Housing. The nation should take a radical stand and attempt to redeem the promise made by the late Senator Robert Taft, among others, in the 1949 Housing Act to provide every citizen with a decent dwelling. We have had a quarter of a century of ignoring this promise—even though the 1968 Act reiterated it—and the time has come to fulfill it. This will mean the building of new cities and towns from the ground up, an idea which has been endorsed in recent years by such gentlemen as Spiro Agnew and David Rockefeller. However, they want such a scheme as a means of publicly funding guaranteed profits: I urge it as an exercise in democratic social planning.
In summary, I think that the Great Society failed, to the extent that it did, because it did so few of the right things it proposed and followed a hidden and corporate-oriented agenda when it acted decisively. Its gains must be protected against Nixon, but they must be seen as points of departure, not model accomplishments. There should be a guaranteed right to a job for every able-bodied citizen; to an income for all those who cannot work; and to a decent dwelling for everyone. I think that these things could make good politics in 1976; I even think they might help make, not a Great Society, but a Better Society. Such a modest first step is utterly necessary. Once it is taken we might even begin to act on the truly radical priorities these times demand. But if, as those who would limit social policy propose, we aspire less, then our problems will overwhelm us. There is only one way out and it leads forward.
1) I would not want to say that the Great Society was a failure because, for one thing, such talk gives undeserved comfort to the conservatives—which I am not eager to do, even if, on the other hand, I would not greatly mind seeing discomforts rained upon certain liberals who, either directly or owing to the spread of their wrong ideas, are accountable for much that went awry in the Great Society—and because, for another thing, it’s not true.
No program that lifted fifteen million people out of poverty, reduced unemployment from 5.2 to 3.6 per cent, extended the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised black citizens, effectively ended segregation in public accommodations, and managed the longest period of uninterrupted economic expansion in our history—to name a few of the presumably uncontested accomplishments of the Great Society—no such program can be dismissed as a failure. Would that we had such failures from the Nixon administration!
What strikes me about these historic accomplishments is that they are mainly products of what have been called the traditional liberal-labor approaches to social policy—the “old New Deal stuff”—and are very little indebted to the vague social concepts that came to be enshrined in the New Politics. That is to say, the successes of the Great Society, so far as I can tell, were based on the pursuit of relatively high employment, economic expansion, accelerated public spending, higher minimum wages, increased education and manpower training, legislation of long sought-after civil-rights goals, and so forth, rather than on the self-organization of the poor, the overcoming of powerlessness, the decentralization of institutions, or the maximum feasible participation of anybody in anything (except in expanded job opportunities)—or on any other manifestation of that cruelly fraudulent claptrap that was fashioned jointly by New Left theorists, wily conservatives, and confused liberals, and whose main effects were to promote destructive confrontations, legitimize social bribery, enrich a new bureaucratic caste of anti-poverty officials, elevate racial hustling to a sophisticated art form, deracinate a stratum of inarticulate poor people and transmogrify them into professional meeting-goers and logorrheic media performers, and in other ways to injure, disappoint, mislead, demean, or neglect people in need.
If there is exaggeration here, it is only slight.
To trace the roots of what went wrong, let us go back to the beginning. In the beginning was The Other America, Michael Harrington’s moving and important attempt to bring poverty to the attention of the literate middle class. Universally credited with sparking the war on poverty, the book shaped the way poverty was perceived by many intellectual and political leaders. It bears rereading after eleven years. Its “most important analytic point,” according to its author, “is the fact that poverty in America forms a culture, a way of life and feeling, that it makes a whole.” Indeed,
One of the most important things about the new poverty is that it cannot be defined in simple, statistical terms. Throughout this book a crucial term is used: aspiration. If a group has internal vitality, a will—if it has aspiration—it may live in dilapidated housing, it may eat an inadequate diet, and it may suffer poverty, but it is not impoverished.
(What is it-enriched?) And, finally:
If statistics and sociology can measure a feeling as delicate as loneliness . . . the other America is becoming increasingly populated by those who do not belong to anybody or anything. They are no longer participants in an ethnic culture from the old country; they are less and less religious; they do not belong to unions or clubs. They are not seen, and because of that they themselves cannot see. [All emphases added.]
This is very poetic, but what does it mean for social policy? Is it really true that a group may suffer poverty but not be impoverished? How can we measure impoverishment (as opposed to poverty)? By whose standards do we judge vitality (especially internal vitality), will, aspiration? What does it mean to say poverty is a way of feeling? Is one wrong to believe that one can see here the seeds of what later went wrong in the War on Poverty?
I do not mean—and surely not at this late date—to pin the blame for the debacles of “community action” on Michael Harrington, who has other burdens to bear. Actually, the programs proposed in his book run pretty much along the lines of the “old New Deal stuff”—and, indeed, that is the point. Like the Great Society itself, The Other America was schizoid—marking a midway passage between an inadequate past and a wrong future, between yesterday’s Rooseveltian reformism which didn’t go far enough and the “now” reformism of the new radicalism which went in the wrong direction. I cite the Harrington book to indicate how early this dichotomy, this fork in the road, appeared. Insofar as Harrington’s portrait of poverty adumbrated the wrong future, it did so in two key respects. First, it focused on the personal characteristics of the poor—the old poor, the young poor, the black poor, the hillbilly poor, the rural poor, the urban poor, the alcoholic poor, the neurotic poor—an approach Leon Keyserling was repeatedly and brilliantly to ridicule as laying the basis for a grab-bag of fragmented, helter-skelter, and mutually contradictory programs instead of a strategic plan, comprehensive and coordinated, built around key national programs of full employment, economic growth, and income redistribution, and set within timetables, as projected in the 1966 “Freedom Budget.”
Second, by playing on the theme of the poor as lonely non-participants, The Other America helped set the stage for the notion that we had to give the poor something to belong to, somebody to belong to. The somebody turned out to be John Lindsay—God rest his political soul—and the something turned out to be boards—poverty boards, planning boards, school boards, boards of directors, boards of trustees—all in the unshakable conviction of the middle-class activist that everybody shares his fondness, or need, for going to meetings, articulating like blazes, and “relating” all over the place. The result? Instead of the invisible poor and the silent poor, we got the vivid poor and the noisy poor—and the terribly participatory poor.
To sum up my answer to the first question: the Great Society was not a failure, but it can be usefully criticized on two counts. It took a wrong turn when it translated the “culture-of-poverty” theory into community-action programs; and insofar as its other programs were on the right track, they did not go far enough—more on which later.
2) Yes, I believe Richard Nixon is leading a “counterrevolution”—of sorts. But it is not a fascist counterrevolution; it is not a racist counterrevolution (although it may well have adverse effects on the rate of black progress). It’s not even a counterrevolution against freedom of the press or the Bill of Rights. It’s a conservative Republican counterrevolution against the labor-liberal Democratic New Deal-Great Society programs in housing, education, employment, manpower training, health, pollution, and poverty. Specifically, the President proposes to slash these programs by $6.5 billion in fiscal 1973, $17 billion in fiscal 1974, and a cumulative $100 billion, at least, over the next five years. The rationale for this dismantling operation is that revenue sharing will enable the states to take up the slack. The answer, of course, is that the proposed revenue-sharing funds fall far short of the proposed cutbacks, and besides history has taught us that state and local governments cannot be relied upon to carry on these programs without strong federal intervention. But in any case this is not a terribly new debate—it’s been going on for decades, generations. I don’t see anything very surprising in the Nixon second-term program. He is a pragmatic ideologue who is trying to implement a conservative philosophy that has been a familiar part of the American landscape for a long time. Perhaps what is surprising, to some, is that he is actually trying to implement it. To salt old wounds, their surprise may stem from an earlier failure to have taken Mr. Nixon seriously. To have yelled “fascism,” “racism,” and “repression” was not to have taken Mr. Nixon seriously. To have taken Mr. Nixon seriously was to have supported the ABM (Anybody but McGovern) drive at the Democratic convention and to have gone all-out for Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
So, in sum, we have a conservative, though modern, President seeking to carry out a conservative, though modern, program. What is new and different is that he recently got 60 per cent of the people’s votes—though not for his program. Our response should be not to deny his legitimacy or the moral capacity of the voters but to oppose his program on the simple grounds that undoing the gains of the New Deal and Great Society is not in the interest of the average American. Clearly—though perhaps not as readily apparent to the flakier New York intellectuals as to Washington observers—our best hope for preserving these gains, and thus the possibility of further gains, rests with the political clout of the labor movement and with the more sensible liberals on Capitol Hill. Other liberals on the Hill seem to believe that the worst thing Mr. Nixon is doing is dismantling the Community Action program of OEO. They are making a blunder: that albatross should be allowed to sink.
3) The third question asks: What should be done? I think that what we should do is what we said we were going to do in the 30’s and 40’s, when we passed legislation committing the government to full employment and a decent home for every American family. How’s that for a start?
I am much disturbed by the new fashionable talk that the trouble with the Great Society is that it tried to do too much, went too far, failed to recognize that “there are limits to what government can do.” Of course there are limits to what government can do—just as there are limits to what private enterprise can do. But do those who use this language have any precise limits in mind—or, one cannot help but wonder, is Vietnam what they have in mind? Do they speak from a need, a wish, to see government power curbed?
In any event, I do not believe that establishing full employment is beyond the capacity of the government of the United States. I do not believe that it is beyond the capacity of the government of the United States to insure an adequate supply of good housing for the American people at every level of income. I do not believe it is beyond the capacity of the government of the United States, through the Social Security system, to guarantee a decent income to all senior citizens. I do not believe it is beyond the capacity of the government of the United States to provide, through something like the Kennedy-Griffiths Health Security program, quality health care for all citizens, regardless of age or income. I do not believe it is beyond the capacity of the government of the United States to give us real tax and welfare reforms, to control inflation, or to overhaul our broken-down system of criminal justice. And I do not believe that our failures in any of these areas had a damn thing to do with the war in Vietnam.
I am not here going to attempt to spell out the specific programs we need to achieve the goals mentioned above. The programs have been spelled out again and again in the publications of the labor movement; they were detailed in the “Freedom Budget.” Our problem at the moment is not an absence of specifics but an overall mood of retreat, a sense of political exhaustion following the turbulent 60’s. The mood may be understandable, but we ought to be prepared to combat it among ourselves, at least insofar as it leads us into that dreary can’t-do-and-besides-there-never-was-a-problem-in-the-first-place syndrome that characterizes the new intellectual conservatism. Perhaps if we were to get on more vigorously with what government can do, we would acquire along the way a clearer idea of what government cannot do. The trouble is, the kind of rhetoric we are hearing now usually arises in periods when we are not doing, or intending to do, very much. One must hope that this time the talk does not mirror the times. It is all very well to complain that expectations soared too high under the Great Society. But there are legitimate expectations which the bulk of the people are entitled to have of their government, expectations having to do with jobs and housing and schools and safety. We have not really made an effort to meet those expectations in ways or proportions commensurate with our capacity. The effort to do so, I come increasingly to believe, can provide the basis for a political thrust which, if successful, will lead to social change at once deeper, more benign, and even more egalitarian than the 60’s produced. I think our task now is to reawaken and reassure the people as to these possibilities—not further demoralize or confuse them, or ourselves. The New Left did damage enough. Let us not, in reaction, give it a posthumous victory over hope in the 70’s.
To say that Nixon is leading a counterrevolution against the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, etc., implies that there was something revolutionary about those programs in the first place. Unfortunately this was not the case. Most of the social legislation of the last forty years has attacked symptoms rather than causes. For this reason it has done little to reduce inequality and poverty, limit corporate power, make people more secure against disasters that threaten their savings or even their lives, or extend popular control over government. Merely to list these objectives, which are scarcely utopian or radical, is to suggest how ludicrously liberal programs have fallen short of the minimal goals of a democratic social policy—goals on which almost all of us, presumably, can agree.
In most of these areas, the people of the United States are visibly worse off now than they were in 1933. Gross inequalities remain. Poverty remains. The big corporations are bigger than ever and no more responsible to the public. Most people still have no effective protection against the hardships of old age, sickness, or unemployment, while the rise in crime and violence makes it laughable even to talk of security. As for popular control of government, an irresponsible executive branch has achieved a near monopoly of political power, in the face of which state legislatures, Congress, and increasingly the judiciary as well are almost completely helpless.
Timid as the Roosevelt-Truman-Johnson programs were, they gave rise to intense alarm not only among the very rich, as might have been expected, but among large sections of the electorate. In the 1930’s Republicans feared that the Democratic party, through its control of the new welfare and relief programs, would transform itself into a permanent political dynasty. Experience since the 30’s suggests, on the contrary, that liberal reforms tend to be politically self-defeating. Because they seek only to redistribute inequality instead of eliminating it, liberal reformers are constantly dividing their own constituencies. The pro-labor legislation of the New Deal set off an anti-labor backlash when unorganized white-collar workers and professionals, originally attracted to the New Deal, began to feel themselves ground between the millstones of Big Business and Big Labor, victimized by inflation, and generally ignored. By 1952 the middle classes were ready for Eisenhower.
In the 70’s Richard Nixon has made a similar appeal to the great American middle, the “silent majority,” the people who supported the Johnson programs until it became clear that they themselves, and not the rich, would have to pay the price in one form or another. Johnson’s poverty program, such as it was, too often pitted blacks against ethnics. Meanwhile the white working class also bore the main burden of school desegregation, while suburban liberals applauded from the sidelines. In addition the working class and the lower-middle class had to suffer the indignity of being called white racists. It is not altogether surprising that the white working class now supports Nixon, though not with much enthusiasm.
The ethnic backlash against the blacks is only one aspect of what has been called, perhaps too sweepingly, a cultural civil war. There is also a Jewish backlash, compounded of the bitter aftermath of the New York teachers’ strike, fears of a black-Wasp alliance, and reaction to loose pro-Arab rhetoric on the New Left. Beyond that, there is a generalized, ill-defined revulsion against “permissiveness.” This revulsion is widespread; it is confined to no single class or ethnic group. A vague sense that things are out of joint, that values and standards are collapsing, that respect for authority has declined, troubles people at almost every social level.
Because the Left has only ridiculed these fears, those who are troubled by the growing disorder they see around them turn to the Right, which promises to restore order even though in reality it has no idea of how to do so. The Left has nothing to offer except an extension of the meaningless personal freedom Americans already enjoy or are in the process of acquiring, the freedom to do your own thing. (What a rich social vision this threadbare slogan implies!) The Left is unable to understand the validity of the demand that authority speak authoritatively, that standards be upheld, that people be held to responsibilities beyond those of pleasing themselves, that work be respected, that life be regarded as a serious business and not as an endless series of experiments with “alternate life-styles.” The Left sees in these demands—which are imperfectly but insistently manifested in the malaise of Middle America—only the death-throes of a discredited work ethic, an outmoded “middle-class morality.” Accordingly the Left finds it impossible to understand the revulsion produced by the Democratic convention and by the McGovern campaign, seemingly a proliferation of new, anarchic, undisciplined “life-styles.”
Nixon is riding high on the crest of this revulsion. An opportunist, a charlatan, a politician who has no idea what is wrong and no idea of how to right it, he nevertheless appears to take seriously the old values, the cultural distress of the common people. To be sure, he upholds these values in their crudest form and appeals to all that is meanest in the American character. Those who won’t work can expect no more “handouts.” Those who break the law must pay the price. The work ethic must and shall be restored (by the sheer force of Presidential preaching, no doubt). Thin, poor stuff. But to many people it is some satisfaction, after the turmoil and anxiety of the past decade, to hear the President defend the old ways without embarrassment, especially when his hearers are themselves uncertain about the value of patriotism, hard work, and other such austere virtues.
To say that Nixon is leading a counterrevolution or even that he is leading an attack on the welfare state gives him too much credit for leadership. Nixon is adhering to a time-honored strategy of Republican non-rule, following the line of least resistance. Republicans figure that while Americans periodically become excited over a New Deal or a Fair Deal, what they really understand is a business deal—a wheat deal, an I.T.T. deal, a deal with the Chinese, a deal with the Russians. Wheeling and dealing, Nixon keeps his friends happy and his enemies off balance. Meanwhile inflation soars, the cities stagnate, crime continues, a staggering load of unsolved problems accumulates—and the administration assures everybody that all these problems are being solved through its own vigorous action. It announced recently that the urban problem had been solved. This news will surprise and doubtless gratify those who live in cities.
The Democrats, divided and bewildered, are reduced to making an issue of aid to North Vietnam. They too now appeal to the worst in their constituents.
Nixon has no economic or social policy, no policy at all except to reduce federal spending (defense spending excepted, of course), to crack down on the press, to prevent public or Congressional examination of executive policy, and to punish “lawbreakers.” The most imaginative act of his administration is the attempt to make “theft” of federal secrets a crime in the absence of the faintest legislative authorization for such a policy. If the courts uphold this interpretation in the Ellsberg case, the federal executive will have gone a long way toward making its actions completely immune to scrutiny or criticism. Favoritism, touching solicitude for the plight of the rich, suppression of criticism—these are the Nixon “policies,” the policies also of his Republican predecessors. Peace, prosperity, and petulance.
If there is a counterrevolution in progress, it is a cultural counterrevolution. Nixon’s real ambitions, it is clear, lie in the direction of moral leadership. He loves to address the nation on such questions as amnesty, an issue tailor-made to his purposes. Nixon was trained as a lawyer, as he rarely fails to remind us, and knows that amnesty means, literally, forgiveness. (Never mind that it means legal forgetting. Who can explain this distinction to people who have been taught since childhood to “forgive and forget”?) The President asks: Can we forgive those who have deserted their country in its hour of need? Those who rallied to the colors, the parents of those who rallied to the colors, the parents of the war dead—how can they in particular forgive those who betrayed their country? The deserters broke the law and must take the consequences. You can’t get something for nothing. The draft-dodgers, the welfare bums, the radicals, have in common that they all demand something for nothing. They act as if society owed them a living. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Nixon has recently reminded us, borrowing the rhetoric of the New Frontier if not its celebrated “style.”
Since this kind of language, echoed by many lesser orators, seems to be finding a ready public response, it is tempting to conclude that a resurgence of old-fashioned values is in progress. But this is to misinterpret the nature of the backlash. Traumatized by the events of the 60’s, the public dotes on the old slogans, but few people believe them. Most of us now believe that it is a very good thing to get something for nothing. Indeed we believe, not without reason, that getting something for nothing is the key to success. We know that hard work is very likely to be its own, indeed its only reward, and we avoid work accordingly. We admire gamblers and con men; that is why we admire, grudgingly, Nixon.
The brutalizing effect of the war, the collapse of authority, the decline of public order and safety, Presidential lies, the increasingly obvious cynicism of the rich and powerful, have made Americans today cynical about everything. Everyone is presumed to be on the make, everyone is out for himself, everybody lies. The other side of this cynicism is nostalgia. People cast a sentimental eye on the old days. Nixon appeals to this nostalgia with his empty talk of the work ethic, even as he embodies the rampant cynicism, the total insincerity of our culture: truly a leader for our times.
Ever since the Second World War, international politics has presented itself as a struggle between socialism and the “free world.” After 1945 national rivalries within the “free world” were swallowed up in the struggle against Communism. The capitalist powers appeared to have achieved an unprecedented unity; wars between capitalist powers seemed as much a thing of the past as major depressions. These appearances contributed to the larger illusion that we had entered “a new era.”
Today rivalry among capitalist powers is once again on the rise. Western Europe and Japan are challenging American economic supremacy. Sluggish, weakened by war and inflation, the American economy is highly vulnerable to this competition, both at home and abroad. The political structures of international capitalist unity have collapsed. Neither Western Europe nor Japan depends on American arms to defend itself against Communism. Far from regarding Communism as a threat, they have instituted closer diplomatic and economic relations with the Communist powers—an example the United States has now rather belatedly followed.
In this highly unstable situation, in which conflict between capitalist powers has become even more threatening than conflict between capitalism and Communism, both the economic and political power of the United States has been vastly reduced. The Vietnam war will appear in retrospect as marking—and as partially responsible for—the end of a brief era of American supremacy. Many of the current troubles derive from the loss of this supremacy and from desperate efforts to recover it. An extended economic analysis would show in detail that the very measures necessary to improve the competitive position of the United States vis-à-vis the economies of Western Europe and Japan intensify the domestic difficulties that are so alarmingly accumulating. In general, it is obvious that the competitive disadvantages of American corporations cannot be reduced without lowering the standard of living of the American working class, either through attempts to speed up production—already in effect in many plants—through direct attacks on wages, or through increased automation. Until recently the technological superiority of American industry and the advantages of large-scale production compensated for the wage differential between American workers and workers in other industrial countries, but American industry is no longer more productive than or technically superior to its chief competitors. Any attempt to recapture its technical supremacy would place still greater burdens on the state, which has had to assume most of the costs of the research, development, and technical training on which technological advances in industry depend. This “socialization of the indirect costs of production” has already contributed, along with enormous military expenditures, to the well-known disparity between the public and private sectors and to the collapse of public services, and it appears unlikely, therefore, that the state can continue these indirect subsidies to American industry without further impoverishing itself or, on the other hand, without taxing the corporations—in which case the subsidies would cease to be subsidies.
A truly “sound program in the area of social policy,” it appears, would have to rest on measures completely opposed to those favored by the corporations and, it must be confessed, by the majority of American voters at this time. Even the minimal goals to which most Americans are nominally committed—greater equality, security, etc.—cannot be accomplished by traditional liberal methods: this becomes clearer every day. The defense of the American system of “free” enterprise is no longer consistent, if it ever was, with the ideal of a humane society based on equality, freedom, and justice. As the quality of life deteriorates, the truth of this simple proposition will be generally acknowledged; the question is whether this recognition will come too late to arrest the spread of authoritarianism into every sphere of American life—for the collapse of legitimate authority will be resolved either by attacking the problem at its roots or by forcibly imposing authority, by institutionalizing official violence.
A sound social policy should adopt as minimal goals the reduction of defense spending, equalization of incomes, free medical care, a subsidized system of mass transportation, and political reforms designed to curb the power of the executive branch of the federal government. This is hardly a very sweeping program, but it would go some distance toward easing the plight of the cities and the desperate people living in them, and toward restoring a measure of political democracy. Since the current difficulties are cultural as much as they are political, any merely political program, even a much more ambitious program than this, is inadequate to the present conditions. Social reform designed to make our cities inhabitable is, however, indispensable; and even the modest program I suggest will encounter fierce resistance. In the light of recent experience, there is certainly no reason to be excessively optimistic about the prospects for any program of reform.
1) In a great legislative explosion, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society sought simultaneously and quickly to cure poverty, revitalize urban life, achieve racial equality, beautify the environment, equalize educational opportunity, redistribute political power, and liberate all groups in search of liberation. In its brief period of glory, circa 1964-65, Great Society programs enlisted shifting coalitions of Washington bureaucrats, university intellectuals, black and other organized minorities, and businessmen in alert search of new markets for educational hardware, medical supplies, and job-training services.
Large goals invite disappointment. Between 1965 and 1973, the number of poor people has diminished, but the principal explanation appears to be economic expansion rather than the strivings of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Moreover, as Daniel P. Moynihan and others have emphasized, the black middle class has flourished to the degree that little distinguishes the economic performance of young black middle-class couples from their white counterparts. Nevertheless, the condition of the cities is not reassuring, least of all to their residents. Even economic expansion does not suffice to alleviate the problem of welfare dependency and the continuing destruction of whole sections of the inner cities. Even for white liberals, the fear of crime threatens to overwhelm social altruism and increase the political attractiveness of local candidates like Mario Biaggi in New York.
The most obvious sign of the Great Society’s failure is the weakness of general and Congressional resistance to present administration designs on the categorical-grant social programs. If Congress ultimately accepts special revenue sharing, its motive will probably be a reading of low public esteem for present arrangements. Current reassessments often make glum reading. Housing subsidy programs have been dreadfully administered and better adapted to the financial interests of builders and developers than to the needs of low- and moderate-income tenants. Manpower-training efforts have from the outset been misconceived: the necessary complement of appropriate public service jobs has never been forthcoming. Title I poverty education grants were often misused and, in any case, spread far too thinly to do much good. And so on.
A reasonable plea in mitigation is of course readily available. Most of these experiments were underfunded. Very little time has elapsed since the major statutes were enacted, too little to render final judgments. Great Society programs were compelled to compete for public attention and Congressional energy with the continuing national tragedy of Vietnam. Wars are notoriously hostile to social reform. The explanations do not disguise the social condition that for reasons good and bad the Great Society does not command general popular favor.
In part, however, this requiem mass for the dear departed is premature. Of the untidy collage of service, income maintenance, tax, and political strategies involved in the Great Society, one at least has a fair claim to durable impact. This is the legal transformation, the rights revolution, accomplished by an effective combination of legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and legal services ingenuity. In the South the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has substantially increased black voting participation and led to the election of rising numbers of black mayors, sheriffs, legislators, and Congressmen even in recalcitrant states like Alabama and Mississippi. The new law generated by successful class-action proceedings has considerably enlarged the rights of welfare recipients, public-housing tenants, migrants, and women, and correspondingly narrowed the discretionary powers of housing and welfare bureaucracies. Even though the future of legal services is clouded and a more conservative Supreme Court looks with diminished favor on imaginative readings of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is unlikely that the courts will take away these recently acquired rights of hearing and appeal.
There is a related point. In all probability, White House plans to terminate Community Action and dismantle Economic Opportunity will succeed. All the same, Community Action has probably led to such lasting consequences as the development of new black leaders and the opening of opportunities for paraprofessionals who in New York City have secured effective union advocates. What works in the long run is political power. Even though the Nixon administration is neither beholden to the black community nor particularly sympathetic to its aspirations, the impetus to black political organization given by the Great Society is likely in a more promising post-Nixon national administration to produce both legislative and administrative benefits.
A final word. Viewed from the Left, the Great Society was always a highly precarious enterprise, founded on a fragile combination of service and income benefits for the poor and tax reduction for the community at large. Its triumphs were matters less of national yearning for social change and a more just distribution of income and wealth than of a division of the spoils of economic growth between winners and losers in American economic competition. Once expansion slowed and foreign commitments expanded, the soothing era of annual tax reduction and enjoyable skirmishes against poverty came to an abrupt halt. No one can say with confidence how in the absence of Vietnam the Great Society would have fared. It is certainly accurate to note that the Vietnam escalation diverted money and moral energy from domestic affairs, required tax increases in place of tax benefits, and dissolved the momentary harmony of interest between the poor and the prosperous which for a historic moment in the mid-1960’s had aroused great expectations.
2) President Nixon has constructed the most coherent conservative program in recent memory. In all seriousness, I think that his critics, themselves in serious intellectual disarray, ought to thank Mr. Nixon for organizing their thoughts and energies at least in opposition.
Premised on the psychological proposition that most people prefer to define themselves as successful rather than unsuccessful, the Nixon appeal is to the self-interest of the reasonably prosperous. His now famous rephrasing of the Kennedy inaugural slogan to read “In our own lives, let each of us ask not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself” is a poultice to the conscience of men and women, tired of social strife, and eager to pursue private gain in peace.
As a design, the White House legislative program incorporates five internally consistent propositions:
- It is a far, far better thing to curtail non-defense federal spending than it is to increase personal or corporate income taxes, close tax loopholes, or raise inheritance and gift levies, for the sufficient reason that private spending is socially more useful and individually more rewarding than government spending.
- If taxes are changed at all, it should be in the direction of still less progression. Low progressive personal and corporate tax rates encourage investment and innovation upon which rising standards of living depend. The weak and feckless will learn to walk more quickly on their own feet if they are encouraged to discard the crutches which the Great Society specialized in fabricating. Heavier federal reliance upon regressive payroll taxes to finance social benefits is a good idea because the practical impossibility of greatly increasing these taxes imposes a useful lid on foolish public altruism.
- In general, social spending should be diverted from urban and rural low-income beneficiaries for whom it has failed to do much good, toward suburbanites and pensioners, away from the morally suspect to the morally worthy.
- It is accordingly essential to dissolve alliances as old as the New Deal between federal agencies and their black, urban, and welfare clients. The categorical grants must go because they are the fiscal fruits of these alliances. As the importance of OEO and the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor diminishes either because of curtailment of funds or administrative reorganization, the power of the President and of elected local officials correspondingly expands. This is the crucial political implication of special revenue sharing. The legislation allows but crucially fails to compel local governments to continue existing social programs.
- In short, the President proposes to substitute local goals and program preferences for the painfully evolved national criteria of the federal agencies. Since city halls and state capitols are considerably more responsive to conservative and local business pressures than Congressmen and government regulators, the outlook under special revenue sharing is desperate for the future of federal programs targeted to racial minorities, inner cities, and poverty groups.
The President’s politics are as astute as his code message to the majority is clear. If blacks, welfare mothers, and other idle loafers lose much of the little they now derive from the public trough, so much the more will be available for self-respecting practitioners of the work ethic like thee and me. Furthermore, once they have come to think a bit, the mayors and the governors will still their childish clamor over reduced categorical assistance and come to realize just how politically profitable special revenue sharing contains the potential to become. Services to the prosperous and the politically important can be increased while, conceivably, property taxes are actually reduced.
The name of the game is fragmentation of old alliances among blacks, liberal intellectuals, unionists, and the Democratic party. In the context of the President’s domestic scheme, some unionists gain and others lose. Prosperous building tradesmen and other blue-collar suburbanites are conspicuously included in the appeals to the middle class. The losers are likely to be relatively low-paid and vulnerable members of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, Leon Davis’s Local 1199, and Victor Gotbaum’s District 37 which depend either upon publicly supported government jobs, continued flows of Washington money to hospitals, or the indulgence of the Department of Labor. President Nixon’s payoff to George Meany for AFL-CIO benign neutrality during the Presidential season was the lifting of Phase II controls and the issuance to the powerful unions of hunting licenses for better 1973 contract gains than the old Pay Board could have sanctioned.
There is no place in the New Order for a Family Assistance Plan, although once this scheme was proclaimed by Mr. Nixon as the centerpiece of a New American Revolution. Property tax relief is also postponed or jettisoned. And in the interests of price stability and labor discipline, the Kennedy-Johnson 4-per-cent unemployment target is discarded. As the 1973 Economic Report charmingly explains:
When the condition that persons who want work can find it through serious search is met, the rate of unemployment as we measure it will not be zero. What it would be we do not know. Undoubtedly the number would change from time to time. But it is the condition which is important, not the statistic.
Nixon’s plans pose several threats to the employment of the poor. As Title I school funds, Model Cities, and Community Action diminish or disappear, paraprofessional job openings will decrease. If Congress ratifies the President’s phasing out of the Emergency Employment Act, 150,000 public jobs will disappear. And, as usual, acceptance of higher general unemployment penalizes most severely low-income, sketchily credentialed blacks, women, and teen-agers. An unemployment average of 5 per cent translates into 10 per cent black and 15-20 per cent teen-age idleness.
The Nixon thrust eliminates some social expenditure and redirects the remainder away from Washington agencies which have developed sympathies and alliances with their clients toward cities and states which are likely to spend the available money on their own working- and middle-class members. As an object of special national concern, blacks and poor people are to be dismissed. More money for general community services is to come from money now spent on compensatory education, regional mental-health centers, neighborhood health clinics, and other benefits which are currently means- or income-tested.
Counterrevolution is possibly a pretentious term. Still, the Nixon redesign of the federal social effort does reverse forty years of liberal effort to broaden the scope of social protection to include the very neediest and most vulnerable. The predictable consequence of the substitution of special revenue sharing for categorical grants will be to narrow the benefits available to low-income persons and enlarge those which flow to middle- and upper-income groups. As the political scenario is played out in the current Congressional session, it will become clearer whether or not this consequence of their choice is what the voters had in mind last November.
3) Democratic societies pass through conservative periods. Many have suggested that Mr. Nixon’s landslide was enlarged by uneasiness over the prospect of “radical” alterations of familiar arrangements threatened by Senator McGovern. In conservative times, liberals, radicals, and egalitarians cannot sensibly anticipate that much of what they cherish will come to fruition. Allying themselves with the current suspicion of change, liberals and radicals would do better to try to preserve what can and should be preserved of recent social advances. In the immediate future, this ought not include last-gasp defense of farm subsidies (which raise urban food prices mostly for the benefit of large farmers and agri-corporations), unyielding support of housing subsidy programs without substantial reform, or insistence on all aspects of present versions of manpower training and health-care delivery systems.
The more feasible strategies focus on jobs and legal rights. A unifying rather than a divisive objective, full employment is also the most effective of anti-poverty programs. Thus during three Eisenhower recessions, the ratio of non-white to white income dropped from 57 to 51 per cent. According to a 1965 OEO study, a decline in unemployment from 5.4 per cent to 3.5 per cent generated 1,042,000 full-time positions for low-income workers and lifted 1,811,000 persons above the poverty line. A challenge to the administration on full employment is the sort of issue upon which blacks, liberal intellectuals, and the AFL-CIO can agree.
Of the Great Society programs, legal services, by general concession, has been the most successful. The preservation of the program in some form has been endorsed even by the American Bar Association. It is hard for Americans to oppose the extension to everybody of constitutional guarantees. Even if the legal-services program which emerges from the present uncertainty is less innovative than the poverty lawyers of the 1960’s, it will be a valuable symbol of the continuity of some aspects of the Great Society’s commitment to equal protection and due process.
It may be politically feasible to revive a more generous and less coercive version of the Family Assistance Plan, although here the President may have read the entrails accurately in discarding the idea. In sum, there are non-quixotic battles to be waged at least on the legal and job fronts and possibly on the income-maintenance front as well. Partly because of their own deficiencies, there is less hope of saving the service programs and least of all to be anticipated are tax strategies calculated to diminish the shelters now available to the affluent.
In the longer run, a program for a 1976 Democratic restoration begins with the mustering in a single army of the troops which kept Democrats in national office most of the last four decades. The emphasis ought to be on unifying issues, among them health, jobs, transportation, occupational safety, product protection, and sensible anti-pollution.
In the still longer run, the looming issue is whether political democracy and plutocracy are compatible. Those who like myself answer in the negative necessarily advocate redistribution of income and wealth. The tools are available if the will is present: permanent controls over prices and profits, serious taxation of gifts and inheritance, and increased reliance upon progressive imposts upon personal and business income. Extremes of poverty and affluence occasion social envy, auction public office, poison the channels of public communication, and damage the fellow feeling upon which viable, libertarian societies depend.
Here there is a small paradox. “Radical” egalitarianism is less open to technical criticism on efficiency grounds than are liberal service experiments. Egalitarianism is defensible not on the ground that it is more “efficient” but on the argument that it is ethically and politically preferable to the available alternatives. One can discredit a program of compensatory education or job training by familiar computation of costs and benefits. Equality of condition as well as equality of opportunity are moral valuations challengeable only by those who are attached to opposing valuations.
1) Did the Great, Society fail? One need only examine the substantial progress blacks have made during the past decade, both in terms of securing their constitutional rights and in narrowing the economic gap between the races, to understand why the answer to this question must be an emphatic “no.”
Let me make it clear that I by no means celebrate the Great Society as totally successful; government was in fact guilty of promising more than it could deliver and of raising the aspirations of the poor to heights that could not be fulfilled, given the political realities. But acknowledging its shortcomings is quite a different thing from dismissing the programs of the Johnson era as outright, though well intended, failures. The truth is that the poor have benefited from these programs; that government bureaucracy has been reformed, in the sense that serving the needs of the poor has become an essential function of the bureaucracy; and that, for the first time since the New Deal, the direction of social policy has been determined by a commitment to the principle of equality.
What, then, brought about the gap between promise and performance? I think there were three broad, fundamental weaknesses in the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty strategy which substantially reduced its effectiveness. First, the objectives were short-sighted, with an emphasis on providing services; a more effective strategy would have had more ambitious and permanent goals, such as a guaranteed annual income for the poor. Second, the administration devoted a good deal of effort to programs which sought to correct the political powerlessness of minorities, at the expense of attacking, head on, the economic roots of inequality. (I am referring here to Community Action programs and, not, obviously, to the Voting Rights Act.) And, finally, a most serious weakness was the enormous under-financing of the majority of programs.
The consequences of under-financing were crucial; in some cases, the lack of financial commitment has paved the way for President Nixon’s current campaign to discredit liberal social formulas. As Leon Keyserling has demonstrated in his analysis of the federal program to provide decent housing for the poor, the refusal to provide massive financial aid can undercut an entire social program:
The reason why the federal effort to rehouse low income families “failed” is that it has not been tried, except in token form. An annual building program averaging one-twentieth of the annual need has inevitably raised almost as many problems as it has solved. It has tended to make “poor houses” of the public projects. It has permitted the slums to remain in full force. It has perpetrated one of the most dangerous of all social errors, to offer promises rather than performance.
By citing Keyserling, I am not proclaiming, as some on the Left have, that the failure of this or that Great Society program invalidates the traditional objectives of liberal social policy. Keyserling himself observes that the federal housing program has done an “immense amount of good.” Between 1960 and 1970, the percentage of metropolitan-area black families occupying housing with inadequate plumbing facilities declined from 24 per cent to 7 per cent. While this can be traced, in part, to the general improvement in the economic status of blacks, it must certainly be a partial result of the expansion of public-housing projects, programs of apartment rehabilitation launched under federal aegis, and reforms of the discriminatory policies of government-assisted housing-finance agencies—all of which were a part of the much maligned Great Society housing effort.
And while the services approach contributed to the haphazardness of federal social programs, wherever the services provided were those basic to the day-to-day experience of the poor, much good was accomplished. The reduction in the educational gap between the races is a good illustration of this. Recent statistics indicate that black high-school graduates are enrolling in college in roughly the same proportion as their white classmates. The dropout rate has also been substanitally reduced. The average black youngster today has completed twelve years of schooling; in 1960, only 36 per cent of non-white males and 41 per cent of non-white females had completed four years of high school. I consider it inconceivable that the educational programs of the Johnson years did not have something to do with the dramatic improvement.
2) Is Richard Nixon, then, waging a “counterrevolution” against Johnson’s liberal social policy? I think the answer must be “yes.” The implications of the “New Federalism” are of a fundamental departure from the basic relationship between government and those whose interests are served by social progress, a relationship that has been a cornerstone of liberal doctrine.
The current budget contains but an inkling of the massive transformation of government functioning which I see as the ultimate Nixon objective. Nixon seeks, first, to institutionalize the philosophy that liberal social change is unworkable and that the federal government’s role should therefore be reduced to that of caretaker, reacting, perhaps, only in crisis situations. Second, Nixon hopes to reinforce the preeminent position business enjoys among the forces striving to dominate the formulation of government policy. While this has been a traditional function of Republican administrations, Nixon’s approach is more calculated than that of his GOP predecessors.
It is this commitment to business interests that has produced the massive public-relations campaign to discredit the Great Society, that has impelled Nixon to appoint those with corporate backgrounds to a high percentage of policymaking posts, and that has caused him to refuse to countenance tax reforms. It has even influenced the administration’s approach to minority advancement: black capitalism, a scheme which the President has wholeheartedly endorsed, has proved as ineffective as any program which the administration proposes to cut back. Yet, precisely because it appeals to such a narrow constituency—there are, after all, few black capitalists—and therefore raises few expectations, it has a stabilizing effect which broad social-spending programs do not.
The most “revolutionary” aspect of the New Federalism, and also the most ominous, is the transfer of spending powers from Washington to the states and municipalities. The implications of the revenue-sharing concept cut much deeper than the specifics of the budget cutbacks. For while Nixon may refer to what he is doing as decentralization, local autonomy, or whatever, I propose that he is really paving the way for a renaissance of a familiar tactic—a new States’ Rights manifesto.
This is not to suggest that Nixon seeks the reintroduction of Jim Crow, although the abrupt dismissal of Father Hesburgh as chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, the handling of Supreme Court appointments, and the efforts to emasculate the Voting Rights Act are indicative of Nixon’s lack of regard for the issues which the civil-rights movement saw as basic. But by handing over to local authorities the responsibility for spending policies, Nixon has at one stroke enhanced the power of those who have been the least able to respond to the need for social change.
This is why I find the widespread favorable response of liberals to the principles of revenue sharing unsettling. The civil-rights movement, it should be kept in mind, did not succeed simply in extending the rights of minorities; it was also largely responsible for discrediting the principle of states’ rights as applied to a broad range of policy questions. The movement taught us that the states and cities could not respond to the social needs of the poor and disadvantaged; eventually, this idea began to be reflected in basic government policy. It appeared that the liberal ideal of a strong, socially responsible federal government was about to be realized.
At this juncture, acceptance of the revenue-sharing philosophy could have profound consequences. There exists, for example, a genuine housing crisis in the ghettos, a crisis that will only be exacerbated by the moratorium on housing programs imposed by the administration. If, as seems likely, the responsibility for determining urban-development priorities is handed over to the mayors, there is little likelihood that those areas which most critically need help will see much of that money. What we may in fact witness is a revival of the urban-renewal policies of the past, with high-rise luxury apartments going up amid the slums.
The Left bears substantial responsibility for this situation. Decentralization has become attractive at least partially because of those who have decried the powers of Washington while insisting, from a leftward vision, that the fundamental task is bringing government “closer to the people.” Among whites, this attitude permeated the New Left and ran strongly among the reformers who dominated the McGovern campaign. For blacks, it was reflected in the emphasis on “nation building” at the expense of broad strategies for social change.
The antagonism to government which has sprung up among liberals is also to be found in the criticism of what is often referred to as the “distant and unresponsive” bureaucracy. Such criticism does not take into account the often progressive role played by the federal bureaucracy during the Johnson administration. It was a bureaucracy which compelled reluctant school boards to use funds for compensatory education programs for the low-income pupils for whom such money was intended. At the same time the Department of Housing and Urban Development began to insist that—regardless of real-estate and other interests—urban-renewal projects were to include provisions for low-income housing as well as middle-income housing and that relocation programs be carried out in a more equitable manner. HUD thus assured that these projects would serve as instruments for social progress.
3) Considering the current state of affairs, the question of what constitutes the limits of social policy I find irrelevant. The issue is not an academic debate over whether we have reached the outer boundaries of orderly liberal change; we have not even succeeded in achieving the modest goals of the Great Society.
Nor is the problem, as some would have it, that the Great Society attempted too much; on the contrary, it did not go far enough, and, more to the point, it employed strategies that, from both political and policy standpoints, were often counterproductive.
Nothing that has transpired in the past decade has led me to conclude that we cannot achieve massive, fundamental change or that such change cannot come about in a democratic and orderly fashion. The specifics of what might constitute a truly progressive program were spelled out in 1966, when A. Philip Randolph proposed the “Freedom Budget.” The Budget outlines a plan for social reform that would accomplish the following:
Provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able; assure decent and adequate wages to all who work; assure a decent standard for those who cannot or should not work; wipe out slums and ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans; provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities for all Americans, at a cost all can afford; purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs.
While its scope is massive, such a program should not be labeled utopian. It can be achieved precisely because it is broad enough to deal with the political problems which plagued the Great Society and which, during the Nixon administration, have been magnified by the administration’s economics of scarcity. The basic thrust of the “Freedom Budget” is a full-employment, full-production economy, and a program of fundamental tax reform, all of which the majority of Americans finds acceptable. It rejects the assumption that social spending must be accompanied by reductions in defense spending. Nor does it accept the current theory that economic growth is incompatible with a humane and progressive society; it rather seeks to stimulate the economy to produce the homes, schools, anti-pollution devices—whatever is necessary to fulfill the basic needs of society.
Today, many people are despairing as to the possibility of implementing any sort of liberal social program. I think these people are mistaken. They are misinterpreting the mood of the electorate after the recent election. To perceive McGovern’s defeat as a repudiation of liberalism is, I submit, a misreading of what the voters were saying, a misreading which could have disastrous consequences. Liberalism was not rejected; the failure of the Republicans to improve their position in Congress demonstrated a continued faith in the traditional principles of liberal economic policy. McGovern’s assertion that he lost because the voters came to see him as the representative of blacks is incorrect; a more accurate interpretation is that McGovern lost because some felt he was speaking only to the needs of minorities. Although McGovern’s tax-reform package was the most radical ever proposed by a Presidential candidate, the candidate who did the proposing had, as a matter of fact, never addressed himself to economic issues during a Senate career. He simply lacked credibility in this area.
Nevertheless, both before and after the election Americans have expressed a continuing faith in liberal economic reform. Public-opinion polls have shown two-thirds of the American voters expressing dissatisfaction with Nixon’s economic policies. A majority feels he is too closely aligned with business. At the same time, national health insurance, tax reform, and other programs that would require basic changes have elicited strong support.
Finally, I do not consider the proposals entailed in the “Freedom Budget” as the final expression of liberal social policy. Beyond the “Freedom Budget,” however, I prefer not to speculate on the direction of sound social policy. I consider such speculation, at the time when we are so far from the basic goals for a decent society, as gratuitous as to theorize over whether we have reached the limits of social change.
The Great Society of President Johnson was an extension of the New Deal, as were Truman’s Fair Deal and Kennedy’s New Frontier. The Nixon era—as it begins to emerge in his second term—is a reversion to the old deal. Although the conflict between “old” and “new” may be simplistically put as the contrast between laissez faire and the welfare state, these labels are—at best—just code names for more complex and concealed differences.
The welfare state rested on four tacit theorems: first, government can—and should—play an active role in bringing about social change. Second, the prime political push has to come from the federal government. Third, a basic commitment of federal government is to full employment, to be realized by expanding aggregate demand. Fourth, there has to be public investment to provide people with those services that would otherwise be out of their reach—even if they have jobs at reasonable pay.
None of the Democratic Presidents has been able to hold unswervingly to these dicta, without making concessions to passing pressures. But the general direction has been the use of federal initiative and intervention in the economic life of the nation to “promote the general welfare.”
On all counts, Nixon acts on assumptions contrary to those of the New Deal. First, the government can do little to effectuate social change. Second, the “muscle-bound” federal government should turn over initiative and responsibility to “grass-roots governments” at the local level. Third, full employment is not a cardinal commitment, and, if the economy needs a lift, the encouragement should come not by increasing-labor’s buying power but by enlarging capital’s investing power. Fourth, government—especially federal government—should get out of the business of providing “services” and ought to let people “buy” what they need in the open market.
While Nixon, like his Democratic forerunners, has had to adjust policy to political necessities (Phase I and Phase II being dramatic examples), the thrust of his administration, especially in the second term, is toward the pre-Rooseveltian precept of “rugged individualism.”
Ironically, Democratic policies were far less ideologically motivated than are current Nixon programs. Roosevelt and his successors invented ad hoc answers to crying questions. Nixon is trying to apply a theory out of the 19th century—that government is best which governs least—to the challenges of the late 20th century.
Will this work? I don’t think so—if anything can be learned from past experiences or present exigencies.
The mother of the New Deal invention was necessity. Politics had to step into the economy if the country was not to fall apart. So the government acted, doing all those things that private enterprise could not do (too fragmented) and would not do (no profit in it). As a consequence of these Rooseveltian initiatives, continued by his successors, profound and enduring social changes took place in America: mainly, an economic lift that restored the national spirit.
While it is customary to describe this transition as a shift from laissez faire to the welfare state, such a definition is unduly simplistic. The government has always had a big hand in the economy, from the Colonies to Coolidge. British kings (government) made land grants to favorites who converted their real estate into private preserves for self-enrichment. Hamilton pushed successfully for national policies to foster business. After the War of 1812, the government wrote tariffs to protect infant industries. Commercial monopolies, such as the Bank of the U.S., were chartered by the government. Private corporations were subsidized to build and run highways, canals, and railroads. Federal troops broke strikes; courts handed out labor injunctions; public properties were “given away” to the politically influential; sales taxes were enacted to soak the poor and loopholes were contrived to exempt the rich; corporations bought judges, legislators, governors, Senators, because they knew the economic power of politics.
The New Deal was not really the beginning of governmental intervention in the economy. But it was the first continuing program of government on behalf of the unempowered against an Establishment that used the mouthings of laissez faire to make certain that “government of the people” would not be “for the people.” Bluntly—laissez faire as a practice never existed. The real question has always been: on whose side shall the government intervene? Prior to Roosevelt, the government had—by and large—been the “executive committee of the ruling class.” After Roosevelt, the common man put a few of his people on the committee.
The grand lever of the liberal era has been the federal government—again not because of any ideological enchantment with Washington but because of the total incapacity of state and local government to cope with the complexities of a metro-industrial society. The states were not inclined to act because their legislatures had been districted and apportioned to maintain a rural regnancy for eternity. This control of states by the 18th-century mind meant (a) they would not respond to 20th-century urban problems; and (b) the states would not give their cities the power to do so. The few states that did respond somewhat—like New York and Wisconsin—did so at a high risk: factories and finance would flee the “better” states for the bad states, where they could get bargain rates on labor and taxes. The life-and-death crisis of the society—the great Depression—arose from the total system, nationwide, and could not be resolved locally—no matter how much Hoover exhorted folks to organize “block aid” to help a distressed neighbor.
The federal impetus stimulated the growth of positive social action at the state and local level. While the number of federal employees has been almost constant (between 2.2 and 2.4 million), the number of state, county, and municipal employees has risen from 4.6 million (1955) to 10.5 million (1970). Federal funds to cities have liberated them from the stultifying shackles of state legislatures. The “better” states have found it easier to move ahead because standards in the “bad” states have been elevated by federal action. Whole new categories of social action have been opened as the federal government has moved funds to lower levels for housing, hospitals, education, mental health, nurseries, research, transportation, law enforcement, senior citizens, youth activities, job training, Headstart, sewage treatment, outreach programs, etc. It was federal initiative and funds that vitalized state and local government.
The heart of these policies was full employment, to be obtained by increasing the buying power of “the people.” This was done by work and make-work projects, federal minimum wages, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, aid to the blind and handicapped and dependent children, and—the encouragement of collective bargaining. While all the Democratic Presidents, in greater or lesser measure, also made government funds directly available to business enterprises, they assumed that “trickle down” was a far less effective way to stimulate the economy than “perk up.” In due time, this “aggregate demand” was significantly “expanded” by direct public spending (investment) in necessary social efforts.
Public investments, like the rest of the liberal program, was born out of need. Once people got jobs and made some money, they were still left with unmet needs: schools for the children, homes for the aged, hospitals for the sick, medical attention for the family, day-care centers for children of working parents—to name a few examples. These services could, of course, all be bought on the open market—if you could afford it. But most low- and middle-income families could not, since such services were not available at budget prices from entrepreneurs motivated by profits. To meet these unmet social needs, the government went into the business of housing, education, day care, Medicare, Medicaid, mental health, rural electrification—either directly or indirectly. The “services” strategy became a necessary part of the “income strategy.”
By the 1960’s, it was sensed that even “full employment” was inadequate. There was a large chunk of America—black and white—that had been so crippled by its past that it could not function in an urban society, whether as workers, parents, students, or law-abiding citizens. To leave these families to themselves would perpetuate the poverty cycle. Hence, government had to lend a helping hand: to acculturate new generations, to train for jobs, to prepare for education, to foster a self-image of worth and dignity. This was an attempt to undo the damage of decades and generations and to do so quickly with the totally inadequate funds offered by a House of Representatives in the hands of a conservative coalition. A small and hasty start was made with consequences that can only be measured decades and generations later. But the first daring dangerous step was made in the long journey out of night.
Although I have been hesitant, almost embarrassed, to present this short history of the Democratic purpose from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, I find it necessary to do so to offset the neo-conservative arguments for the current Nixonian doctrines that totally ignore the lessons of our most recent and significant historic experiences. I feel that the liberal progression has provided tools that were valuable in the past and that will be indispensable for the future.
This is not to claim that the application of liberal principles over the last generation has remedied all our social ills: a few were cured; others were checked; some were overlooked. In the last few years, new illnesses developed, the most crucial of which—in my opinion—are the urban crisis, the maldistribution of income, and the environmental peril. In all cases, I believe, these maladies call for a strong dose of governmental medicine at the federal level.
The urban crisis cannot be resolved by the cities in the cities because the mess did not begin in the cities; it began in rural America. In two decades some twenty million dispossessed were driven from soil to city by the contrary policies of increased agricultural productivity and curtailed agricultural production. On a tidal wave of migration, these unacculturated hordes poured into urban America, carrying with them the classic upset of the uprooted, expressed in poverty, dependency, delinquency, crime, and riot—just as in Dickens’s England. To the inevitable conflict was added the ingredient of race, since so much of rural America (the Southeast) was black. The cities were totally unprepared for such an invasion of the “vandals.” The nation was—until quite recently—even unaware of this demographic disaster.
The crisis hit us precisely because there was no national policy on what to do with the agricultural “fall-out”: the new nomads of America. Their inpourings have packed about 75 per cent of the American people into less than 2 per cent of the land area, while half the counties of the nation have been losing population. A rational remedy for this madness has been repeatedly proposed, most recently by a National Commission on Urban Growth Policy, suggesting a redistribution of populations by a reversal of the flow: the creation of some two hundred new communities by the year 2000. The impetus for such a program will never come from the cities or small-town America. The drive—policy, power, funds, plans—must come from Washington. Without such an “inner space” program, New York, Los Angeles, and even Philadelphia may all become just another Calcutta: an urban jungle.
How does one finance such a multi-trillion-dollar project? At present, Uncle Sam does not have the money. But—at present—some $50-60 billion a year is lost to the federal treasury through “loopholes.” The American people are too poor to do many things because the affluence of the nation is outside the reach of the people. There is a top 2 per cent that has annual income equal to the bottom 40 per cent; a top 10 per cent of families has income equal to the bottom 60 per cent. The same top 2 per cent is the beneficiary of the great tax exemptions. So long as the riches of the nation are thus locked up at the top, every decision to redistribute the remaining income becomes a bloody battle among the “tribes” in the lower 80 per cent, especially mean and violent among the bottom 40 per cent.
Despite the New Deal and its progeny, income in the U.S. has not been “redistributed” since the beginning of the century. The reason? Ownership has become—if anything—more concentrated than in the past and—as always—income is a function of income-producing wealth. (A top 1 per cent owns about 75 per cent of the privately-held corporate stocks, 85 per cent of the bonds, and 95 per cent of the municipal bonds.)
To redistribute national income will require radical changes in the system of taxation and/or ownership of income-producing wealth: lands, corporations, financial institutions. Clearly, such policies must flow from a national commitment to restructure the economy. Bedford-Stuyvesant, on its own, cannot redistribute the wealth of America.
In the past, the U.S. has avoided the violent political consequences arising from a gross maldistribution of income primarily because of phenomenal economic growth: the gross national product has grown more rapidly than the population, so that without changing the “shares” (slices of our Great National Pie) there has been a bigger piece for everyone.
Continuation of growth, however, is seriously challenged at present by the “ecology” people who fear the rapid exhaustion of resources like fuel, water, air, usable soil—even living room. Whether these fears are alarmist or well-founded, it is agreed that the nation can no longer go its blithe way unmindful of what happens to our environment and our limited resources. Hence, we need national—perhaps international—policies on ecological problems.
Such policies are necessarily economic and political. Some examples: (a) Much of the GNP is made up of useless or even noxious items that devour valuable, sometimes irreplaceable, resources. The public interest may well require a discouragement (prohibition) of such production while shifting manpower and funding (almost necessarily public) to projects like scrubbing Lake Erie and detoxifying poisoned soil; (b) steps to combat pollution, to restore damaged environments, to ration resources are a cost that must be absorbed by someone: either the consumer, or the worker who must do with a smaller wage, or the corporation that will accept a smaller profit, or the public by taxation. The last (taxation) will, in turn, require political decisions as to who (what class) shall pay the tax.
These challenges can only be met with a series of interlocking policies on population control, new communities, income distribution, fuel, water, air, soil, temperature, transportation, resources. None of these policies is possible—and certainly not possible in gestalt—without an initial decision to have national policies.
The entire Nixonian predisposition is to the contrary: the administration favors little over big government—local over federal, cheap over expensive, weak over strong. This plea for pusillanimity is puffed up grandiloquently as “the New Federalism,” or “the Second American Revolution,” or “grass-roots government,” or “the fulfillment of the American dream.” But as the New York Times put it: “The dream looks remarkably like right-wing nostalgia for the days when individual self reliance and states’ rights were regarded as a sufficient answer for every complex social problem.”
Currently, this retreat from federal social responsibility is paraded as a magnanimous advance to revenue sharing—Uncle Sam being kind to his nieces and nephews. Originally—under its inventor, Democrat Walter Heller—that is exactly what revenue sharing was: a way to use the federal tax power to give more money to local governments for their general purposes. When Congress last year voted a five-year $30-billion plan for revenue sharing, it thought it was giving the cities additional money—over and above what they were getting in categorical aids from the federal government for housing, education, and a wide spectrum of social services. “But things don’t seem to be working out that way,” reports the Wall Street Journal (February 26). “For, right now at least, revenue sharing is promising little revenue and less sharing. . . . The President has decided to use revenue sharing not only as a device for radically altering the way federal money is disbursed to the states and localities but also as a mechanism for dismantling many of the Great Society social-aid programs inherited from the Johnson administration. . . . What’s shaping up is a substantial—in some cases, perhaps, even massive—withdrawal of federal funds from a wide variety of programs.”
The “wide variety” goes far beyond controversial items like Community Action programs. “He [Nixon] is suspending some programs (subsidized housing), terminating others (hospital construction), and impounding funds and sharply reducing spending for still others (manpower training),” reports the Journal. Nixon plans to “withdraw federal money for neighborhood mental clinics, hospital construction, and regional medical programs,” reports the Times on March 5. He is withholding funds for a rural environment program; he is rewriting the rules for day care so that working mothers will not be able to place their children in federally subsidized facilities; he is rewriting the regulations on Medicare to step up the cost by about half a billion dollars to sick seniors. He has announced that he would veto pending bills dealing with such various matters as “flood control and rural electrification . . . airport security and veterans’ burial benefits.” And if the veto is overridden, declared domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman, the President will simply impound the funds. The Nixonian assault is not on a few aberrations of the Johnsonian effort but on as much of the New Deal accomplishments as it dares assail.
One popular rationale for this turnabout is simply that Uncle Sam cannot afford these past luxuries. Explaining Nixon’s pre-announced veto of pending legislation, John Ehrlichman warned that these proposals represented a “$9 billion dagger aimed at the heart of the American taxpayer.”
Can the U.S. Treasury—in this post-Vietnam era—afford this $9 billion? Testifying before Congress, economist Joseph Pechman of the Brookings Institution put it on the record that “if income was more fully taxable and the unnecessary deductions were removed, it would be possible both to reduce taxes and to buy more of the public services that the recent budget suggests we cannot afford.” Stanley Surrey points out that while this administration pleads poverty, it gives away between $50-$60 billion a year in the form of tax exemptions to the rich, a sum that exceeds all other government subsidy, grant, or credit programs and is, in addition, “immune from scrutiny at any time when the regular budget is being carefully scrutinized for every possible savings.”
However erroneous Ehrlichman’s argument may be, it is popular: people don’t want to pay more taxes and they have ready ears for an American Poujadiste. But for how long? In a recent column, John P. Roche offered a prediction: “I’m convinced that after the American people have lived a while with the Nixon Doctrine of ‘the withering away of the state’ they will begin to yearn for the good old days.” Especially—may one add—when they discover that there are ways to get the rich to help pay the bill.
George F. Will:
My Philosophy tutor at Oxford was fond of quoting to me the late J. L. Austin’s remark that he did not want to make philosophy foolproof, he wanted to make it genius-proof. I was never an impediment to Austin’s program, but I understood his point. Philosophic geniuses tend to clutter up the intellectual landscape with portentous, often intriguing, but usually unclear and confusing ideas. Philosophy should be analytic, a solvent, in the sense that it dissolves rather than solves most “philosophic” questions, whatever they might be. The imposing constructions of the most ingenious philosophers tend to evaporate under the scrutiny of reasonable men committed, first and foremost, to clearing up logical muddles. So the rule for genius-proofing philosophy is: do first things first—clarify—and you may find that first things are all you have to do. Of course, clarity is not the sort of philosophic goal that sends men to the barricades, and that is not its only merit. Its principal merit is that it deals competently with the manageable task it prudently sets for itself, the task of tidying up our thought. And it does no harm. Austin’s conception of philosophy might seem unimaginative or timid but, in matters of the mind, there are many virtues on which un-imaginativeness and timidity are improvements.
Not even my tutor’s heroic efforts made me competent to judge whether Austin’s axiom is really sound. But having just spent several years watching the federal government function, I feel competent to advocate a political version of the axiom. We should make government ingeniousness-proof, especially with regard to social policies, and most especially with regard to policies concerning poor people. We have tried ingenious anti-poverty measures, from manpower programs through Community Action, designed to change the nature of poor people. The theory was that if the government gave poor people marketable talents and a feisty, demanding demeanor, they would be able to cope with American life. The government undoubtedly did some good. But the government is better, much better at delivering material goods to particular places—moon rockets, even the mail—than at delivering particular skills and character traits to a segment of the population. So instead of tinkering with their temperaments, the government should content itself with directly improving the economic condition of poor people. The problem with that condition is too little money. So the government should quit decreasing the purchasing power of the money poor people have, and if that does not help enough, it should give them more money. But first things first: the government would improve its performance if it would quit harming the poor, economically.
If America’s poor people were politically organized—or even organizable—and sophisticated and adept, they would be a very odd kind of poor people, and they could compete as just another interest group in the normal scramble for government favors. If poor people were malleable, adjustable, and able easily to acquire marketable new skills, most would not be poor. So if we begin with more realistic expectations for the poor, we will devise less ingenious ways of helping them. And we may actually help them. Certainly we will help them more if we think about them—explicitly about them—less. Some people believe the efficient way to fight poverty is to load “poverty money” into the federal budget. But the effective force in generating such money virtually guarantees that the money will not be an efficient force against poverty. (The bureaucracy gets Congress to appropriate an average of $8,000 for every Oglala Sioux family at Wounded Knee. The average Oglala family income is $1,900 per year.) The best way to help the poor is by provoking the non-poor majority into making some self-interested demands that also help poor people. This will be a very limited war on poverty, waged by indirection and, if not in defiance of public hostility to such a war, at least without asking or receiving explicit support. It will be like Vietnam: an untidy, inconclusive, little war, but the only war possible, given the political mood of the nation.
Politically, “poverty programs”—designed and advertised as “for the poor”—are not popular. Such programs are generally believed to have failed in the 60’s. Given this belief, it is instructive to note that the 60’s saw some of the most significant domestic reform in the nation’s history.
The most important social policies of that decade were not service programs, and did not fail. They addressed facets of the permanent great problem of our nation, and they were stunning successes. One decade ago, in April 1963, “Bull” Connor was a household word: the Birmingham demonstrations were under way. With a little help from Connor, public opinion moved further, faster, in a humane direction than anyone could have anticipated. This was primarily the work of a politically skillful civil-rights movement that identified salient issues, devised clear legislative goals and strategies, and built a constituency and a consensus nationally, thereby enabling the politicians to perform creditably. The leading poverty fighters never did this, in part because they were not related to “their problem” the way the civil-rights leaders were: civil-rights leaders were fighting for their own rights. Historians will record that the most significant legislative landmarks of the decade concerned the distribution of rights, not wealth. They concerned access to voting booths, jobs, barbershops, the Pickrick restaurant. And they were noble achievements. The tendency to ignore them when considering social policy in the 60’s reflects only the pernicious habit of defining institutions and policies by the goals they fail to achieve.
The “failure” of poverty programs is what really interests people, and that is interesting. Such an assessment of poverty programs often involves dubious criteria of failure, and distinctively American social impatience. A significantly smaller percentage of our population lives in poverty today than a decade ago. It is hard (but, in my judgment, not crucial) to know precisely how much credit for this goes to poverty programs. In any case, this improved percentage is not evidence of failure of those programs—unless, of course, one assumes the programs were irrelevant to the improvement; or that the improvement came in spite of a negative net effect of the programs; or that they “failed” because some poverty remains. These are unreasonable assumptions. Reasonable people disagree as to whether poverty programs failed. But today the salient fact is political: most Americans are not much interested in poverty, and not at all interested in poverty programs. The next phase of the attack on poverty must begin by accepting that fact.
To avoid a distracting argument, let us assume the poverty programs “worked,” at least a bit. As Milton Friedman has said of a controlled economy: it works, and so does a horse and buggy. The 1960’s poverty programs were the horse-and-buggy approach to improving the lot of poor people. Because some programs seemed cleverly inventive, they had a certain fascination for many Americans. From Robert Fulton and Eli Whitney through Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, the nation has profited from a series of brilliant strokes of practical intelligence that improved the conditions of living. The spirit of modernity—intelligence is practical; man can cope; problems are tractable, being rooted in past behavior rather than permanent human attributes—that stimulated such inventiveness seemed vindicated by it. True, today some people are obsessed by the utterly unsurprising fact that revolutionary inventions often have disagreeable unanticipated consequences: Whitney’s made slavery pay, Ford’s democratized a polluting activity. But more significant than today’s fashionable resentment of the men who invented our conveniences is the fact that our nation reveres its inventors above all philosophers and most politicians. So it is not surprising in a politicized age that Americans’ social genes make them impatient for benevolent government inventiveness. Perhaps they are encouraged to expect an Edison-like genius from public officials because the Manhattan Project, the Apollo moon program, and the interstate highway program—all dealing in hard goods, and backed by powerful interests—have been the most successful government programs of modern times: they did what they were supposed to do. But no program, least of all a “service” program explicitly “for” poor people, will deal in the kind of things, or be backed by the kind of interests, that enables the government to perform skillfully. And that is why the so-called “human resources” portion of the budget (by far the largest portion, 47 per cent, compared with 30 per cent for defense) is not the place to look for evidence that the government has a serious “program” for helping poor people.
Of course many conspicuous defenders of the poor argue—many sincerely, some cynically—that the quantity of “poverty money” in the federal budget is the most important fact about the relation of poor people to their government. That mistaken notion accounts for some of the over-wrought reaction to the President’s Fiscal Year 1974 budget. The reaction casts doubt on the sobriety of some people who want to command divisions in the next declared war on poverty. The asperity with which they have attacked the new budget suggests the lengths to which they will go to confirm their belief that the President would rather grind the faces of the poor than watch the Superbowl.
In fact, the budget calls for a $13 billion deficit. The President proposes to spend $268.7 billion this year, double what Lyndon Johnson spent in 1966 while escalating wars against poverty and North Vietnam. The President proposes to spend $19 billion (7.5 per cent) more than last year and $22 billion (9 per cent) more than he originally proposed to spend. (This year’s increase is larger than the sum of all the federal budgets from 1789 through 1906.) Last year’s outlays by government at all levels came to nearly 40 per cent of the national income. The increase in outlays in the last five years is equal to 46 per cent of the increase in national income, and if you delete defensive outlays the figure is 45 per cent. As has been said, we are lucky we do not get all the government we pay for.
Some of the programs that people defend against the President’s cuts (e.g., cheap loans for non-poor agriculture interests) are like Pascal’s hare that one would chase all day but would not bother to buy. These people are applying to the federal government the rule Hitler applied to the Wehrmacht in Russia: where it sets its foot, it shall never withdraw. These people (like Hitler, but with less reason) believe that retrenchment will become pell-mell retreat. Also, because there was a time when it was hard to get money for social programs, some people cannot believe that today’s government is awash with systemic pressures for more spending, particularly for existing programs, and especially for programs that are not working (because, their patrons say, they are “insufficiently funded”). Such dogmatic resistance to (non-defense) budget cuts calls to mind a proverb: “When he was young he burned his tongue on the soup, so now he blows on the yogurt.” The federal budget runneth over. Federal spending is increasing faster than economic growth is increasing revenues through the tax system, and virtually the only existing consensus (remember that word from the Great Society salad days?) is that there should be no tax increase.
But for the poor, the budget is not the point. The budget, like the rest of government, is a playground for those who are physically fit, politically. It usually takes organization, leadership, money, and a leavening dash of political moxie to place an item in the budget. Thus one can almost assume that any item for the poor is not just for them, and perhaps not primarily for them. Much of the demand for day-care facilities, and virtually all the effective demand, is from middle-class mothers who look upon the program as a monument to their “right” to have a career outside the home. For the Family Assistance Plan, the President requested, and Congress refused, extra billions for poor people. Jerry Wurf, whose State, County, and Municipal Employees Union includes 30,000 welfare workers, opposed FAP: “This legislation threatens to eliminate the jobs of our people.” Daniel P. Moynihan, FAP’s father, notes with a trace of wonder that the poor “never showed any sign of comprehending the opportunity being offered them, nor of resenting those who in their name rejected this offer.” But what is less surprising than the fact that people who cannot cope with the economic system have not mastered the complexities of the political process?
When President Johnson submitted his Fiscal Year 1969 budget he said $27.7 billion was for all “assistance to help reduce the number of people living on poverty.” Probably a similarly derived figure today would be higher—and just as useless—for measuring the federal government’s effect on poor people. The real effect comes from the myriad measures that influence the size, shape, and vigor of the economy. Many of these measures do not show up in the budget, and of those that do, few are labeled as what they are—subsidies. But they all are part of the evolving American political economy that now deserves to be known as a “subsidy system.” The working of this system is neither arcane nor secret. It is all very public business, aboveboard and on the record, open to the inspection of everyone who heeds Yogi Berra’s epistemological principle: “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
For the purpose of understanding this system it is useful to define a subsidy as direct or indirect government assistance (sometimes but not always monetary) to a private interest to improve the lot of that interest. A subsidy system exists when government adopts a comprehensive (although perhaps unsystematic) use of subsidies to influence the amount and distribution of wealth throughout society. Our subsidy system recently received some attention when the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, chaired by Senator William Proxmire (D., Wis.), claimed that subsidies involved $63 billion in Fiscal Year 1970. As Senator Proxmire says, subsidies are “one of the most controversial, . . . and neglected areas of government activity . . . [and] are the dominant form of government intervention into the incentive structure of particular private markets.”
One reason the subject of subsidies is neglected is that the word “subsidy” does not make many official appearances. Subsidizing usually is done by things called regulations, guidelines, aid, reimbursements, incentives, tax credits, loan guarantees.
Direct intervention in the market, as with agricultural products, is a subsidy.
Regulations that set railroad freight rates are subsidies, as are limitations on truck routes that restrict competition.
Tariffs, import quotas, and export assistances are subsidies.
Licensing and apprenticeship requirements that have the intended effect of restricting entry into a profession are subsidies.
Payments of public funds to induce the production of goods (e.g., Ph.D.’s and museums) or delivery of services (e.g., airline service to small communities) that would not otherwise be produced or delivered are subsidies.
The humanitarian rhetoric used by AFL-CIO lobbyists last year in the effort to increase the minimum wage could not obscure the fact that minimum-wage laws are indirect subsidies for organized labor, which enhance its general negotiating position by forcing up the base wage. The fact that every increase in the minimum wage generates unemployment among the most vulnerable workers—usually young, often black, in marginal jobs—underscores the fact that subsidies usually work for the strong at the expense of the weak. The fact that the giant McDonald’s hamburger chain was not motivated by altruism last year does not alter the fact that, by opposing the minimum-wage increase, it was acting in the interests of a lot of poor black teen-agers.
Subsidies are everywhere, and much of the political activity today at the federal level concerns their allocation. Each element of this interlocking, overlapping quilt of disparate government measures, like most things in a modern state, has its own momentum, nurtured by the attentive special interest it serves. Like Socrates’s death, the subsidy system injures incrementally, and injures the poor most of all. Fortunately, it does not injure only the poor. Its inevitable product is inflation, which is a very democratic aggravation: it affects everybody. That is what gives poor people reason for hope.
The subsidy system’s politicized cost of living injures poor, disorganized, inarticulate people but it angers non-poor, articulate people, and anger is politically more important than mere injury. So the most direct and obvious way to help poor people, at least a little bit, is to get non-poor people angry about the subsidy system that produces the inflation that most severely injures people with little discretionary income. Non-poor people vote regularly and can be made to complain loudly. They must be made to notice the costs of unnoticed government measures.
We have come a long way from the day Alexander von Humboldt described the U.S. government to the King of Prussia as “a government which no one sees or feels, yet is far more powerful than Your Majesty’s government.” Today the unfortunate thing is that too many potentially obstreperous people do not know when they are seeing or feeling their government. There are some encouraging signs. More and more people are cottoning on to the fact that they are seeing their government’s agriculture programs in high food prices and feeling their government’s import quotas when fuel oil is scarce. It would be grand if this were the beginning of a lot of boisterous resentment on the part of middle-class consumers. If it is, it will not be the first time resentment fueled benevolent social change. Today, with the federal budget under severe pressure and the public out of patience with poverty programs, many measures that will help poor people also will benefit the non-poor but very irritable majority.
The subsidy system was built by intense interests exploiting the fact that most people have better things to do than monitor the details of government. Cattlemen are attentive to meat imports. Hamburger eaters are not, at least not yet. But the widespread agitation about inflation in general and food prices in particular has caused the administration’s tentative retreat from some farm subsidies. That retreat is a victory for poor people.
There probably will not be a substantial dismantling of the subsidy system. And maybe there should not be: a subsidy, like free trade, is an expedient, not a principle. Some subsidies are useful. The sudden withdrawal of others would cause unjust and insupportable injury to interests that have come to depend on them. In any case, there is scant evidence that a generalized resentment, generated by particular instances of subsidized inflation, will soon become a demand for a substantially less politicized economy. Certainly as long as the ideology and bureaucracy of wage-and-price controls function as they now do we will continue our resolutely downhill trudge toward a comprehensively controlled economy in which the big economic battalions bake and cut the pie.
If that is where we are going, the distribution of income in the U.S. will continue to be unfair, not so much because of inequities inherent in any particular disparities of income, but because the rewards of life in America are so significantly influenced by government measures that would be fairer if they were as capricious as they may appear to the casual observer. And so, because any dismantling of the subsidy system is apt to be very partial, the kind of aid to the poor, valuable though it is, should be supplemented by—a subsidy. Because our subsidy system probably cannot be made to wither away, people need and are owed something like FAP, some form of income support—which, by the way, is a crackerjack example of anti-ingeniousness in social policy: if people are poorer than you think they should be, give them cash.
Poor people should—but probably will not—have many conservative allies in promoting income support. To understand why many conservatives will not be allies, consider Howard Phillips, the enthusiast unleashed upon the Office of Economic Opportunity. Mr. Phillips plunged into his demolition duties with a zest derived from a tiresomely familiar conservative doctrine: poverty is an economic problem, not a “political” problem. That is absurd. Poverty is a political problem and a governmental responsibility because it is an economic problem. Conservatives should understand this better than most people. Conservatives cherish the paradigm of a limited government holding the ring for a fluid, competitive, unregulated market that metes out justice. They understand the extent to which we have departed from that. But too many do not seem to understand the moral imperatives that devolve from that departure. Indeed, the current debate-cum-autopsy about Great Society poverty programs is bewildering because those who oppose treating poverty as a “political” problem derive their indictments of liberal programs—most of which are indictable—from a social doctrine that is refuted by the most obvious facts of American political and economic life. Today the government is a significant, pervasive factor determining the rewards of life in America, and the government did not become so last Tuesday. If conservatism is going to help make things more fair, it must consist of more than a tissue of inclement truths about the futility of government. It must take seriously the political economy that has evolved in the atmosphere (fostered by liberalism) of casual government intervention in economic affairs, a political economy that conservatives cannot realistically hope to dismantle.
We are stuck with a very political economy for as far into the future as any sensible person would claim to see. The public sector is too much with us. As a result, much of the private sector, including the economic condition of poor people, is not a “private” matter any more; it is permeated with the public interest. Regarding the poor, politicians should swear an oath—“I will do no harm”—and seek a social strategy based on fewer harmful subsidies for the strong and one subsidy—income support—for the poor. Such a strategy will not involve new, electrifying, ingenious programs, but at least it will not violate the rule that there should be a government way where there is a government will. Such a strategy may seem unimaginative, even timid, but in government, as in matters of the mind, there are many virtues on which unimaginativeness and timidity are improvements.
Edward C. Banfield is Kenan Professor of Public Policy Analysis and Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is The Un-heavenly City.
Nathan Glazer, professor of education and social structure at Harvard, is the author of Remembering the Answers, American Judaism, and (with Daniel P. Moynihan) Beyond the Melting Pot.
Michael Harrington is editor of the Newsletter of the Democratic Left, a new publication. His books include, Socialism, Toward a Democratic Left, and The Other America.
Tom Kahn is assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO and former executive director of the League for Industrial Democracy.
Christopher Lasch teaches history at the University of Rochester. He is the author of The Agony of the American Left, The New Radicalism in America, and The World of Nations (to be published this fall).
Robert Lekachman, a Guggenheim Fellow for 1972-73, is professor of economics at the Stony Brook campus of SUNY and the author of the recent National Income and the Public Welfare.
Bayard Rustin is executive director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the author of Down the Line.
Gus Tyler is assistant president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the author of, among other works, Labor in the Metropolis.
George F. Will, who has contributed to the Washington Post and the National Review, was for several years an aide to former Senator Gordon Allott (R.) of Colorado.