Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Goods, Public and Otherwise

with 5 comments

So yesterday was one of those days–I kept getting links to various blog posts and op ed pieces and articles, and I kept reading them and getting headaches.

One of those headaches had the distinction of being a time bomb, something that doesn’t happen to me often at this stage of the came.

I agreed entirely with the man’s first three points–and then found myself plunged into hackneyed drivel for most of the last five.  The title was something along the lines of “8 Reasons Why Young People Are So Conformist,” and the first three were great. Student debt! ODD (oppositional defiant disorder)! 

Then we got into Evil Corporations and media turning students into zombies.

I’d post a link to it if I could, but I can’t remember the name of it well enough to find it again.  It’s a picture perfect example of someone who can see the problem, but is so mired in his ideological dogma that he can’t see the solution, or even imagine what it might be. 

But as interesting as that one was, it wasn’t the link that really caught by attention.

The link that really caught my attention was this one


and I’ve got a note before I start.

The piece is by Robert Reich, and Robert Reich is on my List.

The List is a mental one, but I don’t need to write it down. I always remember who’s on it.

It consists of people I find so ideologically entrenched that they’re entirely predictable, and it includes people like Ann Coulter and Paul Krugman.

Krugman is, I think, the worst of the lot, because his unbroken note of self-righteousness is hard to read even just as prose.  Coulter may be a troll, but at least she’s sometimes funny.

Reich isn’t as high up on my list as either Krugman or Coulter, but he’s definitely on that list. And he’s on it for the same reason everybody else is on it:  I already know what he’s going to say, and I already know how he’s going to be wrongheaded.

When somebody ends up on my list, I don’t banish them to outer darkness and refuse to ever read them again.  I just restrict my reading to times and places and topics that seem especially interesting, or that enough of the people who friend me on FB seem to want everybody to read.

It was that last thing that got me to read this, and I can’t say it produced much originality, and it certainly produced no surprise.  It was mostly the same old same old.

People used to care about the public good, but they don’t anymore.  People used to be willing to fund institutions that were useful to everybody–public schools, roads and bridges, libraries, state universities with low tuition–and they’re not any more.

This is the fault of rich people, who no longer want to be part of society, but above it.  But it actually started with middle class tax revolts.   But that doesn’t matter, because the tax revolts really started because middle class incomes were stagnating because rich people were milking the system, so it’s all the fault of the 1% and the Evil Corporations, even if it almost seemed there for a minute as if it wasn’t.

I want to suggest something that might be uncomfortable:  the slide didn’t start in the 80s, or even in the 70s. It started in 1948, and picked up steam in the 60s.

And it wasn’t the result of the decline in middle class incomes, but of the decline in middle class autonomy.

Do you know what happened in 1948? In 1948, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in a case called McCollum v. Board of Education.

It was a decision with minor implications on a practical and immediate level–only some states allowed “release time” for students to go to religious instruction during the school day–but that had major implications for the long run.

That was the case that served notice that public school policy would be taken out of the hands of local jurisdictions and the families of childrenattending them, and placed in the power of faraway institutions whose ideas, culture and values were alien to the actual persons using the actual institutions.

Now, before I go on, let me make one thing clear:  the fact that such decisions from on high alienate the man in the street does not, in and of itself, mean that those decisions should never be made.

There are situations in which those decisions must be made, as they were made in the segregation cases.

But even when those decisions are absolutely necessary, their effects remain the same.

The less control people have over their instutions, the less committed to them they will be. 

After several decades of top-down decisionmaking on virtually every point of public school policy, most parents (and most nonparent members of local communities) no longer think of their local public schools as belonging to them, and certainly don’t feel that way about their state universities.

Instead, such “institutions” are in the control of faraway people who do not share even the most trivial of the local communities’s culture and values–people eat tofu instead of hamburgers, listen to NPR instead of country music, drive foreign cars instead of domestic ones.

When it comes to the major issues–religion, sex, even foreign policy–the two cultures are now so divergent, they might as well exist on different planets.

It’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter if the decisions you want to make for other people’s lives are good or bad, right or wrong, true or false.

You can be on the side of the angels every step of the way, and the effect will still be the same. 

You cannot get people to support “public” institutions they do not recognize as public, that they perceive as being imposed on them from outside by an alien and hostile force.

This was why the New Deal was the way it was–FDR and his people were very careful never to impose their values on local communities.

And that led to some very bad things, including segregation and voting rights violations, that needed to be and were finally stopped.

But FDR knew what everybody today seems to have forgotten–you cannot have a top-down welfare state for long.  Eventually, people who feel coerced will find some way to get out from under and do it their way once again.

It isn’t the rich 1% who are driving the abandonment ofpublic institutions.  It’s the middle and working class.

Am I really the only person who noticed what I think is the most curious fact about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?

The entire incident took place in one of those infamous “gated communities,” but wasn’t a gated community full of 1%-ers.  It was a gated community that was home to working class people, including a fair number of working class minorities.

And that brings us to the other difficult issue here: if you want a robust welfare state, diversity is not your friend.

Stop ventilating for a moment, and clear your head of all the “OMG, America is so racist and everything and…”

The issue isn’t race or ethnicity, but culture.

Look around you.  The world’s most successful welfare states are two things:  small, and virtually monocultural.

That is not an accident.  Smaller populations have more of a sense of being personally responsible for the people in their communities.  Monocultures mean that everybody is playing by the same unstated rules.

 A culture in which most people feel that welfare ought to be there, but that it is shameful to take it except in a real emergency is going to do some very weird things if it suddenly acquires a significant minority who think welfare is just great and we should milk it for all we can.

It’s going to do especially weird thing if that minority is in any way ethnically, racially or religiously different from the majority.

You can see some of those weirdnesses these days in Sweden, which has acquired a large Muslim immigrant minority that not only takes much more advantage of welfare state provision than ordinary Swedes, but that also refuses to play by Swedish rules on things like the rights of women and the freedoms of speech and conscience.

What’s resulted is police no-go zones and suggestions that honor killings ought to be respected as authentic parts of Muslim culture that should not be interfered with by government authorities.

America lasted as a multicultural society as long as it did precisely because it wasn’t one. It was a melting pot, not a salad bowl, and every level of that society was focussed on making sure that children (immigrant and otherwise) were converted to that society and became dedicated parts of it.

You didn’t need to legislate English as the national language, every official document was already in English and nothing else, there were no bilingual classrooms, it was learn the language or die.

The same went for your tastes in music, movies, and food and your commitment to sucking it up when you were drafted and a hundred other things. You learned to blend in, or you were SOL.

After you did that, we’d adopt the food as our own, which is why tacos and pizza are “American” food.

And all along the line, the message was solidly fixed on the idea that America was a good place, that her people were good people and her policies were just, and if you didn’t toe that line  you were likely to get beat up in the schoolyard.

I am not saying we should go back to a regime like that.

I am saying that only BY going back to a regime like that–to local control of local institutions AND a melting pot vision of immigration AND a concerted effort to instill patriotism–can we get what Robert Reich wants here, a nation of people who want to provide “public goods” rather than finding private avenues to get their needs met.

I will also say that I don’t see what is immediately clear which policy is the one any of us wants here, or which policy is the compromise we’d think worth it to make.

I’m just saying that what we can never have is a society where all the big decisions are made by a culturally alien elite AND a society where most people are thinking about the common good, or one where there is lots of cultural diversity AND most people are thinking about the common good, OR–

Well, you get the picture.

Written by janeh

August 25th, 2013 at 9:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Goods, Public and Otherwise'

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  1. It’s been known for a long time that if you want durable and effective change on the ground, you need local buy-in and support.

    You point out that there are some issues on which it is possible and even the duty of a central government to lay down the law. I’m inclined to agree with you – aside from the civil rights issue, you can’t have an effective central government and any local peace and security if the central government thinks accused thieves should get a trial and, if convicted, be hung and the locals think a bunch of their friends should catch and hang said thief out of hand. (I’ve been inspired by listening to a Border ballad to do a bit of reading on the state of affairs on the Scottish/English border at the time of the events in the ballads.)

    But how do you decide which issues justify the use of central control and which don’t?


    25 Aug 13 at 4:40 pm

  2. Jane, the whole point of our present ruling class is that everyone, after interminable discussion “guided” by the ruling class, should do exactly as the ruling class feels is best. By “multiculturalism” they mean language and dress–not actually believing in and consequently doing different things. The whole process would be more honest–and probably less despised–if they used knouts instead of “dialogue.”

    And if you divided up the United States into 20 or 30 ethnically homogenous nations, many and possibly most of them would not be run by our current ruling class. Given the choice between an effective welfare state they don’t run, and a ramshackle, deeply divided country they do, I don’t think they’d even hesitate. These incompetents are more deeply committed to the primacy of soccer over American football than they are to any element of the welfare state.

    Cheryl, I’d say the answer to your question is found in the Constitution–and in a very conservative reading of the Constitution at that. The Federal government only gets to intervene in its specified areas of responsibility, or when some state government is depriving its citizens of their rights on the basis of race, religion or previous condition of servitude. All other battles get fought out at the state level and according to the state constitutions. If someone feels the result is intolerable, the solution is to amend the constitution, not ignore it. Let a hundred flowers bloom! Let a thousand schools of thought contend!


    25 Aug 13 at 6:18 pm

  3. Jane has more tolerance for Paul Krugman than I do. I gave up reading him years ago.

    But I would like to ask a question about the New Deal. If I remember my US history correctly, one reason for projects such as Hoover Dam and the TVA was to provide work for the unemployed. How did the US get from that to Welfare is a Right and its wrong to make the unemployed work?


    25 Aug 13 at 9:17 pm

  4. jd, I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you roughly when. The transition seems to have been a Sixties thing. As late as LBJ, Pat Moynihan wanted to fix the breakup of the black family by adding a second mail delivery a day–so creating more unskilled labor government jobs, you see–and under Nixon you’d still see programs under which people wanting welfare or unemployment checks had to report somewhere and pick up trash.

    But Nixon also proposed a national minimum income, which Eugene McCarthy and others–I think including Teddy Kennedy–voted against because it wasn’t high enough. (Getting high was a big thing in those years.) McGovern made a minimum national income a campaign plank in 1972. There was supposed to be a work requirement for the able-bodied, but I think it’s fair to say no one stressed that during the campaign. Not too many years later, a welfare mother would say to Mayor Lindsay of New York “You don’t understand! It’s my JOB to have babies! It’s your job to support them!”

    I think of that as the ideological high-water mark of the American welfare state. We pay more people more money with less excuse now, but the proponents are a lot less blatant.

    If I had to guess at a “how” I’d blame our high-prestige universities–but then I often do. There was a cadre of “student activists” in this period of which only the “freedom riders” are commonly mentioned. Others worked in major cities signing people up for various welfare systems and suing the cities to get more benefits. They were pretty much all Marxists of one description or another, and not even rigorous Marxists. They believed that “the system” was corrupt and that people were owed something for existing. I think the usual cliché was “basic human dignity”–as though one couldn’t be dignified hungry or in old clothes.

    Anyway, the lack of rigor was a serious factor. Grown-ups would have realized that someone had to produce what they wanted to consume, and that a state which gave people lots of stuff would eventually want something for it. Not thinking that sort of thing through is known technically as “youthful idealism.”

    Ah. Ideologues. I put Coulter in a different category than Reich and Krugman. The politics are equally predictable, but Coulter can be funny and is usually well-researched. Krugman is often too busy trying to bury his previous statements to get his new ones right, and if I want to know what Reich thinks, I’ll ask Jean-Baptiste Colbert.


    26 Aug 13 at 8:06 am

  5. Going off topic and speaking of Coulter, Mique suggested I read her “Mugged”. Its now on my Kindle and I noticed that one of the 1 Star reviews complained that she used the N-word.

    That is sort of true. I encountered it several times in the first few pages. But always in the form Democrat politician said ” … N-Word …”

    Apparently the reviewer did not understand the significance of quotation marks!


    26 Aug 13 at 6:29 pm

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