FLOTSAM & JETSAM: MODERATE EXTREMISM
Barack Obama has promised a major, moderate health plan.
Which is like urging climactic abstinence.
Real moderates don't do major things. They fiddle with stuff, fix a part of it, or change a number or two.
In fact, whatever Obama finally comes up with will probably be the most radical and bizarrely complicated health plan we've ever seen. Meanwhile, the rest of the political world is divided into two decidedly non-radical camps: conservatives who don't want to do anything and independent progressives who favor a well tested public system strange in the western world only to Americans.
Then there is Obama's medical records act, a massive example of database overkill, that makes every patient in America vulnerable to snooping by law enforcement, employers and insurance companies. And the remarkable illusion that the voters want Obama to decide when they should die. Yes, his administration has seriously argued that whether a patient continues to receive medical care should be left to a government organized system of doctors, scientists and ethicists rather than to individual doctors, the patient and their families.
A true moderate would suggest something like lowering the Medicare age to 55, something that would keep us headed in the right direction even if falling far short of what many would like, something that would not badly twist health policy into programs that nobody actually wants and which will take at least another decade to unravel politically.
Similarly, a true moderate might have suggested that revenue sharing - passing federal funds down to the state and local level with their use to be decided there - should be a major part of a stimulus package. There would be few faster ways to get things going. Instead we find programs that are physically shovel ready but not bureaucratically pencil ready because of restrictions applied by Washington. The Obama people say this will make it all more transparent and honest. In fact, there is no evidence that the federal government is any less prone to corruption, inefficiency and favoritism than governors or mayors.
But Obama is not a true moderate. Nor is he an ideologue. He is rather representative of a class of autocratic professional technocrats that has increasingly gained power in America, creating a constantly mutating adhocracy while proportionally adding to the country's woes. He is a moderate extremist, a member of the radical center.
It is a group long on education and short on wisdom and judgment. A 19th century writer decribed people like this as having been educated beyond their intellect. The skills of this class center around matters like the law or economics, formerly considered professions supportive, but not determinative, of things that others did.
It's not a matter of someone's training but the role it plays in their thought and action. One might easily be a good politician and a lawyer, but not a good politician simply because one was a lawyer. In fact, one study found that from 1780 to 1930, two thirds of the senators and about half of the House of Representatives were lawyers. Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were both lawyers but that did not define their place in history.
The difference has been the change of the role of the law in society. The law has moved from being a necessary tool to help us organize our society and restrain its excesses to becoming a major obsession - witnessed by the fact that we have passed more laws since 1976 than we did in our first two centuries.
Key to this has been law schools that - at least before the fiscal crisis - were churning out 40,000 new attorneys a year. Jim Barlow, a former columnist of the Houston Chronicle, compares it to locusts: "The locust is a fairly benign form of grasshopper until we get too many of them. Then they swarm, eating their weight every day and devouring the countryside."
It is easy to the see whatever is happening around us as a traditional norm, especially when scholars and media don't bother to follow the changes. But a few examples suggest the trend:
- Since 1996 the number of employees in private legal services in Washington has risen almost 30% while those in publishing & broadcasting have declined and employment in the retail trade has remained constant. There are twice as many people in the capital city's legal services industry as in retail trade or janitorial services. By contrast, legal services jobs nationally are a quarter of those in retail sales and a half those in janitorial services.
- One of the major tasks of the legal profession is to lobby Congress and the administration on behalf of major corporations. William Greider reported that in 1970 only a handful of Fortune 500 companies had public affairs offices in Washington; by 1980, 80% did.
And it's just not the law. Business schools have been a major culprit. In the 1950s America turned out less than 5,000 MBAs a year; by 2005 this number had soared to 142,000. In seven years we could produce a million MBAs and still face huge trade and budget deficits, a disappearing auto industry, one of our most costly and disastrous wars, a growing division between rich and poor, a constantly projected inability to care for our ill or elderly and a near depression lurking just around the corner.
Back in the 1980s, when I was doing a magazine story on the National Air & Space Museum, I was surprised to discover that it was the only contemporary structure in federal Washington to come in on time and under budget. One reasons seems to have been that it was built not by conventional Washington bureaucrats but by engineers who had a substantially different approach to getting things done. How many engineers were consulted by the White House and the Congress before approving the stimulus package?
Everywhere you look in government these days a gap keeps appearing between the work that is supposed to be happening, what is actually happening and who has been assigned to see that it happens.
This was a problem once mainly limited to a few political bonus enclaves such as those ambassadorships based on the money one gave to a president's campaign.
But since the 1980s, pragmatically deficient MBAs have taken over American business, lawyers and economists have taken over politics, pseudo CEOs have taken over school systems and over-professionalized journalists have taken over the media. Further, spin has replaced reality and action at ever level.
We have assigned a wealth of practical tasks to those who think in abstractions, speak in cliches, use paperwork as a pacifier, and convert morality, policies and human aspiration into a bunch of numbers or legal restrictions. Perhaps most sadly - and most dangerously - they have learned their values from sources far removed from the thinking of those philosophers, writers and politicians who gave America its greatest moments.
With this shift, the country has been changing from being a democracy into being just another corporation - and one that its leaders feel entitled to run in the manner of an executive rather than as an elected representative of the people.
Barack Obama is not the worst, merely the most famous, of the current lot.
He has demonstrated few practical skills, his social intelligence fades once out eyesight of a teleprompter, and he has little interest in true democratic discourse other than at carefully managed town meetings. He sees himself as America's boss, leaving everyone - from a constitutionally equal Congress to the citizens who elected him - in the implicit role of consumer or staff.
Obama is paraded as among the best and the brightest but this ignores two problems:
- Intelligence is much like muscle. It is an undeniable asset but can be used for either good or evil. Possessing intelligence does not grant you wisdom, morality or the ability to play well with others. It does not tell you how to fix something that is broken or other skills based on practical experience. And like muscle, it easily raises the temptation to use its force as a substitute for such other skills.
- The best and the brightest brought us the Vietnam, environmental, Mid East and economic disasters. Joseph Califano recently wrote fawningly that the recently departed Robert McNamara was "known for his extraordinary intelligence." But, as 58,000 American (and many more Vietnamese) victims of that extraordinary intelligence discovered, it also did extraordinary evil.
Obama hasn't come close to being as bad as McNamara but he belongs to a similar culture that is characterized by autocratic values, indifference to constitutional and democratic concerns, excessive reliance on procedures and systems as a false guarantee of desired results, and a technocratic obsession in data assessment as a substitute for wise observation of what's really going on.
And he has relied heavily on financial advisers who form a collective McNamara of the fiscal collapse; as in Vietnam, the solution is being sought by those who created the problem in the first place.
There is further, as suggested here before, a sort of elite Asperger's Syndrome at work in Washington, with a disconnect between the information piled inside the capital's collective brain and the reality of the world outside it.
Thus one can spend more money on a stimulus in less time than at any point in American history and still have the unemployment rate go up 25% in under six months. By comparison, in FDR's first year, the unemployment rate declined nearly 14%.
One can launch an economic rescue program that saves huge banks but leaves ordinary homeowners and tenants out in the cold. You can claim to be ending the war in Iraq even as you leave a large military there and send more troops to Afghanistan. Or you can reorganize education by demoralizing teachers, replacing learning with tests, and putting corporate figures in charge of school systems - and then calling it reform.
Meanwhile our leaders give themselves ever more power even as that power serves ever less purpose.
All this is quite deceiving to the public because, though the results may be absurd, the manner, the language and methods are seemingly moderate - concealing the dangerous extremism of the modern American center.
This is not an ideological problem; it is a class and cultural one. And Obama is merely the most visible reflection and most prominent beneficiary of the day.
MSNBC and Fox News would have you believe there is a great political battle going on; in truth it is more like sibling rivalry, fighting over who gets the window seat in the broken down, low gas mileage car that America has become.
And because cultural divides are far more difficult to cross than political ones, America will have a terrible time overcoming this one. It would be wondrous if the House of Representatives could replace its engorgement of attorneys with more teachers, chemists, small business owners, social workers, engineers, labor leaders and artists, but it's not likely. The best and the brightest know one thing extremely well: how to hold on to their power, whatever its cost to the rest of the country.