Private enterprise produces employment, wages, and wealth, but our public structures are what facilitate the conduct of business, providing the framework necessary for markets to thrive. Key public systems also help protect people against the risks of a free-market economy and provide the infrastructure for economic opportunity such as public- and higher-education systems, tasks that are beyond the purview of any individual. Although the balance between market forces and government institutions and regulations varies over time and place, the notion that public structures and market enterprises work together to generate the common good is virtually a definition of an advanced industrial nation.
The news from Washington is ﬁlled with debates about safeguarding Americans' Social Security, proposals to make tax cuts permanent, and sweeping federal budget reductions in a time of looming deﬁcits. In the meantime, the 50 states, various territories, and close to 90,000 counties, cities, towns, and other local jurisdictions struggle with their own concrete budgetary challenges. As critical as current federal-level issues are, those confronting state and local governments may have even more immediate effects on people's lives.
Once upon a time, the war at home meant frugality and sacrifice. Our parents or grandparents collected string and made balls of tinfoil, one gum wrapper at a time. They accepted rationing and went each week to the grocer with coupons for butter, meat, and sugar. They took all sorts of jobs to serve the American industrial machine. They spent memorable years discharging shared patriotic duty.
What does the war at home look like today? The messages are confusing. There is no call for personal frugality. On the contrary, Americans are urged to buy, to travel, and to entertain themselves. Much sport has been made of such appeals, but they may be rooted in concern for workers who lose their jobs when personal consumption falls.
In stacking the nominally bipartisan social security commission with members all committed to some form of privatization, this mandateless president seeks to advance one of his top campaign promises. But he also debases the concept of a presidential commission as it has been used historically. In an increasingly polarized environment, the man who called himself "a uniter" misuses one of the few instruments for mobilizing consensus.