Cherny Speaks

The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age, by Andrei Cherny. Basic Books, 268 pages, $24.00.

John Stuart Mill, in his essay on Coleridge, remarks that "a knowledge of the
speculative opinions of men between twenty and thirty years of age is the great
source of political prophecy." If Mill is right, then one should pay particular
attention when a young opinionator comes along with 25-year-old Andrei Cherny's
credentials--speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and author of the 2000
Democratic Party platform--claiming, explicitly and insistently, to speak for his
generation. As the Clinton administration wound down, Cherny enrolled in law
school, though he keeps a hand in politics as a contributing editor for The
New Democrat
and senior policy adviser to the speaker of the California State
Assembly. In a New York Times profile last summer, Cherny claimed to have
set his sights on a career in criminal law. But it's hard to believe that The
Next Deal
wasn't conceived as a bid for a top domestic policy post in the
Gore White House. By the luck of the chad, however, we are reading here about a
future that is not to be, at least not for another four years.

Perhaps it's just as well. Cherny's premise is that public life should be
drastically reshaped in response to what he calls the Choice Revolution: "the
growing expectation among consumers that the world be customized to fit their
preferences and the growing effort among businesses to meet this expectation." We
currently have an industrial-age government, he argues, for an information-age
society. We go online to order everything from individually tailored blue jeans
to individually tailored stock portfolios. We work online: In America today,
Cherny notes, "a quarter of workers are wired workers (working with networked
computers in a flexible, team-oriented environment) and nearly a third are free
agents (working for themselves and from their homes)"--a new, knowledge-based
workforce, "self-reliant and empowered to do their jobs as they think best." We
find community online, in chat rooms and e-mail: communities "based on shared
interests and not just shared geography." Yet we still "stand in endless lines to
pick up forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles." The new economy is a Pegasus:
swift, flexible, responsive, efficient, and nonhierarchical. Government, by
contrast, is a dinosaur: "wasteful, corrupt, distant, and laden with
bureaucracy."

Government must be reinvented before it can interest the "Choice Generation,"
which has grown up with the Internet. This is a generation that "impatiently raps
its fingers on the table when it takes more than a few seconds to download a web
page from China, which expects packages sent from the other end of the continent
to arrive by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, which finds it difficult to watch TV
without a remote control in hand, which demands a piping hot pizza delivered to
their front door in half an hour." To an older critic, even a prematurely older
one like, say, Jedediah Purdy, these things might betoken a sadly limited
attention span and a hankering for instant gratification. But to Cherny, they are
the outward signs of empowerment.

The Choice Generation has an anthem, Cherny writes. Its verses are the
advertising slogans of dotcoms: "We're betting on ourselves" (Suretrade.com);
"Bureaucracy Beware" (Homeloan.com); "Believe in yourself" (Ameritrade.com);
"Power to the People" (DiscoverBrokerage.com). A young fogy like, say, Thomas
Frank might take these phrases for mere marketing blather--the latest stage in
the phony conquest of cool. To Cherny they compose a "haiku of choice,
individualism, and self-reliance."

We have struck camp, our young prophet tells us, and are on the open road:

The Choice Generation is clearly an evolving group--its values
are continually reinforced as technology continues to provide more choices, more
personalization, and more individualized power. The big three TV networks have
been challenged in turn by cable, by more networks, by a thousand channels of
satellite and digital cable programming. The movie theater competed first with
the VCR, which lets viewers control what they watch and when they watch from the
comfort of their couches. It has now to deal with DVDs that let viewers skip to
their favorite scenes and soundtracks. With increasing frequency, young people
have begun to eschew prepackaged music albums in favor of custom-created CDs made
up of the songs they choose. Pagers appeared and were followed by cellular
phones. Personal computers transformed America and were followed by Palm Pilots.
Young people traded in record players for personal Walkmans and then for even
more control with Discmans. Everywhere one looks the technologies that shape the
lives of the Choice Generation are constantly and consistently trending toward
giving the individual more personal power. More than half of the nation's minors
have a television and CD player in their bedroom. No one watches them over their
shoulders; they have a previously unimagined amount of power to shape the
environment they live in.

More fundamentally, the Internet has put them in control. They read whatever
they want to read, buy whatever they want to buy, download photos of the hottest
star of the moment. Moreover, they don't have to look at CNN's web page, they can
look at their MyCNN page, which shows them only the topics they are interested
in. They don't have to sift through the Web with the AltaVista search engine,
they can search with MyAltaVista, which conforms itself to their "surfing"
habits. At mybytes.com (with the slogan, "It's my web"), they can customize "my
research tools," "my calendar," "my interests," "my life," and so on. At
myway.com, where "you'll get all the information you need, the way you want it,"
they are welcomed to "the Internet's distinct new personality. Yours." At
Barbie.com, they can design their own doll to fit the specifications they choose.
At Nike.com, they can design their own sneakers and even have their own name put
on the shoes. The notion of "one-size-fits-all" is ever more obsolete in a world
they are increasingly customizing to fit themselves.

O brave new world, that has such choices in it!

How to bring government into the information age? The Next Deal is
surprisingly short on program. You might think that a book that practically
posits computer literacy as a prerequisite of effective citizenship would
consider how to help the many people--even young people--who are not computer
literate (or print literate, for that matter) to become so. Not a word. You might
think that a book that celebrates interactivity would spend many pages detailing
ways to bring every citizen adequate information about public issues--about, say,
the fiscal impact of massively regressive tax cuts, or the environmental impact
of hog farming and cattle raising, or the moral impact of unreformed campaign
finance--and ways, in turn, to bring citizens' opinions to bear on officials
between elections. A few pages, not many details. The Next Deal would
doubtless have made Cherny's reputation if it had pointed out, before the media
herd, that industrial-age electoral technology was a disaster waiting to happen,
not to mention a clear indicator of the political class's contempt for the
underclass. No such luck.

So what is the program? "As a general rule and whenever possible,
government power and funds should go directly to citizens--and only rarely to
institutions. Americans should have personal control over the money that
government spends on their behalf, thereby putting decisions about the direction
of government programs into their hands instead of those of bureaucrats." In
particular: "Parents should decide which public school their children attend and
have the funds follow the children to the schools that deserve them; unemployed
workers should decide how to spend their job training benefits and choose the
services they feel would be most beneficial to them; young people should decide
where to invest a portion of their Social Security retirement funds and accept a
greater share of both the risk and reward." Health insurance should be purchased
individually rather than through one's employer, and "a system of tax credits and
grants should be put in place to help those who cannot afford to purchase
coverage."

To facilitate all this choice, Americans "will need access to even more
information. That means tests in schools that allow parents to compare students,
teachers, and schools against national and international benchmarks. It means
rating health care plans, hospitals, and doctors. It means detailed, useful, and
useable information on the history and results rendered by every provider of
every service that Americans will be able to choose from." There is already, of
course, plenty of information available to online retirement investors (though it
won't do them much good in case of a meltdown or even a long recession).

It's all rather sketchy, but there's something here. Why shouldn't
government be more like e-business? If only Cherny hadn't skimped on programmatic
detail while larding the book with potted history, irrelevant anecdote, and
speechwriterly platitude. But I suppose his publisher wanted it in time for the
inauguration.

At the end of The Next Deal comes a curious and heartening reversal.
Cherny proposes a universal-national-service scheme--a one-year Citizen Corps for
18-year-olds. All those hip young consumers, he recognizes, need to shoulder a
"New Responsibility" as a "necessary counterbalance to the individual autonomy of
the Choice Revolution." Notwithstanding our (well, some people's) unprecedented
prosperity, there's plenty of useful work begging to be done.

Millions of the old could stay out of nursing homes for years if
someone could come visit them once a day, making sure that they are all right and
that small household chores are performed. Millions of children need extra
reading and math tutoring; thousands of homeless are looking for help in moving
off the streets and back into society; parents need, but often cannot afford,
child care for their young children; after-school care is needed to keep older
kids off the streets, away from the television, and in a classroom; an
overburdened and expensive health care system needs an infusion of nurses' aides;
the Peace Corps needs to expand its efforts in nations around the globe without
reducing its quality; soil erosion needs to be battled; streams need to be
cleaned; classrooms need more teacher aides; and the police need help in
organizing neighborhoods against crime.

This is a splendid idea. It is also, as Cherny acknowledges, not a new idea.
It is, come to think of it, a pretty old idea--pre-industrial-age, even. "From
each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is only a recent
restatement of it. Turning this ancient idea into a smart, up-to-the-minute
information-age manifesto--now that would be a proper task for a talented
and ambitious young wordsmith like Andrei Cherny.

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