Who Owns the Future?

They
claim to be riding a wave of historical change. The
wave is global in its reach
and unstoppable in its force. Those who get in the way are
representatives of an old, obsolete
order; they may put up a fight, but they will be beaten in the
inevitable transformation.

So Newt Gingrich and other conservatives describe their
movement and the fate of its
opponents. If the picture sounds familiar, it is because it
recalls other movements, notably
Marxism, that claimed a mandate of historical inevitability as
well as popular will. Just as
Marxists consigned their liberal and social democratic
opponents to the dustbins of history, so
conservatives are now loudly and confidently doing the same.
And just as many liberals lost self-
confidence in the face of communism's triumphs in the first
half of the twentieth century, so
many have resignedly accepted the conservatives' claim to own
the future.

The recent history of the future suggests skepticism. Many
once-popular visions besides the
future that Marx envisioned have proved ephemeral. In just the
past few decades, Americans
have elevated every twist of the zeitgeist into a new age.
During the 1960s, many observers
thought America was entering a post-materialist era; we had
allegedly solved the problems of
basic living standards and could afford to worry about
long-ignored injustices and experiment
with new lifestyles and states of consciousness. By the 1970s,
the future had changed. Oil
shortages and stagflation augured a new era of scarcity;
extrapolating from the trends, social
scientists predicted dire consequences in a decade or so from
vanishing resources. Since then, the
shortages have disappeared, commodity prices have actually
dropped, the information revolution
has seized the imagination, and the future--that fickle child
of our latest experience--has
metamorphosed once again.

Political prognosticators have had the same penchant for
overgeneralizing from the latest
events. The Democrats' 1964 landslide showed the Republicans
were finished; four years later
Richard Nixon was elected president. In 1974 Watergate finished
off the Republicans again, but
six years later Ronald Reagan was elected president. Reagan's
re-election in 1984 showed
Republicans had a lock on the presidency; eight years later
Bill Clinton was elected president.
The 1994 election, now often described as a "landslide," was
immediately endowed with
transcendent historical significance. Actually, the Republicans
barely won more than 50 percent
of the popular vote for Congress and now enjoy the smallest
majorities in Congress of any party
in 40 years. The election was sobering and reveals powerful
trends, but it scarcely discloses new
iron laws of history or proves that the Democrats are incapable
of recovering.

With
some historical perspective, the lesson of recent
years might more aptly be how
quickly and dramatically things turn. Some of the groups and
ideas now seen as part of the
conservative ascendancy were only recently pronounced dead. A
few years ago, no political
cause seemed more out-of-date than right-wing Christian
fundamentalism. Yet Pat Robertson's
Christian Coalition now controls the Republican Party in
several states and is widely identified
as the most powerful grassroots movement in America. This is
testimony to the power of an
organized and highly motivated minority, not a widening and
inevitable trend.

A few years ago, no view of race seemed more untouchable
than genetic theories of group
inferiority; no view of social policy seemed more antiquated
than putting poor children in
orphanages and cutting their mothers off from public
assistance. Yet today Charles Murray, the
champion of these positions, has a platform in respectable
publications and is welcomed as a
savant by Republicans in Congress who have embraced his views
of welfare and orphanages.



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In the realm of political ideas, the dead really can return.
And if they have been dead long
enough, they may even be heralded as fresh and innovative.
Today, the forces of the nineteenth
century are laying siege to the accomplishments of the
twentieth cen tury in the name of the
twenty-first. In a great reversal of rhetoric, conservatives
who used to stand squarely for
tradition now posture as revolutionaries and cast liberals as
the forces of the past. By calling for
a series of amendments to the Constitution and the abolition of
social programs, conservatives
do indeed put liberals in the position of defending
long-established political institutions and
ideas. No group attacked from the rear can simply ignore the
assault, but self-defense is not
evidence of obsolescence. Rather than being stuck in the past,
liberals have been engaged in a
decade-long process of reshaping ideas and policies, reflected
in the Clinton agenda and the
efforts of many groups, including this magazine. The difference
between conservatives and
liberals is not a simple contrast between past and future.
Liberals want to build on different
traditions to create a different future from the one held out
by conservatives. Nowhere is this
more evident than in policies toward the role of government in
the pursuit of national well-
being.


The End of the Welfare State?

The 1994 election, according to Gingrich, signaled the end
of the welfare state. Yet he and the
Republicans swear they have no intention of reducing Social
Security--which is, of course, the
very core of the welfare state.

A movement that genuinely reflected both popular will and
the march of history should have
no need of double-talk and subterfuge. But there is plenty of
both in the conservative crusade
against the welfare state. To the average American, "welfare"
means handouts to the poor and
does not include earned benefits such as Social Security. Thus,
in everyday political parlance,
Gingrich's declarations about the end of the welfare state seem
to have a narrow reference. In its
broader, historical meaning, however, the welfare state
includes not only Social Security
pensions but also Medicare, unemployment insurance, disability
insurance, workers'
compensation, and much else that Republicans do not publicly
oppose. Gingrich the former
history professor clearly has this broader meaning in mind when
he talks about historical
watersheds; Gingrich the politician then distances himself from
the implications. In effect, the
use of the term "welfare state" gives Gingrich what is known in
Washington as "deniability." He
can talk about epochal change and then say that only
unscrupulous Democrats would unfairly
attribute to him any intention to tamper with Social Security.

What the Republicans know they cannot accomplish through a
frontal assault, they hope to
accomplish through indirect means. As Philip Harvey, Theodore
R. Marmor, and Jerry L.
Mashaw argue in this issue, the Contract with America is a
fiscal time bomb set to go off just
after the turn of the century. To balance the budget, raise
military spending, and avoid new
taxes would require massive spending reductions, inevitably
affecting Social Security and
Medicare. If the Congress passes the Contract's new tax breaks
("backloaded" so their costs
climb sharply after five years), the pressure would be even
greater to undo social programs.
Gingrich's strategy is clearly to create a crisis that will
force Americans to accept measures they
would otherwise be unwilling to swallow. It is strange how
revolutionaries who believe their
cause to be popular, just, and inevitable nonetheless find so
much need to manipulate people
into actions they don't want to take.

Conservatives
have been rehearsing their case against the
welfare state for decades; what is
new is that they have succeeded in harnessing false analogies
on behalf of the idea that their
views are in step with contemporary history. Supposedly, there
is a straight line between the fall
of communism and what conservatives anticipate to be the fall
of the welfare state. But this is
nothing more than the old false charge that Social Security and
Medicare were stalking horses
for Moscow. Social Security and other welfare-state programs
have not transferred the ownership
of property or the planning of production into the public
sector. They have provided people
with security amid the risks and insecurities of capitalism,
giving the system greater stability,
softening its harsh edges, and spreading its benefits. The
elderly have been its chief beneficiaries
in the United States; indeed, the transformation of old age,
which for millions used to be a
sentence of poverty, has been the great glory of the welfare
state. Just as important, welfare-state
measures have reduced the severity of economic downturns and
cushioned their impact.
Spending on unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other
entitlements automatically
increases when the economy slows down, and these "stabilizers"
boost aggregate demand during
recessions while helping people to cope with adversity.

Republicans have not directly criticized this stabilizing
role of the welfare state. However, it
would greatly diminish under their policies, which would cut
entitlements for the poor and fold
them into block grants to the states, with no provision for
recessions. A balanced budget would
also aggravate the severity of economic downturns. Instead of
increasing, spending would have
to fall as revenue declines. Taken as a whole, the Contract is
a contract with trouble--a recipe for
a future economic and social crisis. The destabilizing effects
of conservative policies are one
reason to be dubious about their inevitability. Their prospects
depend not only on whether they
are enacted but on whether they would prove durable.

Their prospects also depend on whether they would prove
relevant to the economic problems
that Americans face. Deep-rooted changes in the economy are now
eroding the living standards
of families with incomes below the median even during periods
of economic growth.
Globalization, deregulation, the decline of unions, and changes
in technology and jobs have
undermined labor's bargaining power. Conservatives attribute
persistent poverty entirely to the
failures of the welfare state, as if no changes in the economy
had aggravated the conditions
facing the poor. They have no response to the growth of
market-driven inequalities; indeed, the
regressive tax and spending measures they propose would only
aggravate the pressures facing
low-income Americans.

Similarly, conservatives have failed to recognize, much less
respond to, the breakdown of the
private welfare state. As more people work part-time or
as independent contractors,
fewer receive the health benefits and pensions that they
formerly received from a job. The recent
campaign for universal health insurance stemmed in part from
the long-term decline in
employment-based coverage. And while conservatives celebrate
their victory, they have no
remedy for the continuing shrinkage of occupational
benefits.

Conservatives also seem oblivious to the social implications
of the economic policies they favor.
The anti-inflation policies pursued by the Federal Reserve and
applauded by Gingrich and most other
conservatives assume that unemployment much below 6 percent is
an unacceptable risk. Yet welfare
reforms proposed by conservatives assume that if poor families
are cut off from benefits, they can find
jobs. Even in the best times, a significant number of people
will remain without work, unless the
government provides it (which conservatives will not abide).
And when unemployment hits 10
percent, as it will some day despite our best efforts, what
then? It is one thing to promise blue skies,
but it is another to refuse to provide your family an
umbrella.

Conservatives may privatize government programs, but they
cannot privatize public expectations.
Since the Great Depression, Americans have expected the federal
government to manage the
economy. I will believe the conservatives have won when we are
in a deep recession and the public
agrees with conservatives that the federal government should do
nothing about it, except cut
spending.


Determinism and Devolution

The conservative claim to the future now also draws on a
theory of sweeping social change.
In this view, a new emerging civilization based on new
technologies requires the devolution of
economic and political power down to lower levels of government
and to small business and
individuals. The political argument is summed up in the line
that the federal government is a
"mainframe in a PC world." Supposedly, conservative policies
reducing government are just the
political software appropriate to this new world.

The most highly publicized version of the theory comes from
Gingrich's court futurist, Alvin
Toffler, who argues that a "third wave," comparable to the
agricultural and industrial
revolutions, is now transforming our civilization. In the
second-wave industrial era, mass
production, mass marketing, and mass communications went with
big government bureaucracies.
In the emerging third-wave era, the systems of production,
marketing, communications, and
government are all being broken up or "demassified." Toffler
refers to big corporations as well
as big government as "dinosaurs"--presumably headed for
extinction.

There is something to be said for the general argument, and
other people have said it with
greater discrimination. In many industries, mass production is
giving way to more customized
and flexible forms of production. The new information
technologies do create a plethora of
channels, breaking up the centralized control of broadcasting
networks and telephone companies
and encouraging more specialized, diverse, and decentralized
communications. And the
traditional bureaucratic model is giving way as the dominant
paradigm of efficient organization.

But bigness per se is not disappearing; at least, big
corporations sure don't look like they are
on the verge of extinction. On the contrary, they continue to
grow, merge, and consolidate into
firms of astonishing global scale. If Gingrich has any doubts
on this point, perhaps Rupert
Murdoch can straighten him out on it the next time they get
together to talk about
royalties.

To be sure, many companies have been downsizing, and
conservatives often say that just as
the private sector has cut back, so must the federal
government. The difficulty with this analogy
is that corporations are downsizing not to do less, but to do
more with fewer employees. In
fact, as President Clinton points out, the federal government
itself now has fewer employees
than at any time since John F. Kennedy was in office. The
administration's effort to "reinvent
government" is aimed partly at reengineering agencies to
provide better services more efficiently.
That is the counterpart to private-sector downsizing.

The
idea that new technology dictates the shape of a new
civilization and politics is
replete with ironies. Just when the Marxian version of
technological determinism had fallen into
hopeless disrepute, Gingrich has picked it up from Toffler.
Toffler's book The
Third Wave
repeatedly disparages the influence of political
values or institutions; in his
discussion of the second-wave industrial era, for example,
Toffler frequently describes the Soviet
Union and the United States as essentially the same--a view of
the "convergence" or
"equivalence" of industrial societies that, for good reason,
used to be heresy to conservatives.
Toffler also suggests that contemporary changes in the family
are not evidence of decline but of
a third-wave shift to "polymorphic" family structures--an
intellectual residue of the 1960s that
conservatives generally regard as morally obtuse. Conservatives
have excoriated other writers for
lesser sins, but the Gingrichites love Toffler because he gives
them a rhetoric for labeling their
liberal opponents as obsolete defenders of a dying, second-wave
civilization.

A close look at conservative policies to reduce government
and devolve responsibilities on the
states shows, however, that they have almost nothing to do with
the Toffleresque logic of
"demassification." The Contract with America does not actually
pursue a consistent philosophy
of devolution at all. The same Republicans who want to devolve
welfare and education to the
states want to shift products liability law to the federal
government. They want to set new
national requirements for the states in criminal sentences and
the operation of prisons. In
welfare reform itself, they want federal law to bar the states
from providing assistance to various
categories of poor people. In health care, they are unwilling
to give states waivers from ERISA,
the federal law governing private employee welfare plans.

The selective devolution they favor has little, if anything,
to do with reducing national bureau
cracy. Most of the programs in question are already run by the
states; what they propose to
abolish is national standards for programs that benefit poor
people. States don't want to become
magnets for the poor, so they will be under tremendous pressure
to cut benefits--all the more so
as federal funds decline. Republican enthusiasm for devolution
is best understood not as
"demassification," but as the old-fashioned avoidance of blame.
For example, when House
Republicans voted in February to abolish the federal school
lunch program and nutrition
assistance to women, infants, and children (WIC), they could
say that they were not cutting
food for the poor but just shifting responsibility to the
states. In fact, under their program, the
money for these purposes was being reduced and would have to be
cut much more in years to
come. But, then, it will be the states' responsibility to
decide who won't eat.

The key element in these changes is the abolition of federal
entitlements. In elite circles, the
term "entitlement" has acquired a pejorative tone, but there is
another way to look at it. Every
entitlement, like every right, implies a corresponding
obligation. When conservatives propose to
abolish entitlements, they are talking about ending national
obligations. Most of these
obligations, it turns out, are to the poor and, more exactly,
to poor children. The abolition of
entitlements is not some high-minded act on behalf of our
children; it is, quite literally, a
cancellation of national obligations to the most vulnerable
children in our society. It is striking
that the grand future of our conservative futurists has so
little to do with the grim future of
those children.


The Fight of Our Lives

Half a century ago, drawing on accounts from
anthropologists, the physiologist Walter B.
Cannon coined the term "voodoo death" to describe how people
subjected to curses or magical
incantations in some cultures actually fell ill and died. One
anthropological account cited by
Cannon portrayed a victim of "bone-pointing":

    The man who discovers that he is being boned . . . is
    indeed a pitiable sight. He stands aghast, with
    his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and with
    his hands lifted as though to ward off the lethal
    medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body.
    His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy.
    . . . He sways backward and falls to the ground. . .
    . From this time on he sickens and frets,
    refusing to eat and keeping aloof from the daily
    affairs of the tribe. Unless help is forthcoming in
    the shape of a counter-charm administered by the
    hands of the Nangarri, or medicine man, his
    death is only a matter of a comparatively short
    time.

Ever since the fall elections, some liberals and
progressives have been acting like victims of
voodoo death. They have accepted the curse pronounced on them,
withdrawn from politics,
sickened, and fretted. Counter-charms are unavailable; the only
known remedy is for the victims
to snap out of their trance, organize, and fight for what they
believe in. As they used to say
when labor was a movement, "Don't mourn, organize."

No laws of history lately discovered by right-wingers convey
to them clear title to the future.
Like the Marxists who once were sure their opponents would end
up in history's dustbins, the
conservatives are likely overestimating the trends in their
favor, deceiving themselves about the
popularity of their policies, and underestimating the damage
that their coming to power may do
to their own cause. But events will not inevitably humble them.
It will take hard work from
people who know that history is not on their side or anybody
else's.



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