Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

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We Are Stuck In the Past


Bill-Frayer-2010There is lots of talk these days about the polarized political system, particularly in the United States. And this stalemate probably reflects the deep divisions among people about how government should work. Russell Mead, in The American Prospect, has suggested that both sides, the conservatives and the liberals, are deeply stuck in outdated, rigid thinking which will not lead to the kind of innovative solutions we need for today’s problems.

Liberals today focus on the government-based benefits put in place after the New Deal, in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Back then, we had a vibrant economy characterized by large, monopolistic corporations, strong unions, fixed-benefit pensions, and increasing standards of living which grew with each generation. The social contract assured that each generation could work at a lifetime job and retire in comfort. 

Of course, today the economy has completely changed with globalization, outsourcing, poor job security, and an increasing number of new retirees.  The old system cannot afford to provide lifetime security any more.  Yet the political focus of Liberals is to shore up these old systems by increased taxation of the rich and some redistribution of wealth to the middle class and the poor.  But it’s not working.  Working people resent having to pay for generous benefits for government workers and for sometimes inefficient programs to help poor people.

The conservatives have it wrong too.  They basically argue for returning to a pre-New Deal time when there were no safety-net programs for the poor, no labor unions to protect the rights of workers, and no retirement benefits for anyone.  They basically are proposing a return to the 1920’s when free markets controlled everything, and it was “every man for himself.”  And we know where this led: unregulated big business and widespread poverty during the Great Depression. 

We can neither return to the golden age of free-market capitalism  of the 1920’s nor the post-New Deal security of the 1950’s and 60’s Since the 1970’s, commerce has become more de-centralized, the entire world is now competing in a global marketplace, automation and outsourcing are reducing the number of jobs available, more people are retiring and fewer people are working, municipal and state governments cannot meet their pension obligations, and healthcare costs are skyrocketing. 

The big-government, New Deal-type programs are now unsustainable in their present form.  Look at the struggles the quasi-socialist European governments are facing.  With the demographic and economic changes we are facing, we cannot continue to afford such a cradle-to-grave safety net.  We now have the older generation being supported in their retirement by fewer young workers who will not be able to retire with a similar standard of living. 

And simply going back to libertarian, unregulated free-enterprise is even more outdated.  Multinational corporations will continue to be primarily concerned with shareholder profits, not any kind of social contract.  It simply will not be able to provide for the humanitarian needs of an aging, more vulnerable population.   

So, where does all this leave us?  Stuck in the past, we might say.  Both the Left and the Right are each arguing for a return to outdated pasts.  We desperately need new paradigms for safety-net programs and government advocacy which will help create a new prosperous society for everyone.  Returning to the freewheeling 20’s or to the Great Society of the 60’s simply will not work today.  It’s time to create a 21st Century paradigm for the future which moves beyond  today’s sclerotic thinking.

“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”
W. H. Auden



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