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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

For those who think the social contract is void, the government is an alien hand

by John MacBeath Watkins

Dēmos, a New York think tank, has published a study by John Quinterno about the continuing disinvestment in American higher education. One result of this disinvestment has been that tuition has doubled since 1990 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The study, aptly titled The Great Cost Shift, notes a dramatic change in priorities:
After controlling for inflation, states collectively invested $6.12 per $1,000 in personal income in
2010-2011, down from $8.75 in 1990-1991, despite the fact that personal income increased by
66.2 percent over that period.
And, via Matthew Yglesias,  we have this evidence of how important this is to the well-being of the nation.

The chart shows a box, generally at the bottom of the arrow, which represents the percentage of college educated people in the 55-64 age group. The triangle at the top represents the percentage of college-educated people in the 25-34 year age group. The longer arrows indicate the countries that have dramatically increased the number of college-educated people in their society over the last 30 years. (The data is from 2006, so the older cohort is people born between 1942 and 1951, the younger cohort is 30 years later.)

As you can see, the American arrow is about the shortest on the chart. That's because we've been standing still. In fact, in order to stand still, we've forced students and their families to go deeply into debt. If you follow the link above, and go to page 28 of the study, you'll see that between 2001 and 2011, student debt more than quadrupled in constant (2010) dollars, and went from 1.71% of household debt to 4.8%.

And a college degree seems to be the ticket that must be punched by most people to enter the middle class. Yglesias focuses on the fact the American middle class was strongest, relative to the rest of the world, when Americans were better educated than the rest of the world.

But there is more than one way to think about wealth. We can think about enriching our nation as a whole relative to the rest of the world, or we can think about enriching ourselves in relation to our fellow Americans.

Dwight Eisenhower set about to do the former. He was, of course, the general who managed what was arguably the greatest military enterprise of the 20th century, the allied victory over Nazi Germany. He understood how to organize a great enterprise and see it through.

It is said that amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. Eisenhower was a master of the latter. He did, of course, study tactics and strategy and master them, but in the management of the invasion of Europe, he left much of that to generals like Montgomery and Patton. His work was mainly involved in making their victories possible -- determining what personnel and materiel  were needed for the war effort and making sure that the right people with the right training were in place, with the right equipment and the right transportation.

So when he wanted to strengthen the country, he pushed through the National Defense Education Act, to raise the level of education in our country by providing fellowships and student loans. He also pushed through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, to solve a major logistical problem he'd first seen when he participated in the 1919 Motor Transport Corps convoy from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, a journey which took 62 days at an average speed of less than 6 mph. They had to repair 88 bridges, many of which they broke while traveling over them.

Of course, these were the Sputnik days. The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Eisenhower wasn't just trying to strengthen the middle class, he was trying to strengthen or nation as a whole. He was investing public funds in roads and education to fight the threat of socialism.

But of course, today, his efforts would themselves be viewed as socialism. Which in fact strikes me as very odd.

Eisenhower considered a nation a people who banded together for their mutual good. That's pretty much the view of the great liberal thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. But, of course, now we have people who fancy themselves conservatives, yet push the radical notion that Ayn Rand was fond of, that:
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
That's from the website of the Ayn Rand Institute. I've never been quite clear on why Rand thought this was the case; certainly the doctrine would have been foreign to most of this nation's heroes, such as Nathan Hale, who on being hanged by the British said, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country."

Certainly it would have been foreign to my father, who devoted his life to the service of his country as an Air Force officer, and I expect it would have been foreign to Eisenhower as well.

But over the years, an increasingly large segment of the population seems to feel alienated from the social contract and the government that it produced. They seem to view it as an alien hand,  a part of themselves that acts independently of their will and often against their wishes.

But without the hand of the state, are we not condemned to the state Thomas Hobbes spoke of?
 Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
What could make that risk worth while?

Well, there's another way of viewing wealth. We can look at it in terms of positional status. This is compatible with Rand's doctrine of the virtue of selfishness.

Even if the nation is poorer, some people will be richer than others. And being richer is what's important to some people. When we hear Republican presidential candidates such as Herman Cain and Mitt Romney speaking of people who object to the inequity in our society as acting on "envy," we hear the voice of someone who understands wealth in terms of positional status. The notion that people might think the country as a whole would be better off if all its people had access to a good education and adequate health care is foreign to such people, because what they care about is their status in relation to others. What they are saying is that if they were not wealthy, they would be envious.

Which makes it strange that they wish to take the office of the presidency, the person who most embodies the actions of that alien hand, the government. Why would they seek such an office?

Presumably, they seek it for purposes more familiar to Ayn Rand than Dwight Eisenhower.  I presume that each seeks the office for "his own rational self-interest" rather than to be of service to others.

But of course, Eisenhower sought, and won, the presidency at a time when there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and although he was regarded as a good Republican, he was never regarded as particularly conservative, whatever E.J. Dionne, Jr., might think. He held the presidency at a time when the nation was less divided, and a man with impeccable military credentials and the backing of the business community could invest in the nation.

A Republican I know told me a few months ago that this will be a national greatness election. If that is the case, let's talk about what it takes to really make the nation strong -- not just investments in weapons and soldiers, but investments that will make the nation our military represents stronger. Let's have a real discussion of what makes this country great, not just more chest pounding and sabre rattling.

What made the allies' victory possible was American productivity. The "arsenal of democracy" was not the product of selfish acts, it was the product of a social contract that, as our constitution says, looked after the "general welfare." We now seem to have too many people who think the social contract is void, the general welfare is a parasite, and the government is an alien hand. How foreign it must seem to read in Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution that...
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to
pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United
 ...when you are only ready to admit to the legitimacy of the common defense.

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