A false euphoria is spreading across the non-communist West because of the evident failure of socialist ideologies. What this sense of elation at the enemies’ discomfiture obscures is that discrediting socialism does not per se authenticate capitalism.
In the past 40 years we have been so involved in containing communist threats, real and imagined, that we have let social and intellectual deficits pile up that make Reagan’s fiscal deficits look puny by comparison. It is salutary to recall that Reagan’s simpleminded strategy was to bankrupt the Soviet Union by engaging them in a Star Wars race they couldn’t afford and to undercut domestic welfare through deficits so large even bleeding-heart liberals would take the Gramm-Rudman discipline. What Reagan didn’t anticipate was that Gorbachev would opt for peace and disarmament, and that Congress and his successor would play budgetary games in order to avoid cutting entitlements or raising taxes.
The evident disarray of the enemies of capitalism seems to give a world-wide warrant for American consumerism. All the world wants to consume as easily and as unendingly as we do. But signs are also evident not only that such consumerism is not exportable, but that it is creating gridlocks of its own at home.
The odyssey a few summers back of a barge of garbage with no port of its own is an emblem of consumerism’s problematical future. And the shiny new automobiles piling up on dealers’ lots are the scary flip side of the Cornucopia with severe digestive problems.
There is something silly about an economy which overproduces cars while bridges fail silently on rainy nights due to massive decay of a long-neglected infrastructure. And while the U.S. leads the world in the creation of personal garbage and business-generated toxic wastes, we’re trying to tell Brazil not to destroy its rain forests (even though they are being cut to provide more home on the range for fast-food hamburgers on the hoof) and to caution China against using fluorocarbons in its fledgling refrigeration industry after we have led the world in poking holes in the ozone layer. These are paradoxes of “successful” capitalism that the world can ignore only at its ultimate peril.
The crisis in socialism does nonetheless give us breathing space to try to formulate better ways of dealing with breakdowns in American capitalism. I suggest three to begin with: infrastructure, the welfare system, and mass education.
It would be ideal if we could find ways of using these deficits to resolve each other. With visionary political leadership I think we might very effectively use the pathologies of the welfare system to resolve infrastructure and mass education problems. But such an enlightened agenda is going to take a lot more political candor than we’ve been blessed with lately. There are vested interests in waging war, maintaining the dependency of a welfare class and avoiding the reconstruction of our infrastructure.
Take the military-industrial complex. Every time a base is threatened with closing, local politicos band together to protect the payrolls involved. It is clearly much more lucrative for us to wage hypothetical wars than to deal with the complications of peace breaking out.
I like to think of San Francisco’s Fort Mason as a portent of what could happen on a massive scale if statesmen turned the demilitarization of the American economy toward community purposes. Fort Mason used to be the disembarkation port for American troops engaging in Pacific Ocean hostilities, from our pacification of Filipino rebels in 1899 to our meeting the real communist threat in Korea. Now it is an alternative cultural arts complex with black, Mexican, Italian and folk art museums, as well as headquarters for Western Public Radio. It’s an earnest that swords can be bent back into plowshares.
It will take an enlightened kind of pork-barreling to transfer without too much local dislocation America’s productive energies from making generations of unused—even unusable—weapons to rebuilding our infrastructure. The trouble with our euphoria at socialist discomfiture is hat we are not even talking about the needed changes and the requisite leadership. The malaise of the New Politics by hearing and counterindictment is the main reason we are not talking about what the country needs. It is a new kind of circus: Nongovernment by special prosecutor.
Similarly with our welfare crisis. One of the least-noted discoveries of the Great Society’s war on poverty was the existence of a poverty industry more interested in pushing around huge subsidies (with an expanding retinue of welfare bureaucrats) than in making the poor autonomous enough to live without safety netters. America has rightly hailed itself as a nation of tinkerers, of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants experimenters. Where are the Edisons and Fords of the slums?
A day care crisis is allegedly expanding exponentially as more and more educated women enter the two-salary work force. Why has no one figured out a way of helping welfare mothers help themselves by becoming day care providers for their own children and the children of the more middling classes?
It’s work that needs to be done. It’s work that ought to pay well.
Don’t tell me the daughters and granddaughters of those black nannies who nurtured many an upper-class child and cleaned many a middle-class household can’t be trusted to nurture latchkey children. The mix of black, white and Hispanic at an early age might even dissolve some of the racial animosities that are making our big cities more and more anxiety-ridden.
And please don’t tell me they have to be certified through a block of courses. That’s merely the mass education industry asking for its cut of entitlements in our poverty industry.
And why is it so difficult to find out a way to put corner crack dealers to work on our infrastructure? Here’s a case of how two wrongs could make a right. Heavy manual labor must be expended if the country is not to become a laughing stock of the developed countries. And muscle power is being wasted on street corners. Why are we so dilatory in putting such twos and twos together?
My answer is perhaps too simple-minded, but with fine tunings factored in. I think it will explain all we need to explain to get us off the deadening center our politics now inhabits. Our politicians are so busy cashing in on the over-privileged slice of America they control that they have no time to devote to the common causes we have hired them to attend to. They’re locked in PAC impasses. Or they’re serving servile apprenticeships in D.C. to equip themselves with the expertise to strike gold as government lobbyists.
Even cadavers can be lucrative. I’ve never forgotten my college chum’s reaction to my revisiting Detroit 15 years ago. “Detroit is dead, Pat,” he intoned, as we settled in for drinks at his new Grosse Pointe mansion. He then informed me that he had earned $300,000 the past year as a workman’s comp lawyer. Mighty lucrative corpse, I ruminated silently.
Socialism may well be in its death throes. But how thriving capitalism becomes in the future depends largely on how well we use the short breathing space we seem to be enjoying now.