Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A not-so-great society

On Monday, Bob Herbert paused to remember FDR in honor of the 60th anniversary of his death, and to bemoan the fact that liberalism is dead as well.

Roosevelt's vision gave conservatives in both parties apoplexy in 1944 and it would still drive them crazy today. But the truth is that during the 1950's and 60's the nation made substantial progress toward his wonderfully admirable goals, before the momentum of liberal politics slowed with the war in Vietnam and the election in 1968 of Richard Nixon.

Herbert is right to praise FDR, whose legacy is under attack by modern conservatives. FDR saved capitalism; he did not destroy it as his detractors would have us believe. However, there are a few problems with Herbert's broader argument. For one, Nixon may have run as a conservative, but he governed as a liberal, expanding the welfare state and dabbling in centralized economic planning by instituting wage and price controls.

Second, to argue that liberalism, if left unchecked, would have transformed America into a utopia of liberty, fraternity and equality is to engage in no small amount of revisionism. Modern American liberalism did not merely fall out of fashion, nor was it subverted by vengeful conservatives. It collapsed of its own weight. The New Deal may have been a necessary curative for the ravages of the Great Depression and the excesses of capitalism, but it would spawn the Great Society, which was the height of government hubris and paternalism. Liberalism devolved from an answer to laissez-faire capitalism to a collection of grievances, from the belief that we bear collective responsibility for the welfare of our society to the belief that government will do for us what we should do for ourselves.

I just hope I'm around to write the eulogy for conservatism as well.


Blogger Ol' Froth said...

That is one of the best analysis I've read. FDR's New Deal was a response to what were, in essence, revolutionary pressures in the U.S. Radical socialism and Communism were on the rise here, and FDR effectivly relieved that pressure until the full employment and technological advances of WWII could pull us fully out of recession. The Great Society looked great on paper, and I think its ideals are worth striving for, but it would be better to take those ideals gradually, rather than by the ladelful.

1:56 PM

Anonymous Amos the Poker Cat said...

Nixon also initiated the EEOC, and the EPA.

The whole thread about FDR misses the point that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that been turned into a direct generation transfer of wealth regardless of poverty.

4:59 PM

Anonymous Amos the Poker Cat said...

As ironic symmetry with Nixon (in soooo many ways), Bill Clinton (via National Health Care) was the one that "killed" liberalism, i.e. broke the 40+ year hegemony of the democrats in the House of Rep.

Hmm, 1932 (FDR) to 1994 (Clinton mid year), 62 years. That was 11 years ago, so you might have to wait another 51 years.

Live long and prosper. ;-)

5:14 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Clinton helped kill liberalism through his successes as well, namely welfare reform, which he was talking about even before the 1994 GOP victory.

As for Social Security, I have to laugh everytime I see a conservative refer to it as a Ponzi scheme, as though there is something deceptive about it. I think it's clear to anyone who pays attention how the system works. Besides, it's not as if it's the only government program in which some people benefit more than others, or in which some people will never get a fair return on their investment of tax dollars.

Social Security was never meant to be an investment program. It's insurance against destitution, either in old age or in the event of disability. If left alone, it would remain solvent until, what, 2042? 100 years is a pretty good run for any government program. (That certainly isn't an endorsement for doing nothing, by the way.)

Now, I agree that it should probably be means-tested, and if the nation were creating a retirement system from scratch, then I would want something else. But as a supplement to private pensions, it's worked well. The problem compounding its long-term unsustainability is the disappearance of private pension plans, and the failure of most Americans to invest adequately for their retirement.

8:48 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

One more thing--it is conceivable that the conservative realignment might have happened sooner, were it not for Watergate, which gave the Democrats a new but brief lease on life.

1:53 PM

Anonymous amos the poker cat said...

I laught when ever liberals talk about Clinton, and welfare reform. Clearly, the only reason why he signed virtually the same bill that he repeatedly vetoed was Dick Morse's "triangulation", more style than substance.

Webster defines a Ponzi scheme as "an investment swindle in which some early investors are paid off with money put up by later ones". That describes social security to me, especially since social security is the one welfare program which is pitched as "insurance", which it is not.

2042 is a phony projection. This assumes that the "trust fund" is something other than Enron-like accounting artifact. 2018 is a more honest tipping point when spending will exceed tax funding.

2:54 PM

Anonymous Amos the Poker Cat said...

One wonders why Nixon would crash and burn his presidency over a third rate burglary in search of some sort of election advantage info, when he would go on to win the election with 60%+, and 49 states?

Clearly, Nixon resigning did not help, the Republicans went from 192 members of the House in '73 to 143 members in '75.

Strangely, Reagan had 192 R's in the house in '81. Midterm elections reduced that to 166 members. So, was that a set back, or midterm fluctuations?

3:31 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

This is a tiresome debate, but I would point out that difference between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme is that no one is trying to hide the fact that current workers pay for current retirees. Except, of course, for backers of the president's plan, who continually downplay the costs of transitioning to something else.

3:36 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

The party that holds the White House traditionally loses seats in mid-term elections; that trend has been broken the last two mid-terms, in 1998 and 2002.

I don't think a Carter presidency would have happened without Watergate. The fact that McGovern was the best the Dems could do in 1972 was an indication of party weakness.

3:38 PM

Anonymous Amos the Poker Cat said...

Yes, it is tiresome. I disagree with the premise of "no one is trying to hide the fact that current workers pay for current retirees". With decades of spin about insurance, and trust funds, the democrats have eliberately build the illusion that social security is not just yet another welfare transfer payment, albeit one with generous means testing.

There is also the fact that the first generation that retired under social security got back ten's of multiples of taxes paid compared to current generations which will get back 2x to 70% of taxes paid. That looks like a Ponzi scheme, first out gets lucky, last out is stuck holding the bag.

The costs of any transition exist no matter if you take the hit sooner (Bush's plan), or later (do nothing, and borrow to fund the Trust Fund).

7:20 PM

Anonymous Amos the Poker Cat said...

Yes, Carter would not have been elected with out Nixon. Would Reagan been elected without Carter??

Even with weak dem prez candidates like McGovern, and Mondale, the democrats retained the House, and won back the Senate twice. I think the 60 some years that the democrats held the House is some sort of record, and therefore it really is a landmark event. The 20ish years between Nixon resigning, and Clinton losing the house in '94 is more than breif lease renewal.

Welfare reform passed in '96.

7:35 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I think it's hard to argue that without Watergate, the GOP would have taken back Congress perhaps 10 years sooner.

Bush's plan will not really address the long-term solvency of Social Security. At least Lindsay Graham has acknowledged that other measures, like increasing the income cap on Social Security taxes, will be needed.

And I didn't hear too many Republicans crowing about intergenerational transfers of wealth when they passed the massive prescription drug benefit last year.

9:56 AM

Anonymous Amos the Poker Cat said...

I think it is impossible to quantify any exact amount of time. 10 years would have put Republican control of Congress in the mid 80's instead of '94. At that point in time, there was still a hardcore no southern Republican point of view. That is more to do with 1865 than 1974.

You could not turn on talk radio, or read any right of center magazine without finding dozens of articles critical of the drug deal.

Bush's plan is not a solution, but it is a start. There need to be a basic change in the way we feel about social security before it can be fixed.

The Dem fix for Social Security is? whistling through the graveyard? We will start to find out in 2018.

10:15 PM


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