Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Jan/130

Can America Be Fixed?

One of our Arendt Center members sent me this latest article from Fareed Zakaria. The numbers can be dizzying, but the basic thesis is one that we at the Arendt Center have been worrying about: Overspending on entitlements and debt are bringing about a situation in which the essential public role of government is being crowded out by its social demands. As Zakaria writes,

The continued growth in entitlements is set to crowd out all other government spending, including on defense and the investments needed to help spur the next wave of economic growth. In 1960, entitlement programs amounted to well under one-third of the federal budget, with all the other functions of government taking up the remaining two-thirds. By 2010, things had flipped, with entitlement programs accounting for two-thirds of the budget and everything else crammed into one-third. On its current path, the U.S. federal government is turning into, in the journalist Ezra Klein's memorable image, an insurance company with an army. And even the army will have to shrink soon.

No doubt government has the role of helping its citizens in need. And our modern entitlement programs are an essential part of a just polity. But we now risk misunderstanding government for insurance. So much so that, according to the a report by Third Way, in 2029 the US will spend as much on social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and debt payments as it takes in from taxes. Everything else we want to spend money on as a country will have to come from either higher taxes or further debt.

The real problem here is not economic so much as political. It is easy to say that the US has always been partisan and that it is very American to disdain government.  Zakaria offers perspective, citing a 1975 report from the Trilateral Commission entitled The Crisis of Democracy, that predicted gloom in the United States and Europe. We should be aware of a human tendency to elevate our present difficulties into tragic flaws. And yet, simply because last time things worked out, we should not assume that they will this time as well.

What is different this time? While the United States remains a vibrant economy, its political system is increasingly broken. It is captured by special interests and addicted to debt. We spend $4 on our elderly population for every $1 we spend on our young. Schools are failing. We are cutting public pensions and obliterating private pensions outright with 401k savings programs that don’t provide people enough money to live on. Bridges are falling. Our roads, railways, and airports are in disrepair. And our political debate is consumed with taxes and spending. I know wise cynics say politics is politics, but the present idiocy does seem different. We should never assume that just because it worked out the last time, it will again. There are moments of new occurrences in politics. And it is possible that our current political crisis really does portend something new.

Image: Matt Collins

At least the public seems to think so:

Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time." By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

Zakaria offers numbers upon numbers. I am sure some are more right than others. But the overall trend is undeniable. His essay is more than worth a read.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16May/123

Political Scientists Bemoan Funding Cuts

Political scientists around the country are in a huff here, and here, and here. The reason has little to do with the upcoming election, the vacuum in political leadership, or the state of the world. No, they are upset because Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake has proposed cutting the National Science Foundation's Political Science Program that awards about $11 Million a year to support political science research.

The anger and posturing are extraordinary. And political scientists are rushing to defend the relevance and necessity of their research. Special anger is directed at Congressman Flake's blindness to the import of a $700,000 NSF proposed study to develop "A multi-level, agent-based model for identifying the factors that enable or constrain international climate change negotiations." I have no doubt such a study has uses. But I do wonder if those writing the study could make those uses more accessible. They write:

The goal of our research is to develop a new tool for international climate policy analysis based on the concept of agent-based modeling (ABM).  ABM facilitates a more realistic and simultaneous treatment of the diverse forces which influence multi-party decisions.  Our model will represent both the international climate negotiation process, as well as the key dynamics of domestic economies relevant to energy and climate change.  Some key questions to be explored with our model include: Are there patterns of innovation, adaptation, or climate damages that emerge from an ABM representation of an economy that are obscured by conventional assessments? ...

The authors then provide this graphic to illustrate what they mean:

I don't want to disparage the research, which I am sure will be of interest to a subset of academic political scientists. This research may even, over years, produce insights that gradually merge with the fruits of other research to change and even improve our understanding of how multiparty negotiations impact complicated international topics.  And, yes, $700,000 is less than a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But when looking at the Federal Budget, at a time when students are being forced into bankruptcy because they can't repay student debt, is this where the government should be spending its money?

Congressman Flake, who I never have heard of before happens to have a Masters degree in Political Science; he understands that these grants have multiple uses. First, they advance the general knowledge of the social sciences. They also advance the careers of the political scientists who win them.  What is more, the vast majority of the funds dispersed go to subsidize the administrative costs at our nation's colleges and universities. And here is where the proposed funding looks mighty suspect.

The researchers proposing this study are from Dartmouth. Dartmouth is a fine school, also a small school that happens to have an endowment of over $3 Billion dollars. As Congressman Flake notes,

According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.

The outrage of the political science community at these cuts is more than misplaced.

We may wonder why political science and not anthropology. I guess the first answer is that Congressman Flake is a political scientist and thus is beginning to cut in the areas he knows best. But the bigger issue is that these cuts are just the beginning of a desperately needed rethinking of what the federal government should be spending money on at a time of coming austerity.

The beauty of the American system is the dispersion of power. The federal government does not control all the levers of power or all the money in the USA. If the NSF cannot or does not fund a study, those who feel the need for that study have plenty of other pots to dip their hands into. There are a myriad of foundations and universities that support an enormous amount of social science research. The issue is not that necessary research may not get done, but that there will now be one fewer pot. That is sad for political scientists, but not a tragedy. Indeed, political scientists might ask: How has bureaucratic federal grant-making changed and influenced the nature of political science research?

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.