The Hannah Arendt Center has followed the shadow dance of the fiscal cliff less for its fiscal than for its political lessons. While a deal was struck, it is hard not to be impressed by the breakdown of our political class. Like the Europeans, we are now officially kicking the can down the road, refusing to address our meaningful problems. There is, in short, no political will and no political leadership with the courage and willingness to act in ways that might help us imagine a new way out of our predicament.
One could say it is the fault of voters. But there is a funny thing happening in politics. The House of Representatives, which is supposed to be the most populist of the major branches of government, is the one branch of government that is calling loudly for painful spending cuts and resisting the rise of our out-of-control debt. True the House is calling for tax cuts, but so too did the Senate and the President. What distinguishes the House now is its insistence on cutting spending. The Senate and President—imagined to be more protected from popular will—are instead combining now to cut taxes, increase spending, and keep the gravy train of government-subsidized stimulus flowing. In a strange way, it is the political body most responsive to voters that is at least calling for change—even if the House Republicans refuse to be honest about what those changes would be or what they would mean. Why or how has this political inversion happened?
One of the few Senators who voted against the compromise is Michael Bennett, the Democratic Senator from Colorado who was supposed to be cliff jumping in Vail (it’s nice here!) but stayed in Washington to vote “No.” Interviewed by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Bennett says: “Going over the cliff is a lousy choice and continuing to ignore the fiscal realities that we face is a lousy choice.” Bennett, a free thinking Democrat, knows that things have to change.
"The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same,” he said. “I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation.
But what is it about the system that needs to change? Some see this as simply a matter of policy. Nouriel Roubini, writing today in the Financial Times, thinks taxes need to go up for all Americans to help support a welfare state that is drastically underfunded and yet ever-so necessary:
Neither Democrats nor Republicans recognise that maintaining a basic welfare state, which is right and necessary in our age of globalisation, rapid technological change and demographic pressure, implies higher taxes for the middle class as well as for the rich. A deal that extends unsustainable tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans is therefore a pyrrhic victory for Mr. Obama.
Roubini may very well be right. But as he himself recognizes, the political will to exercise this transformation is simply not there. What that means policy wise, I do not know.
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
There is probably no presidential speech more quoted in Academic circles than Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech, on the final day of his presidency. It was in that speech that Eisenhower warned of the danger of a military-industrial complex.
The need for a permanent army and a permanent arms industry creates, he writes, a gargantuan defense establishment that would wield an irresistible economic, political, and spiritual influence. In the face of this military-industrial complex, we as a nation must remain vigilant.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Eisenhower's speech was prescient. Particularly academics love to point to his speech to criticize bloated defense spending and point to the need to critically resist the military demands for more weapons and more soldiers. They are undoubtedly right to do so.
This is true even as today the military may be the one significant institution in American life where top leaders are arguing that America's world preeminence is not sustainable. In Edward Luce's excellent new book Time to Start Thinking, he describes how military leaders are convinced that the U.S. "should sharply reduced its "global footprint" by winding up all wars, notably in Afghanistan, and by closing peacetime military bases in Germany, South Korea, the UK, and elsewhere." The military leaders Luce spoke to also said that the US must learn to live with a nuclear Iran and "stop spending so much time and resources on the war against Al-Qaeda." Military leaders, Luce reports, are upset that "In this country 'shared sacrifice' means putting a yellow ribbon around the oak tree and then going shopping." Many military people seem to share Admiral Michael Mullen's view that the US national debt is the "country's number one threat—greater than that posed by terrorism, by weapons of mass destruction, and by global warming." One must think hard about the fact that military leaders see the need for "shared sacrifice" that will shrink the military-industrial complex while Americans and their elected leaders still speak about tax cuts and stimulus.
Too frequently forgotten in Eisenhower's speech, or even simply overlooked, is the fact that Eisenhower follows his discussion of the military-industrial complex with a similar warning about the dangers of a "revolution in the conduct of research." Parallel to the military-industrial complex is the danger of a university-government complex. (Hat Tip, Tom Billings (see comments)). Eisenhower writes:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
Just as modern warfare demands a huge and constant arms industry, so too does the technological revolution demand a huge and constant army of researchers and scientists. This army can only be organized and funded by government largesse. There is a danger, Eisenhower warns, that the university-government complex will take on a life of its own, manufacturing unreal needs (e.g. a Bachelor of Arts degree in order to manage an assembly line) and liberally funding research with little regards to quality, meaning, or need. While the university-government complex is not nearly as expensive or dangerous as the military-industrial complex, there is little doubt that it exists.
Eisenhower warns of a double threat of this university-government complex. First, the nation's scholars could be dominated by Federal employment, and gear their research to fit with governmental mandates. And second, the opposite danger, that "public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
The existence and power of just such a scientific-technological elite is undeniable today. On the one side are the free-market idealogues, those acolytes of Friedman, Hayek, and Coase, who insist that policy be geared towards rational, self-regulating, economic actors. That real people do not conform to theories of rational behavior is a problem with the people, not the theories.
On the other side are the welfare-state adherents, who insist on governmental support for not only the poor, but also the working classes, the bankers, and corporations. The sad fact that 50 years of anti-poverty programs have not alleviated poverty or that record amounts of money spent on education has seen educational attainment decrease rather than increase is seen to be no argument for the failure of technocratic-governmental solutions. It just means more money and more technical know-how are needed.
It is simply amazing that people in academia can actually defend the current system that we are part of. Of course there are good schools and fine teachers and serious students. But we all know the system is a failure. Graduate students are without prospects; faculty spend so much time publishing articles and books that no one reads; administrators make ever more - sometimes twelve times as much as full professors-and come more and more to serve as the lifeblood of universities; and it is the rare student who amidst the large classes, absent faculty, and social and financial pressures, somehow makes college an intellectual experience.
The idea and practice of college needs to be re-imagined and re-thought. Entrenched interests will oppose this. But at this point the system is so broken that it simply cannot survive. On a financial level, large numbers of universities are being kept afloat on the largesse of federal student loans. If those loans were to disappear or dry up, many colleges would disappear or at the least shrink greatly. This should not happen. And yet, putting our young people $1 trillion in debt is not an answer. For too long we have been paying for our lifestyles with borrowed money. We are now used to our inflated lifestyles and unwilling to give them up. Something will have to give.
The current cost of a college education is unsustainable except for the very top schools that attract the very richest students who then fund endowments that allow those schools to subsidize economic, national, and racial diversity. For schools that cannot attract the wealthiest or do not have endowments that protect them from market forces, change will have to come. This will mean, in many instances, faculty salaries will decrease and costs will have to come down. In other colleges, costs will rise and university education will be ever less accessible. Either way, the conviction that everyone needs a liberal arts degree will probably be revised.
I have no crystal ball showing where this will all lead. But there are better and worse ways that the change will come, and I for one hope that if we turn to honestly thinking about it in the present, the future will be more palatable. This is the debate we need to have.