walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 20, 2012
Beyond Blue 8: Even The Dems Can’t Hack It Anymore

The conventional wisdom today holds that deep splits between conservatives and liberals have paralyzed the United States government. The country needs major changes, fast, writers like Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum say in their recent book That Used to Be Us, but polarized politics have stopped change dead in its tracks.

Actually, the situation is a little bit more complex — and the news is substantially better than Friedman and Mandelbaum fear. Yes, there is partisan gridlock and bad feeling in American politics. But we are not as stuck or as deadlocked as it may appear. The forces driving change are stronger than many understand while the forces resisting it are weaker and more divided than things sometimes look. The blue social model is breaking up; the outlines of a new social order are beginning to appear.

Politically, it’s clear that of the two parties Democrats tend to be most closely tied up in the blue social model, and Republicans, though not without some blue sensibilities of their own, tend to promote more aggressive reform. But the necessity to move toward something that takes us beyond the blue model is increasingly felt on both sides of the aisle. The public union wing of the Democratic Party and its close allies want to defend the old model and even expand it, but increasing numbers of Democratic officeholders — including the governors of New York, California and Illinois — are moving (sometimes out of conviction, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of both) toward something beyond the old style of liberal governance.

There is an anti-government case for moving beyond the blue model and there is a pro-government case. Some people will push to transform the civil service and increase the productivity of workers in government and government-related services (above all, health and education) because restructuring and re-engineering government is the only way they can provide the services they want the public sector to provide. This is the pro-government case for converting blue institutions into something new: if the government and the social service sector tie themselves to a less productive, more expensive way of working, government will inevitably do less — and do it more expensively — than necessary.

This is what motivates people like New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo. He is a Democrat and by historical standards a liberal Democrat, but he understands that Albany simply doesn’t get enough done at a price the state can afford. He understands that whatever your opinion on how much free healthcare the state should provide, the current system — including powerful unions who keep wages high, push for unsustainable pensions, want to preserve arcane job descriptions that make management inefficient and keep uneconomic facilities open — simply has to change.

Look for this perception to spread among the advocates of government power. Clumsy, inefficient and expensive government doesn’t work for anybody; the old style of organizing and managing government with 1950s style bureaucratic structures and post office-style staffing patterns of a large but inefficiently deployed unionized staff is a Democratic dream-killer as well as a Republican nightmare. Progressive-era lifetime bureaucracies using midcentury administrative and management procedures can’t address the issues of our times.

The field in which bipartisan blue bashing is most advanced is education. The incompetence, mediocrity, high cost structure and all-around dysfunctional nature of backward blue staffing and management patterns in large public school systems increasingly appall Democrats as well as Republicans. Many of the things President Obama says about education are more radical (in the post blue sense, not the Jeremiah Wright sense) than many Republicans were willing to say ten or fifteen years ago. Deep blue Democratic bastions like the District of Columbia and the City of New Orleans are on the cutting edge of the charter school movement — not that charter schools are a panacea for the complex and intractable problems of urban schools.

The teachers unions are fighting a bitter rearguard action, and by no means have they lost their influence in Democratic Party politics and state and local governments, but across the country the unions are often fighting Democrats rather than Republicans as Democratic elected officials work to do something about the state of our schools. The New Republic attacked the very idea of tenure for K-12 educators in a recent editorial, saying essentially that the concept is indefensible.

This isn’t going to fade away. Democrats once explained their votes in favor of rent control by saying that there are more tenants than there are landlords; in education there are more parents and taxpayers than there are teachers. Ultimately even most Democratic officeholders in deep blue cities can’t keep raising taxes to please teachers while parents fume about poor educational results. Something has to give, and increasingly, that something is the traditional school system as charter schools and other forms of innovation push ahead.

This process has a long way to go; ultimately the command and control bureaucracies (typically blue in being overstaffed, rigid and inefficient) in school districts will need to be disempowered and/or restructured as teachers and parents and local school leaders move to disintermediate clunky and increasingly unnecessary layers of administration. Here the decentralized nature of American federalism will accelerate reform. With fifty states plus the District of Columbia, and with many local units of government enjoying substantial autonomy within each state, there are many places where innovation can happen. And given the rapid circulation of information in this country, what succeeds in one place will soon be tried in others.

American public education today is alive with experiment, innovation and competition. Driven by relentless cost pressure on the one hand and by the dissatisfaction of parents and the educated public in general with the system’s results, American K-12 education faces anything but gridlock and stagnation.

After education, the area where Democrats as well as Republicans are moving to trim or even abolish blue model programs is pensions: more and more Democratic politicians — including Governor Brown in California — understand that the old system doesn’t work. Generous pensions were fine as long as you didn’t have to make much of a tradeoff between paying pensions and covering current expenses. But after years of evasion and deceit, the bills are coming due.  The underfunding of state and local pensions isn’t just showing up as shadowy future deficits projected ten and twenty years down the road; it is showing up as actual costs that have to be paid out of current revenues right now. Do you pay off the geezers and fire the cops, or do you keep the cops on the beat and stiff the retirees?

Again, the unions want Democrats to fall on their swords for an unsustainable system. Democratic constituencies need good state and municipal services; they need policemen and firefighters. But pension costs are exploding so rapidly that many jurisdictions around the country are having to cut current services to cover the unpaid commitments they made of old. And there isn’t much room left for tax increases in most blue havens; sales taxes, gas taxes, sin taxes, income taxes, property taxes, tolls, corporate and small business taxes: about the only rich source left is the old Henry VIII pot of gold — the revenues and endowments of charitable non-profits and above all private universities.

In the end, Democratic officeholders are looking at the same math Republicans see: they cannot maintain current levels of service at current pay levels and also pay off their pension obligations. They are attacking the weak first — cutting pay and benefits for new state and local government hires. With their own union leaderships in league with politicians to protect the geezers rather than advocate for new hires and young workers, new state and local workers around the country are getting it in the neck.

This looks more than likely to undermine public unions before too much longer. Why should the young pay dues to those who betray them and sacrifice their interests to protect pensions the youth will never receive?

But the math will continue to force change. Democrats will have to streamline government, trim fat, stop featherbedding and generally remake state and local government into something leaner and meaner because they have no choice. (This logic will be felt at the federal level last because Congress has its own printing press; still, in the end the powers of arithmetic will be felt even in the halls of the Congress.) Whether it involves outsourcing, radical restructuring, an end to job tenure, or more flexible forms of organization in government agencies, look for waves of change in the way government works.

This won’t just be about structure and administration; it will be about finding new ways to regulate — and new ways to cut the costs and delays associated with compliance. There is more than one reason that Democrats will be looking to reorganize the state: they want a powerful and effective state, and the bureaucratic-administrative model we have inherited from the pre-computer Progressive Era isn’t good enough to get the job done. Life-tenured bureaucrats, many of whom are incompetent time servers (just ask anyone who has worked in the government about this), wedded to rigid procedures and addicted to routines are increasingly incapable of responding to real demands for governance. The Deputy Associate Commissioner in the Office of Circumlocution follows laboriously written guidelines that were crafted in another era and can’t now be reworked without an act of Congress. Vacancies can’t be filled and orders can’t be placed without torturous procedures being followed, regardless of whether the procedures actually work.

This isn’t just a problem with one particular office or one particular hiring manual or purchase order guidelines. It is a general problem of bureaucratic administration. Our models of governance and administration have become counterproductive. They are outmoded. They are overwhelmed.

The modern bureaucratic government is like Philip II of Spain, the Spider King. He sat at the center of his labyrinth at the Escorial, endlessly toiling, never resting, as he painstaking scratched comments, queries and instructions on the teeming piles of documents his officials brought in from his globe-girdling domains. The king was overworked, the realm badly governed. The system wasn’t adequate to the circumstances; the kingdom had outgrown the government; the volume of business to be done, the complexity of questions to be addressed and the speed at which decisions needed to be taken quite overwhelmed the capacity of the world’s most industrious monarch until it was hard to say who was worse off — the king or the kingdom.

Despite occasional feeble and halfhearted efforts to “reinvent government”, the structure and culture of the Executive Branch and its administrative offshoots today lags far behind contemporary best practice. Whether it is managing information or making decisions, the government structure today is simply not up to its task.

Republicans and anti-blue statists will want to fix this because bad government is big government and takes a terrible toll on the economy (cumbersome procedures, bad decisions, a large and expensive staff). But smart proponents of a strong federal government will also want to change this status quo because the state as presently constituted is simply not able to take on all the missions they would like to see addressed.

Just as we once saw competing Republican and Democratic versions of Progressive politics, so going forward we will see competing Republican and Democratic versions of post-blue politics. I can’t predict how these partisan battles will come out, but it seems likely that through it all, the government will be remade and the bureaucratic administrative state that has dominated American life since the New Deal will transform.

The big changes that come in American history may originate with or be primarily based in one political party, but because both parties are rooted in society neither can ultimately be unresponsive to the cultural and political shifts that affect the whole body politic. The Republican Party was the anti-slavery party par excellence, but the Civil War could not have been won without the support of Northern Democrats. At the turn of the twentieth century there were Republican and Democratic progressives and populists. The Republicans of the mid twentieth century largely embraced the New Deal legacy, and Richard Nixon (wage and price controls on top of Keynesian economics, support for the EPA) was well to the blue of many Democrats today. The Civil Rights Act had a majority of both parties behind it.

The shift to a post-blue society is one of these great historical developments that over time moves the whole country. Senator Ted Kennedy supported airline deregulation; the Bill Clinton administration relentlessly pushed forward financial deregulation and trade policies that helped push blue America to the wall. Welfare reform was an issue on which many Democrats supported policies that broke with some of the most hallowed tenets of blue social thought.

This is not to say that there is no difference between the parties or that Democrats remain closer to the blue model in many ways than their GOP rivals. But it does suggest that the move beyond blue is not just an aberration, an ideological itch being pushed by a radical faction belonging to one political party. It is one of those many-sided, complicated stories of political and institutional renewal that have marked American history from the beginning.  It’s the real thing, and it has a long way still to run.

I’ve written before that this isn’t just an American challenge. Virtually every advanced country in the world faces some combination of economic stagnation due to blue model rigidities, tight government finance and mind-boggling pension debt. America’s comparative advantage isn’t that we avoid these problems better than other people. It isn’t even that we are all that much smarter about them. It is that the responsiveness of our political system, the ability of federalism to promote experiments and a forward-looking, optimistic approach to change, combine so that we tend to overcome these problems faster than other big countries.

Ritual wailing and heart rending cries of doom to one side, it appears that the US is once again reinventing itself and shedding an old social model faster and with less fuss than, for example, the European Union. We won’t do it perfectly and we won’t do it instantaneously, but once again the US looks like it will get to the future a little bit faster than the rest of the advanced world.

Image courtesy Shutterstock.

show comments
  • Kris

    “The field in which bipartisan blue bashing is most advanced is education.”

    WigWag to the rescue! :-)

    “Philip II of Spain, the Spider King”

    Did his Most Catholic Majesty never read Exodus 18:13-26?

  • JKB

    The real problem with the pension “adjustment” is that eventually the current workers will realize that their pension are equally worthless. As pension is part of compensation, either employee will accept this deep cut in pay or they will demand the same compensation but in cash on the barrelhead at the time service is rendered rather than unenforceable promises of some future pension. Not unlike the stock option pay of the internet boom which became so much vapor as the companies crashed and burned. So either workers will have to accept a lower standard of living or companies will have fewer funds to invest as more current receipts go to payroll. This will be the deflation of wages(compensation) which may very well feed deflation of good and services even as prices rise due to massive printing of dollars.

  • Toni

    “This is not to say…that Democrats remain closer to the blue model in many ways than their GOP rivals.” Why not? Democrats DO remain closer to the blue model.

    I’ll be happy when Prof. Mead starts looking seriously at GOP proposals to trim and overhaul government, such as Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal. It would cut the deficit by $5 trillion over a decade. Obama’s 2013 proposal would raise it by $1.5 billion over the same period.

  • Toni

    I’m sure this isn’t news to Prof. Mead — indeed, he may have helped instigate it — but the Council on Foreign Relations has officially endorsed the overhaul of blue model schools in the interests of national security.

    The news story, Weak Schools Said to Imperil Security
    The editorial, School Reform’s Establishment Turn

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “Some people will push to transform the civil service and increase the productivity of workers in government and government-related services (above all, health and education) because restructuring and re-engineering government is the only way they can provide the services they want the public sector to provide.”
    The Government Monopoly can never become the productive service provider these people envision. Because monopolies all suffer from the same problem, they lack the feedback from competition that forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price in the Capitalist System. It is this lack of feedback which killed the Soviet Union, forced the Chinese Communists to accept a Capitalist economy, and leaves Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and others as the stagnant hopeless places they are.
    The only solution to the Government Monopoly dilemma is to limit the size and scope of the Government Monopoly as our founding fathers intended in the Constitution. Those tasks which can be performed by the private sector must be performed by the private sector. Only those tasks like Defense, or Foreign policy that can only be performed by the Federal Government should be performed by the Federal Government (we will just have to live with the fact that those tasks will be performed poorly).
    Education and Healthcare should both be the responsibility of the private sector and the Government power grab in both cases is a clear violation of the US Constitution which contains no mention of either, and so the 10th Amendment controls.
    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

  • John Foster

    At the end of an article in this series, can you post a link to the other entries? I only started paying attention around #5 (sorry) and would like to read the earlier ones.

  • Tom Gates

    I am not as optimistic as Dr. Mead that the Dems will react this way. Because there is no moderate element in the party the inclination will be to continue pushing the blue model harder. The minorities have too much to lose because of the sheer numbers employed in the public sector who will be impacted and the party is basically funded by public unions and the existing model. Tort lawyers and rich billiaonaires who do not like publicity are an unreliable funding source.

    Look for a second term in the Obama administration to merge DC, DB, and governemnt retirement plans into social security creating a national retirement scheme. They will sell it utiliziing guaranteed payments that the rank and file worker will not ignore. The 1% will love the idea because it is the cheaper alternative to the welfare state for them while allowing them to keep their wealth intact. This new retirement scheme along with the eventual single payor healthcare system will “solve” all the problems of the current blue model at least as far as the current politician class is concerned. Think of all the possibilities for using that private retirement money to provide social justice and provide fair redistribution. Dr. Meade your “blue model” articles are wonderful insights but ignore that aspect of human nature that is self-destructive. Regards.

  • JOS

    The employment problem here is that the employees the government most needs will be the first out the door the minute pay and benefits start to be cut. Good managers, IT workers, and technical specialists all have plentiful (and significantly better remunerated) options in the private sector.

    Despite what some futurists would have us think, not all intelligent, driven people want to live the start-up lifestyle. Some people place a significant value on having a standard schedule, the ability to spend time with their families, and set retirement benefits and they are willing to give up pay to get these. As the mid-20th-century employer/employee relationship has faded in the private sector it’s an area where the government has been able to differentiate itself and attract people motivated by more than simply cash money. If the government “becomes more like the private sector” than this recruiting advantage disappears and people will simply go to the best offer. That isn’t going to be in the government meaning services will get much much worse as the most competent people leave or costs will shoot up as these services have to be contracted out to pay a market wage plus overhead. All too often short-term “savings” from pay accounting end up costing more in work-arounds.

    One of the chief issues is that the government still holds to a 1950s-1970s pay distribution where blue-collar workers made almost as much as highly-trained white collar workers. That’s no longer true and it means that government jobs are great for mid-level employees but always struggle to find people at upper-levels. In many cases, shifting to a private sector system would increase costs such as when you have to start paying a judge like a law-firm partner, economists like i-bankers, or scientific staff like medical doctors.

  • David

    I am a Calif. resident and I don’t think our governor belongs on any list of goveners purported to be moving beyond the old style of liberal governance.

  • Lorenz Gude

    @ WRM there is a productivity problem in health care, but it isn’t the productivity of the health care workers. Australia achievers the same health outcomes as the US for half the money – 8.5% of GDP compared to something north of 16%.. Anyone who has watched Hans Rosling’s overview of world health ( knows that modern medical outcomes are achievable by any system – capitalist, communist or anything in between. The US has enormous structural inefficiencies. Like the defacto socialized medicine anyone who can’t afford to pay gets from public hospitals built on a crazy quilt of jurisdictions and funding. Medicare costs per patient vary widely – like double – from jurisdiction to jurisdiction within single states.(New Yorker article comparing McArthur TX with El Paso) I’ve heard it said in the 90s by a former Clinton health official that 50 cents of every dollar is spent before it gets to anyone with medical qualifications. There is a theme here. The US is blowing half its healthcare budget for no gain in life expectancy. US health care has backed itself into an unsustainable corner that would seem to me to be more than simply the result of the old Blue Model.

    Here is how Australia does it. They have a centrally administered public health system that controls costs ruthlessly. There are waiting lists for elective surgery like in all government systems. But we have an alternative system of private hospitals funded by private insurance – and here is the trick. The private system has to keep costs down and offer value for money or people stop buying insurance and depend of the public system. This structure is a kind of second order competition between government run health care and private health care. In the US there isn’t even competition across state lines in health insurance the last time I heard. Personally I believe that health care works best when it is a mix of public and private as in the Autralian system, and I think there is shining example of this approach in the US, that makes me proud to be an American. The Mayo Clinic which operates efficiently and has a motto displayed prominently in its clinics – A Private Institution for the Public Good”.

  • Anthony

    “Ritual wailing and heart rending cries of doom to one side….” WRM, it may be worse than it looks; what you posit as contrasting positions (competing versions of post-blue politics) generally entertain no non empirical reason to jettison respective paradigms. Each protagonist views their respective point of view (weltanschauung) as central to what it is they are – thus without intimated cultural and political paradigm shifts it may be worse than it looks.

    However relative to essay’s comments on American public education (K-12), I viewed (PBS NEWSHOUR) forerunner of concept you proposed exhibited by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein – they modelled institutional cooperation sans party identification rooted in national interest of society (specifically K-12 education as national security matter).

  • Chase

    On education Professor, you should check out Richard Posner’s thought blog post on the subject of teacher tenure.

    While Posner is not what I would could call a conventional big government advocate, indeed he was strongly influenced by the Chicago school of econ, he is very skeptical that that the educational change movement will yield big differences in student achievement.

    “Well-funded public schools appear to do as good a job in educating kids as private schools, and at comparable cost, which is reason to doubt that a free-market model of education is superior to a government model; this conclusion is also supported by the data periodically compiled and reported by PISA (OECD Programme for International Student Assessment) on the educational performance of 15 year olds in 74 different countries.” – Richard Posner

  • Andrew Allison

    I’m a little surprised the in this typically insightful essay Prof. Mead omitted reference to a threat to Congress’s spendthrift ways, namely the Debt Limit Constitutional Amendment slowly wending its way through State legislatures. The amendment would require increases in the debt limit to be approval by a super-majority of the States, and is close to half-way to the 38 approvals needed to make it part of the Constitution (without the need for a constitutional convention!). This is a battle worth watching. The wonderful thing about this idea is that each State has an equal voice.

  • Kenny

    The only reason the teachers union have power to lead the Democratic Party around by its nose is because the blacks haven’t yet wised up to how the terrible the unionized run public schools are for their children.

    If they did, the black would abandon the Dems at election time and then that party would either reform to become respectable again or it would go the way of the Wigs.

    Frank Jackson, the black mayor of Cleveland is now demanding that Columbus enact educational reform that would effectively transfer control of the city’s from the OEA to him.

    As of to date, the democratic Party has not supported Mayor Jackson out of respect (or is it fear?) of the clout the teachers union has

    So far, in this contest between the needs of black, underprivileged children and the greed of the teacher union, the Democrats are siding with the union. Sickening.

  • Luke Lea

    I hate to be the skunk at the party, but a couple of points:

    First, our public schools due a pretty good job in many ways — if you compare apples to apples. For instance Latin Americans who graduate from high school score better in international comparisons than graduates in the countries of origins. The same goes for Asians, European Americans, and for all I know for Ashkenazis and African Americans as well.

    Where our public schools nevertheless faile is with the left-hand side of the Bell Curve. This is primarily two minorities (African-Americans and Latin-Americans) and poor whites. For though their scores may be better, the training they receive bears no relation to the opportunities they will have to earn a living in this society. They learn nothing about the trades (electrician, plumber, concrete worker, welder, etc) nor the industrial arts (machinist, boiler maker, etc) which provide the best wages and standard of living for people of their class.

    (Incidentally, Toni’s links to Foreign Policy and WSJ, which lament our failure in the STEM field — Science and Engineering — is pure bunk. We train and employ the best scientists and engineers in the world and will continue to do so as far as the eye can see. Quality is the watchword here, not quantity.

    We spend way too much money on public education, granted, with too many administrators. And our inner city public schools are a disgrace primarily because we have no mechanism to weed out incompetent teachers and disruptive students. Web cameras in every public school class room is my own proposed solution to this problem. I’ve pushed it for years and eventually it will happen.

    I might also mention that in my state, Tennessee, no pioneer in most fields, it is already possible to renew your driver’s license on-line. No doubt that eliminated a lot of positions down at the Motor Vehicles Dept., but it happened nonetheless. Social Security Administration is also a very efficient agency in my experience.

    The IRS on the other hand is woefully underfunded and undermanned, in consequence of which it fails to collect $300-to$400 billion dollars in revenues legally owed, primarily by the ten thousand wealthiest families in America (see the book Perfectly Legal). So this is an agency that needs beefing up and empowered to do its job. Red Staters oppose that of course.

    Mead hasn’t discussed healthcare yet but let me point out that the answers are all around us in those “blue-state societies” with names like Canada, Australia, Germany, France. The problem here is private greed and big business interference with government, not the other way around. In my humble opinion based on the evidence.

    I give Mead a grade of 50%,

  • styrgwillidar

    “— including Governor Brown in California — understand that the old system doesn’t work.” I think you need to rethink that, he’s standing by the ridiculous job crushing environmental regulations including cap-and-trade (despite them admittedly being based on a study with falsified data by someone forging their credentials). Sinking billions into high-speed-rail despite HSRs own advisory panel saying it’s econmically unsustainable, giving even higher benefits to the prison guard unions, and pushing for even higher taxes skewed toward the wealthy despite those steps already resulting in a 22% decline in state revenues, increasing benefits to illegal immigrants and other welfare recipients despite CA already having 33% of the nation’s welfare recipients.

    Brown is still in love with the blue model despite some rhetoric he has spewed to the contrary. Judge him by his actions, not his words.

  • thwright

    Without strong government, strong economic interests will:
    a) trash the public good (see e.g. stock yards and slaughterhouses c.1900, financial casinos c. 2008, etc. etc.),and
    b) elevate economic inequality to dangerous levels (see Gilded Age and Now).
    Yes, Government needs to be re-invented for each new age — but strengthened not weakened.
    The disastrous inefficiencies of U.S. health care are overwhelmingly caused by private (capitalistic) pressures: doctors and other health care providers make up the largest portion of the 1% (those making over $600K/annum); pharma is immensely lucrative and protected; ditto health insurance companies; and hospitals. Consumers (the “market”)have/has almost no capability of controlling these forces — only Government can do so (as it does far better than we do in the rest of the advanced countries of the world).

  • Yahzooman

    Change won’t come soon. Both national candidates this time around, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, are advocates of the Blue Model. Obama is a pedal to the metal Blue Stater while Romney is just a “55 mph, let’s not exceed the speed limit anal retentive bureaucrat.”

    We need significant change at the very top — people like Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal — to take the reins.

    While I’m hopeful for a revolutionary solution, it won’t happen this decade.


    The moonbeams still shine bright in Governor Brown’s eyes. Please note his appointment to the California Supreme Court, the most radical member of Boalt’s lefty loons. The public section lackeys in the legislature are beyond rational thought or decisionmaking. Only insolvency, complete and crushing will change the direction of the Golden State.

  • 3rdwaytime

    US Military might and US Taxpayers undergird these wonders of national health care societies. Could they have been as generous if we didn’t? Canada? No thank you, they have US to relieve their pressure. Didn’t the city of Windsor finally get 2 heart doctors to perform angioplasties in 2008? 2008? How backwards are they?

  • Richard Treitel
    points out that some parts of government are already beyond the Blue model, one example he gives being the FAA.

  • Zombie George Carlin

    The Public Good? The Public Good is neither public or good.

  • masstexodus

    The recent pension cuts in blue blue Rhode Island fit right into this thesis. No one wants to do it, but the state is simply out of money.

  • JM Hanes

    “It is that the responsiveness of our political system, the ability of federalism to promote experiments and a forward-looking, optimistic approach to change, combine….”

    The most encouraging recent development has been the high profile pushback against stultifying federal encroachments undertaken by state attorneys-general and governors. The ballot box is a powerful tool, but if a week is a long time in politics, the years between elections can be an eternity. State officials are far more directly responsive to their constituents, and even the smallest state has the standing to mount, and sustain, a challenge to the Feds that individual citizens do not.

    In this regard, education is, indeed, a special case, but one which doesn’t quite so neatly fit your post-blue formulation, as I understand it. Ignorance, and its particular susceptibility to exploitation and to charismatic leadership at almost every level, is a clear and present danger to democracy. The flexibility and experimental opportunities in a (federalist) locally/state controlled educational system have, however, been historically offset by vast intra- and interstate discrepancies in the quality of education, which serves us ill as a society and a nation. The tension between federally mandated standards and state sponsored innovation will never be satisfactorily resolved in the emblematic 10th Amendment vs. General Welfare political arena. In keeping with your new paradigm, we have a vested interest in both. I’d just suggest that in this instance, at least, we need to be talking post reddest red, as well as bluest blue.

    “Generous pensions were fine as long as you didn’t have to make much of a tradeoff between paying pensions and covering current expenses.”

    Why were generous pensions ever fine? Doesn’t anyone wonder why we should be providing government pensions at all, when most of the rest of us are not only left to rely on social security and our own provisioning, we’re simultaneously left footing the bill for government employees’ retirement funds too? What current tradeoffs do public servants now make for such singular future security? They enjoy good salaries, protected jobs, great benefits at comparatively minuscule cost to themselves, and at the federal, if not state, level, insulation from the economic devastation which is crippling private sector, non-union, employment. I don’t object to special incentives and rewards for those who risk their lives in public service, but why should I be providing such extra security to bureaucrats at the literal “expense” of my own?

  • ThomasD

    The Twentieth Century provides stark examples of what a government must look like in order to ‘make the trains to run on time.’

    In a representative republic the government sector will always prove the least economic option.

    Taken alone this is a good argument for restricting government involvement to those things that only government can effectively produce – a national defense, judiciary, standards of weight and measurement, etc. (ie. the stuff actually SPELLED OUT in the Constitution.)

    Never mind what will inevitably follow when government persists in such uneconomic folly – financial ruin, tyranny, or possibly both.

  • William Bell

    Dr. Mead should read up on public choice theory. The institutional vices for which government bureaucracies are notorious result, in large part, from malincentives, and I see no evidence in this article that anyone has figured out how to rectify them.

  • alex scipio

    I’m not at all sure this change away from Blue will come prior to the death of the Baby Boom generation. Both sides refuse to listen to the other. Both sides (ignorantly) think they are the smartest generation ever to walk down the block, when in fact they are the worst.

    Blue Boomers think unions are more important than education, the economy, taxes, national defense, security, indivudal rights, liberty, etc., etc.

    Red Boomers think abortion and homosexuality are more important than education, the economy, taxes, national security, individual rights, liberty, etc., etc.

    When the vote was given to 18-yr olds in 1972 we had two political parties who disagreed on some stuff, but believed in a strong America, and got stuff done. And the Debt was $400B. And we’d invented the modern world. Now that Boomers have been voting and holding office for 40 years, our Debt is $16T, we’ve inventend nothing, and the two Boomer-dominated parties never get anything done – one won’t even pass a budget they are legally required to pass.

    But another thing driving the change away from Blue – which also is generational, and something I think Dr Mead overlooks at his peril in this series, is this: Democrats don’t have kids.

    People, including senators, congressmen, pundits, etc., don’t understand that Democrat demographics are foundational in understanding their politics. Without that understanding one CANNOT grasp WHY Democrats don’t care about debt.

    Democrats are demanding all these entitlements and bennies – which ALL are a huge cost on future generations. BUT Democrats are NOT populating those future generations. Everyone counting on Democrats to have kids, or assuming Democrats have kids at the same rates as other groups and so care explicitly – rather than only academically – about the future, just has not looked at Blue state (and Blue nation – w. Europe, Russia, Japan, etc.) demographics.

    There are three Blue states with fertility rates over 2.1 (flat): NM, NV, HI. There are an additional six Blue states with rates of 2.1 – flat. ALL densely-populated Blue states – even CA now – are shrinking in population (and in NV and NM, it’s Red counties that are growing) – Democrats are NOT populating the future generations – they don’t believe in that future enough to populate it. And their (nonexistent) children will NOT help pay the bills for the demands of Democrats today. Net, Democrats are DEMANDING to freeload off of the children of Right and Center parents. (There are only three Red states at or BELOW 2.1.)

    Why should Democrats care about future debt – or in changing away from the Blue model, the driving factor of Dr Mead’s commentary – that even the Blues recognize that their model no longer can be afforded – when neither they, nor any offspring of theirs – will be living in the future that must pay this back? For Democrats this is a truly free lunch – take all the money from future generations for todays’ vote-buying, and NEVER pay it back.

    Until the Right begins addressing this demographic issue directly, and directed at voters in the Center, the Left will continue running-up debt WE will have to pay for, which will harm OUR kids – but NOT theirs. And the Blue model will NOT go away.

    Here’s a quick 3.5-min video with charts and facts:

  • TomatoPundit

    Great article. As noted, more and more young public workers — many of whom have no choice but to pay union dues — are forced to “protect the geezers” and then “get it in the neck”. Look for more dissension in the ranks, and more attempts to opt out of the union. To which the unions will predictably respond with insults like “freeloader” and “blood sucker”, further damaging their brand with the young workers.

  • Kris

    Jacksonian@5: “Only those tasks like Defense, or Foreign policy that can only be performed by the Federal Government should be performed by the Federal Government (we will just have to live with the fact that those tasks will be performed poorly).”

    We, the Kris-ian people, demand that US foreign policy be outsourced to one Walter Russell Mead!

  • Richard Treitel

    +1 to WB@26. Yes, there are more parents than teachers, but what percentage of parents will vote for cuts to teachers’ pensions plans? And what percentage of teachers will vote for those cuts?

    US voters have long ago drifted into “learned helplessness”, which accounts in part for their tendency to direct their votes by the Three G’s (god, guns, and gays) rather than economic factors: they don’t expect their votes to make a difference to any of the above in the real world, but at least they feel good when they think they’ve voted for morality and/or freedom. Actually, “drifted” is too kind a word for how they got into that state.

  • teapartydoc

    Good article and mostly good comments. Reading Popper, Schumpeter, and Buchanan (public choice theory Buchanan) helps give insight into what might work in the future. I’m a bit of a radical myself, and would love to go about chopping down the liberal cherry orchard, but without a violent revolution, I know this won’t be happening any time soon (drat!). Administrative competence properly informed by an economically real view of human nature using a philosophy of piecemeal engine engineering will probably carry the day. But in order to successfully carry something like this out will require a leadership capable of communicating intents, purposes and goals to a wary public.

    Most of the comments above regarding health care aren’t worth comment except the one about the Australian system. One of my colleagues has worked there, and he thinks it does OK. My own preference would be to eliminate physician licensing as recommended by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom. This would bring medicine totally back into the market. If we can’t have that, perhaps the next best thing is to have a market that competes with whatever the government can afford to pay for (the only reason to go along with such a notion is that right now it can’t afford a hell of a lot. If it could, it would put the private sector out of business untill it comes back of necessity, as it has in England and is beginning to in Canada).

  • Glen

    As other commenters have noted, Professor Mead is factully wrong to include California Gov. Jerry Brown as a Democratic Party source of “post-Blue politics.”

    Veteran California political journalist John Wildermuth announced Gov. Brown’s complete surrender yesterday when he called him “just another Democrat.” As Wildermuth explained:

    If there was ever any doubt that Gov. Jerry Brown is mighty worried about the chances of passing his tax initiative come November, he eliminated it Wednesday when surrendered to the “something for nothing” wing of the Democratic Party.

    Brown let himself get rolled by the soak-the-rich crowd, giving up his long-running mantra of “shared sacrifice” without even a fight…

    For the Democrats… [Brown’s surrender] is yet another way to avoid hard, unpopular choices. Democrats already have turned down the governor’s call for cuts to welfare and college scholarships and have been dragging their feet about many other of the governor’s proposed budget reductions.

    While Brown called for balancing the budget with a mix of budget cuts and temporary taxes that would involve decisions most Democratic legislators don’t want to make. They’d rather ignore the problem and hope that a bigger tax increase will make it go away…

    When Brown ran for governor in 2010 after a 28-year hiatus, he promised to be a different type of politician, a seasoned, unambitious veteran willing to speak hard truths, tell voters what they didn’t want to hear and force legislators to deal with the reality of California’s fiscal problems.

    But with the deal he signed onto Wednesday, he became just another Democrat.

  • alex scipio

    Regarding the comments on european and other health care systems being “examples” all around us of ways to do HC better. Silly illogic drives these comments, and purposeful ignorance.

    Please keep in mind that these nations spend basically no money for defense. The American taxpayer funds their defense needs. Because the first responsiblity of ANY government is defense of people and territory, by leaving this cost to another nation – and because money is fungible – the net is that the American taxpayer is paying for 100% of these nations’ welfare safety nets and HC, and much of their defense needs.

    If America opted instead to defend America and the shipping lanes we need, and left the other nations to natural selection – you want to be free? stand-up your own military – then we arguably could cut our DoD budget by 3/5 and still keep the R&D necessary to stay ahead of any probable adversary. We could defend America with 5 carrier groups instead of 10 and 5-10 Boomer subs rather than dozens. And probably Nat Guard alone for ground forces.

    But the Left can’t win the argument on facts and logic, so they pretend that these nations all pay their own way on defense AND provide these unsustainable safety nets.

    Oh, yeah – WHY are they unsustainable? Because not one single European nation has a fertility rate anywhere close to flat: 2.1. THEY don’t believe in their own future, so why are WE spending money to keep free the future FOR those future populations not even believing in it themselves? That’s just DUMB.

  • RED

    First, our public schools due a pretty good job in many ways

    Many of us spell this “do”.

    Where our public schools nevertheless faile is with the left-hand

    Is that an Olde English spelling of fail?

  • JM Hanes

    “Many of us spell this “do.”

    And many of us have typing fingers with minds of their own, which having writ, move on.

    Some of us even think that the only thing sillier than retrospectively correcting one’s own typos, when they don’t really obscure intended messages, is making arch remarks about other people’s typos, as if such common errors were, themselves, awash in meaning.

  • MarkJ

    Methinks a lot–maybe now a majority–of Americans have come this conclusion:

    “Forget a ‘living Constitution.” What we really need is a ‘living government.'”

  • Toni

    The Aussie health care system strikes me as two-tier: private insurance for those who can afford it, and are healthy enough to get it, and the public system for everyone else.

    I don’t see an officially two-tier system flying in the U.S.

  • victoria wilson

    “Generous pensions were fine as long as you didn’t have to make much of a tradeoff between paying pensions and covering current expenses.”

    The new model will start by changing the definition of a public good. I humbly submit with deference to individuals of much grander stature than myself, that public goods are non-excludable because a community specifically designates them to be and that far from non-rivaled; they are subject to limited resources. We offer a public education to all. We police each neighborhood. We defend all our borders. We provide a safety net for all that find themselves in dire financial circumstances. But as the quote above indicates, these contracts are subject to juggling resources for their provision.

    The model will show that the formalized furnishing of public goods, in some cases, is easily matched or exceeded by the effort put forth by a community. Take for example a fifth grade class with 26 students. If each student receives twenty minutes of homework help at home, the parents are already exceeding the formalized labor the teacher’s eight hour workday. Now add the time given to book fairs, PTA meetings, community-fund raisers and after school sports and clubs. All these activities are found in schools with high test scores and missing in schools with low test scores.

    This isn’t just about revisiting government pensions. It’s about defining the goods we want to provide to all and acknowledging that the bounds of limited resources will mean giving to one, will take from another. It is about delineating a system that shows efficiencies and waste.

  • richard40

    Mead hasn’t given enough attention to conservative and libertarian proposals to actually cut government, not just reform it so it is more cost effective and sustainable. But at least Mead is miles ahead of most of the dem party, including Obama/Reid/Pelosi, who wont even entertain serious cost cutting reform, and just want more taxes, and increased gov power, justified by class warfare.


    Put me down with those who noted that Governor Brown is a true California stalwart of the Blue model… and the legislature is worse. Two-thirds of the members have never held a private industry job. Most come from public employee unions, either as rank and file members or more likely, union officers or organizers. They absolutely refuse to consider even the few modest proposals coming from Gov. Brown, and they consider the state’s arcane, extensive and often-contradictory regulations as sacrosanct. A significant portion of the state’s electorate may not be any better. An initiative being circulated for the November ballot will tax the bugaboo “big oil” to provide additional sequestered funding for education. Reform, my a**. As for “Do you pay off the geezers and fire the cops, or do you keep the cops on the beat and stiff the retirees?” The oldest political finance rule in the book is “Fire the Firemen First.” Nobody ever suggests reforming, let alone reducing, the bureaucracy. Despite the rationality of your argument, Professor Meade, I think the bluest of the Blue will be with us to their death rattle.

  • Yisroel Orenbuch

    The way forward will be what you already described as the centralization of expertise. Information can travel so cheaply now, we just have to get used to letting people make all of their decisions, then as much as possible, ship off the administration of the logistics of those decisions off to the experts.

    Consider, Amazon gives its uers as much choice as possible about what to buy [and a few choices about delivery], but then apply their expertise to the administration of the users choice in as efficient manner as possible.

    Really nice is that this can support the Federal system in that each state can maintain its sovereignty, yet share one administrative center of information.

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