You’ve been doing yeoman work charting the pitfalls of government education policy and college policies that seduce ill-prepared kids into a lifetime of debt before they even get to start a family and buy a house. Your articles have been pretty revealing, I think in large part because you have a way of dragging analytical nuggets our of largely human interest stories like Andrew Martin‘s.My problem with such articles is that they rarely look at the issues in a systematic and historical way. The same was true of many books and articles that tried to explain how the financial meltdown happened, what policies conspired to create the problem, who benefited, etc. In both subjects, most analysts don’t go back far enough. The authors want to find their favorite whipping boy and start there. For example, Democrats like to go back to Reagan and refuse to consider the glaring flaws in the underlying post-war housing policy or banking policy; they refuse to consider the role the Community Reinvestment Act had in creating mechanisms that promoted and reinforced irresponsible lending practices. Similarly, Republicans like to focus on the Community Reinvestment Act and ignore the role of post war housing policy which pushed homeownership and denigrated renting.In the case of both the financial meltdown and the education bubble, journalists want to tell the story thru the lens of suffering individuals, usually leaving readers with the impression that it’s the readers’ responsibility to fix the problem by making sure the suffering individuals are ultimately held harmless for irresponsible decisions the latter have made over a long period of time. Journalists rarely want to trace threads all the way back to the source in a program or set of policies in order to spot latent problems when they largely approve of the programs as a whole. Nobody talks about the post war baby boom’s impact on education policy, or that of the GI Bill, which I believe was the source of the policy that schools should educate as if every child were college-bound. I was in High School in the early ’60s. Even then the school was geared to college prep, and tried to discourage kids from taking trades courses, like shop.In short, someone needs to do for ed policy what writers have begun to do for Social Security, i.e., go back to the beginnings and chart the ideas that gave rise to the policies in place today.
In large part, we agree. Individuals’ stories, no matter how moving, will only get you so far in understanding a problem. A deeper, more historical, contextualized analysis is required. Indeed, that’s what we’re trying to do here at Via Meadia: to provide a framework—the decline of the blue social model in this case—with which to analyze the kinds of anecdotal stories which are the bread and butter of most journalistic reporting.We certainly hope that over time as our resources and audience grow—and so far, we are on the right track—we’ll be able to do more and to provide readers with more context, more detail, and a richer picture of the world we live in. Of course, we’ll also try to do that in an interesting way.It would be a fatal mistake to dedicate ourselves to the preservation of the blue system in today’s world, but it would be equally wrong to assume that the past got everything wrong. As we argued in the above-linked essay, the blue social model was a product of its time, and made sense, if imperfectly, for the society that invented it:
The blue social model rested on a novel post-World War II industrial and economic system. The “commanding heights” of American business were controlled by a small number of sometimes monopolistic, usually oligopolistic firms. AT&T, for example, was the only serious telephone company in the country, and both the services it offered and the prices it charged were tightly regulated by the government. The Big Three automakers had a lock on the car market; in the halcyon days of the blue model there was virtually no foreign competition. A handful of airlines divided up the routes and the market; airlines could not compete by offering lower prices or by opening new routes without government permission. Banks, utilities, insurance companies and trucking companies had their rates and, essentially, their profit levels set by Federal regulators. This stable economic structure allowed a consistent division of the pie. Unionized workers, then a far larger percentage of laborers than is the case today, got steady raises in steady jobs. The government got a steady flow of tax revenues. Shareholders got reasonably steady dividends.
That we don’t live in this world any more is evident to anyone with eyes to see. But that doesn’t mean that the social contract as it existed back then was a total disaster. It did lead to robust growth and a kind of broad-based prosperity which was the envy of the rest of the world, a model to aspire to. America is a country on the cutting edge of humanity’s progress—into the industrial age in former times and now into the information age. Pioneers don’t always get everything right on the first try; blue model America was an attempt to manage and harness new kinds of productive forces and social relations into a society that offered opportunity and liberty—with help for the poor and the weak.Something new will come to replace the old system. As we encourage readers to examine and reflect on the crumbling of the old model, we aren’t looking to encourage contempt for the social system of an earlier America. Our parents and grandparents responded to the challenges of industrialization, mass immigration and America’s new world role the best they knew how, and we’d rather honor their accomplishments than find fault.But we don’t honor the memory and the hopes of our predecessors by trying to keep a social system alive once it’s passed its sell-by date. Their greatest accomplishment was to move beyond the achievements of earlier generations and build something new for a new time, and we honor them best by following in those footsteps.The attitude we need today is respect for what was done in the past and a balanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of progressive, New Deal and Great Society America. Reasonable people can disagree about various aspects of those eras, but between 1900 and 2000 the United States did not stand still, and some great things were done. Now we need to revisit the history of those times, looking critically at both the strength and the weaknesses of institutions like the post 1945 educational system, the housing programs, entitlements and many others. All need to be re-examined and critiqued and all will change in various ways. In the end the country will be better educated, better housed, better cared for and better insulated from life’s misfortunes than it is now. America, with its ability for perpetual reinvention, is where answers to the problems of 21st century life will eventually appear and where the vast potential of the information age will open the doors to a new and more abundant form of life.Image courtesy of Shutterstock.