Saturday, January 15, 2005

Beware the Reformers

Here in Illinois we just had a rare experience - first hand witness to a campaign with Alan Keyes in it. Talk about cynicism let loose, this was the classic case, and it exposed the irony of how it's such fun to ridicule the entire public sector, to be cynical about government, to decry the corrosive effect of money on our political system, etc., etc., while NEVER thinking about the consequences of all that unmitigated cynicism - what it leads to and the subtle, pernicious damage it does to the body politic.

One result that cynicism NEVER leads to is the one thing we need most: clear, fruitful and constructive thinking about how to accomplish our goals and get things done. Sadly, cynicism fights against these qualities rather than facilitating them. And, cynicism can be so easily exploited. For us in Illinois, Alan Keyes is just the most recent, though, in his case, a harmless example.

More forbidding examples abound around one of our culture's "worship words" - REFORM: Social Security "reform", tax "reform", government "reform", health care "reform", tort "reform", campaign finance "reform", intelligence "reform", etc., etc. Whenever we hear this word we should duck. Beware the man behind the curtain, the devil lurking in the details.

In the hands of an unscrupulous politician, the word can be deadly. By merely tacking it onto an issue or any number of government functions or departments, such a politician can grab the attention of the press and the admiration of a cynical public. But make no mistake, many are being taken in by this clever sophistry, which, I contend, is no accident.

Here's my test: What are your answers to these questions:

1. How many working people believe their social security benefit payments will NOT be there when they're ready to retire?

2. How many believe our politicians are little more than handmaidens to "big money" or "big oil", big business, or to the trail lawyers, the "special interests", the polluters, the think tanks, the military, etc., etc.?

3. How many believe our public school are uniformly of poor quality and that they're deteriorating even further?

4. How many are convinced we spend too much on foreign aid and not enough on defense, even though they haven't the foggiest notion of what the actual amounts are?

5. How many think our national elections are basically the result of intensely negative campaigns that demoralize voters, and that this explains what they say is a trend of declining voter turnout for President since the 1970's?

BTW: On two of these, #1 and #5, the factual picture is:
A) There's no historical evidence that Social Security benefits will NOT be there for everyone who's entitled to them -- it always has been so far.
B) Voter turnout for President has NOT been declining. Recent research has discovered and tracked a more appropriate base for this calculation, called the Voting ELIGIBLE (not the Voting AGE) Population. By its measure, voter turnout for President has held fairly stable, not declined, since 1972. (Thanks to a NPR report and interview with the researcher involved, for this valuable news.)

Nevertheless, for all of these supposed maladies, and many more, "reforms" have been proposed that usually take the form of major changes in programs, policies and, more fundamentally, in our beliefs about society and ourselves. Sometimes these modifications promise huge improvements in the program (if not its abolishment), all predicated on an invisible hand working its magic once the heavy burden of public administration is loosened. Mantras of 'free choice', of 'individual' or 'private ownership' echo in the chambers of Congress and reverberate across the land, as the vital remedy that will release pent up energies and bundles of waiting resources. But, alas, reform, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One man's reform is another man's emasculation or dismantling.

So, how are we to tell the difference?

I submit that the key factors to check out are:
- If the problem is real, does this "reform" solve the problem?
- What is the philosophy behind this reform proposal and what are its objectives?
- Who will it benefit and who will be hurt by it, vs. the status quo?
- Who offers the reform, have they conjured it to gain support for a hidden agenda?
- What is the overall public policy goal that we should evaluate it against?

ONLY after careful analysis of the above can we say whether a proposed "reform" is a good or bad idea. Welfare reform was, for some who espoused it, merely an excuse to cut spending and, they hoped, lower their own taxes. To his credit, former Wisconsin Governor, Tommy Thompson, a leader in welfare reform, foresaw the need for interim increases in public spending to fund additional day care and job training programs to enable the reform to take hold and have good effects in the long run.

The lessons?
1) It's critical to keep "reform" from falling into the wrong hands.
2) When it does fall in the wrong hands, we must be ever more vigilant to check how this worship word is used in our temples of government.

For some "Straight Dope" on Social Security's real situation - that debunks some prevalent myths now in circulation just click my title: "Beware the Reformers" (above or below), or go to this URL:
to access a CNN/Money Magazine series on the subject, and good for them!

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