The Achievement Test

The debate over the size of government should shift to a more important question: How can government best influence Americans’ lives?

Comments: 125

  1. This is a smart article David, but it misses several important points. It isn't all liberal vs, conservative. Most of my friends would call me a "liberal" or "progressive" because of my views on things like gay rights, abortion, religion, etc. But, I generally support the most conservative Republicans, because, like them, I want government as small and local as possible. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". For me, big, centralized government is the enemy.

    Big centralized Government always drives up costs and restricts freedom. You can't say that Medicare was a great achievement, without looking at alternative and better ways that we could have insured medical care for the elderly. I don't like the big insurance companies, either. But, they are so big and so powerful because they have so much influence within the big centralized government.

    The bank bailouts was one of the greatest moral hazards in the history of this country. it was as bad for this country as the awfulness of the " Great Society" programs of the 1960s. It rewared bad behavior and failure. All of those bankers should be bankrupt and on the street -- They failed. But, because of their influence within our goverment, they were saved and made richer and more powerful than ever.

    The bankers didn't steal the taxpayer money. Our representives in our government took our money and gave it to the bankers. I'm not just talking about the original TARP bailouts. I'm also talking about the trillions given through the Federal Reserve at zero interest which they immeditately lent out at varying interest rates and made enormous fortunes.

    Small local government that is accountable to the people is what will always bring the greatest long-term achievement for those willing to work and move-up based on hard work and merit, rather than special-interest membership and bribes called political contributions

  2. "Everything is on the table..." except that you fail to even mention our spending on war.

    How dare you?

  3. And everybody lived happily ever after. The end.

    The fundamental problem is that Democrats want to pay for the government we have today, so that they can add some more programs. Republicans want to pay for less of it, and if that means amassing ruinous debt or sending us into default, then these are deemed acceptable means of shrinking the size of government. The former is conservative in the sense that it looks upon what exists, building upon it and tinkering with it. The latter is radical, as it charts a new order for doing things (Medicare has never been a private benefit program, for example).

    As to the size of government, you wrote: "There have been cases when small government was accompanied by enterprise and development, and cases when small government has led to lawlessness, corruption and distrust."

    Any examples? If you have wanted to be (and stay) a developed nation, since World War II, this has meant having a big government. In fact, if analyze from 1945 onward (since all the small government idealism would not work for a country that is only 2% agrarian and over 80% urbanized), you would probably find that most of the countries with small government are ineffectively governed, dirt poor, or outrageously corrupt because their revenue sources have been smuggled out or squandered. Now that's not an argument for maximalist government: the whole point of "we are all liberals now" is that there is a consensus that the government should not own most industries and not everything should be centralized. However, it is a strong argument against minarchy. Which is a good reason to ask the uncompromising ideologues who flatly disagree with mainstream history and economics to sit out both your Achievement Test and subsequent negotiations.

    Whoops. Too late.

  4. Mr. Brooks, you've returned to your habit of getting the first half of your column right, this time to the point of making me hope I could write a one-line comment: "You are correct, Mr. Brooks."

    But then. But then. You devote the second half of your column to making a mockery of the first half. This may be your most diabolical column ever. The calculated cruelty of your proposal takes my breath away.

    Social Security is not part of a "welfare state." Most of us pay into Social Security all of our working lives. We have paid our share of the "insurance policy" that Al Gore promised to "put a lock-box on" & George Bush tried to "privatize" before seniors revolted.

    Are Medicare & Medicaid part of the "welfare state"? They are if you don't think a rich country should make sure all of its citizens get decent medical care. So you and your Republican friends call medical treatment "consumption" and "satisfying immediate needs." I'd call wellness & life-saving measures the minimum standard of decency incumbent upon every society. If we're going to move away from this "consumption-dominated economy," what do you suggest we do with those Medicare & Medicaid "consumers"? Make them plead their cases before "death panels"? Or just let them suffer and die?

    And a flat tax yet! Let's make sure the poor have to pay as big a percentage of their minimum wages as do the ultra-rich. Never mind that the central purpose of the income tax amendment to the Constitution was to reduce the income inequality of the Gilded Age. You propose to ensure a return to the excesses and deprivations of the Gilded Age. Or worse.

    You say, "The exciting thing about this moment is that everything is on the table." What "excites" you is a nightmare scenario of starving children, sick and dying people of every age, and neglected seniors. Anybody who doesn't meet your "Achievement Test," as Alan Grayson famously suggested, "should die quickly." The Great Depression looks positively cheery by comparison to your "exciting" proposal.

    Have you no decency, Sir, at long last?

    The Constant Weader at www.RealityChex.com

  5. I love when Brooks tells Democrats what we stand for, i.e. a smattering of commonsense programs that save the country money in the long term, and suggests this is what we should demand in exchange for shredding the social safety net.

    Come back when you've been homeless, when you've lived on nothing but Social Security, when you're seriously ill and can't work. Yours is an elitist, extremist agenda. That isn't news to anyone. What's scary is that Austan Goolsbee, the presidents top economic advisor, said pretty much the same thing you did on Sunday's "This Week."

  6. A roundabout way of saying that reason and prudence should be brought to bear on these matters rather than slogans and partisan orthodoxies. Newsflash, though, the government won't be getting any smaller unless we can forcibly jettison a few of the backwater provinces. The real problem (and particularly recently) has never been the size of government, but rather the decreasing capacities both of our politicians and our political process. Not sure these are fixable, really, and while it may be of some interest to view our reversion toward third-world status from a distance, I suspect it will be a sad and painful process to live through.

  7. Democrats, or at least real Democrats, did try to champion one thing that would have enhanced productivity and mobility: a single payer, publicly run heath care system. With it, no need to stay tied to one job (likely with a large company) to retain health insurance. No need to maintain HR departments to play the angles on finding the most cost effective health plan. No need for entrepreneurs to spend time figuring out how to get health insurance for themselves or those in their small companies.

    But between Republicans, and to a lesser extent corporate owned Democrats, it never had a chance.

    If the Republicans wish to repeal Obamacare to replace it with such a single payer system, they'll have my support. (But of course I'm dreaming).

  8. Since the late 1960s, the federal government and the state governments have become exponentially bigger and more powerful. And the Quality of life in this country has suffered as a result. We have too many laws. Too many rules. Too many factions saying they deserve government largesse because someone might have done something to them or their great-great-great grandfather, or just because it is the current fad for them to play victim.

    I'm tired of it, and I am tired of paying for it. Sometimes I think I have more in common with the hard working factory workers in China and India than I do a lot of my fellow Americans. Those Asians are still willing to risk everything and work themselves half-to-death, just to have a chance of moving up in the world. They are not playing victim and waiting for some government agency to give them food and money and to solve all of their problems.

    The government has to shrink, drastically, for our quality of life to improve. We want to be left alone to risk what we choose and reap the reward of our own hard work and cleverness without having to pay half of everything we earn to support others who are not willing to work as hard, or at all.

    I helped to vote in this Republican class, and I say : " No Compromise "

  9. I don’t care about the size of government, as long as it takes care of its citizens. And if large vs. small is, as you point out, irrelevant, so is consumption vs. innovation. The country does not divide neatly into dichotomies, except for the benefit of pundits and columnists who profit from these sorts of analyses.

    As people lose their financial security, their homes, and their future, and find every sort of social safety net under attack by conservatives, it is pointless for pundits to scratch their chins and wonder about abstract political philosophies. In column after column you write about Republicans and Democrats as if they are both honest players engaged in a spirited but conscientious tug-of-war designed to do the most good for the most people. Really? Where have you been for the last few years? Republicans and their policies have literally tried to crush ordinary people, sacrificing them on an altar of greed with a frightening fundamentalist fervor. To extend unemployment benefits, Democrats had to pay a ransom to Republicans to extend tax cuts for billionaires. I can’t see how any thoughtful person could characterize this as a fair and balanced approach to helping the citizenry through tough times. Let’s not forget it was a conservative administration that helped create hoards of unemployed in the first place.

    When one side has declared itself to be working for a small percentage of the filthy rich, there can be no point in talking about the proper theoretical balance between the competing interests of the honorable left and right. We can’t worry about whether government is big or small, or investment-based or consumption-dominated, or anything else, if it is not looking out for the people who live under it.

  10. Amid the other major outlays our government makes, one must also acknowledge "investments" in a costly welfare system supporting irresponsible financiers and corporations (banks, car & insurance companies etc.) as well as, frankly, ongoing war. Morality of these ventures aside, they are non-trivial sums, worth including in the contrast of party interests.

  11. Mr. Brooks presents an interesting concept in this column, but more importantly, he highlights the concepts that Republicans will carry forward in a sane manner defending business while Democrats will carry forward in a similar way defending government. The problem is that neither party should be exclusively focused on just one side of the divide. I think if a non-partisan look in the past twenty years is undertaken you will see many Democrats have actually balanced both interests - especially the centrist administration in place now and the Clinton administration that last left us with welfare reform, a balanced budget and surplus, and plans to address the burgeoning balloon that Social Security and Medicare have become. The Republicans have consistently abandoned the "government" side of Brooks' argument in each of their last 3 administrations, with tax breaks for the rich that did not "trickle down", did not stimulate the growth of sustainable industry and growth tracks for the economy, and added to the deficit spending that is shown with smoke and mirrors to be the fault of the Democrats when any sane analysis shows the outflow caused by GOP tax cuts and war efforts were the feeding tubes into the beast from the start.

    I hope we can come to some agreements in the next two years that tackle the adult problems of the country, but I doubt it will be spontaneous from the hearts of Congress. I suspect nothing will happen without a swift kick from the folks back home who will start shouting to throw out the incumbents they just elected when they realize nothing new will actually happen this year...

  12. Mr. Brooks:

    A cogent argument. Well stated and to the point. Let's hope that people read it.

  13. "But amid this season of distraction the entire society suffered a loss of values and almost nobody noticed until it was too late."

    Mr Brooks, some of us noticed this rather long ago. I made a film in 1993 addressing this, titled The Bed You Sleep In. It was about the tragic consequences of the loss of social trust, already quite evident back then, on a national scale. It has only gotten far worse.

    Your prescriptions would be fine - in another time, another place. Presently America has been so deliberately dumbed-down (to make better sales), corporatized, fragmented, and otherwise ravaged by the collateral damages of rampant "free market capitalism" that it is unlikely any of your suggestions would be given a bumper-sticker's time of consideration. It's too late, and we are in a free fall which will most likely lead first to social collapse on such a scale that (as planned) a martial law situation will be imposed. From then, after how long, who knows, we will fracture and cease to be the United States of America. We'll become a handful of entities. Just like our old nemesis, you remember them, the great forever communisty monolith, the USSR. Just like them. A little ironic, no?

    www.jonjost.wordpress.com
    www.cinemaelectronica.wordpress.com

  14. Generally good and well said but this sucks. Sock it to the quality sector and the charitables. Flatter tax means that serious Art in the U.S. will continue to decline and quality of life and perceptiveness will become even more base. That cannot bode well for minorities.

  15. And please tell us Mr. Brooks what will the GOP not try cut besides anything that will make their constituency, the very wealthy, more wealthy?

  16. I still haven't figured this out, David: how can all y'all conservatives claim you're for smaller government while you (a) throw trillions at the military, which is by far the biggest drain on the U.S. budget, and (b) try to increase government interference in people's private behavior?

    Because neither of those things look terribly small to me...

  17. David:
    First, a government should earn the trust from people. But our government is constantly lies.
    Here is an example: The true inflation rate in America? It’s certainly at least 8 or 9%, the US government lies about it …everybody who shops knows that prices are up almost on every thing, everybody except the US government, and I wish we knew where they shopped so we can shop there too and get good prices.

  18. David, I cannot help but associate the decline in long term planning in government with the advancing age of the single largest voting demographic in the US, the baby boomers. It appears to me that the future of my generation and this country has been mortgaged, sold, and scrapped in order to paint over mistakes caused by the incompetence and hubris of the baby boomers. Long range planning and investment have never been priorities for a generation of the self involved. Now, as they approach retirement, its every man and woman for themselves as the boomers fight for the scraps that will allow them to retire and die in relative comfort. There's nothing left for the long term but good intentions.

  19. Your point is a good one. But, don't you think the best way to achieve "quality" would be to strictly follow the Constitution and forbid the federal govenrment from involving itself in anything that is not specifically directed by the Constitution? I know that a lot of progressives don't like the Constitution, but every single politican in the country takes an oath and swears to abide by the Constitution.

  20. This is one of your better columns in my opinion and gives a point-of-view I have not heard in recent years. Now, if what you suggest were possible, I'd think most of us would be quite happy, but I'm not sure that the happiness would extend to those who actually run the country.

  21. A good place to start applying the achievement test would be to our enormously bloated "defense" budget. The clearest results of our invasion of Iraq have been 1) to provide good recruiting arguments for radical Islamist organizations and 2) to dramatically increase Iran's influence in the Middle East. The clearest results of our nine years in Afghanistan have been 1) to greatly enrich a large number of Afghani politicians and enablers and 2) to significantly increase the Taliban's ability to recruit followers. On the home front, we provide hundreds of billions of dollars of welfare for the military-industrial complex so they can keep cranking out weapons designed to fight the Soviet Union. The enormous intelligence-gathering apparatus we have built in the name of "defense" promises to give some future leader the tools with which to create a totalitarian society here at home. We spend more on "defense" than almost the total of the world's other countries combined, and then puzzle over why some of those countries invest more in education, infrastructure, and social welfare than we do.

  22. Mr Brooks has outdone himself with this slick piece. I can certainly agree with some of his analysis but what do we do when it is cheaper for an American business to open a plant in China, pay Chinese wages, and make a pile of money and not contribute anything to our economy. The answer is not to lower wages and taxes in America so a few corporations can make an extra ton of money and stay in America. It won't work until the Chinese worker forces his wage to rise. Jerry

  23. Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “in free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.” Today, the United States more closely resembles Mussolini’s description of fascism as “the merger of state and corporate power.”
    The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism – ownership of government by a group or any controlling private power.
    The U.S. government, meant to be a servant of the sovereign people, has become a servant of the Wall Street bankers for last 20 years.

  24. Quality always matters and the hope must be that the people recognize what constitutes that quality. And then support the effort.

    You seem to be optimistic and that is so refreshing during this period of great and troubling stress on the lives of so many of our countrymen and women.

    If government is to be successful it must respond to the vital needs of the country starting now. It is too late for political gamesmanship.

  25. If you run a pareto analysis on the top items of cost of the government, why would size of government be the topic of debate anyway?
    It should be defense.

  26. Thank you, Mr. Brooks, for your acknowledgment that government can play a role in making a successful society. While I agree that achievement should be one focus of government policy, it is important to keep in mind that achievement should not be the only, or even the main focus of government policy.

    Instead, there are many other important things that government does. One of those things is that government serves to provide security to people. Some of this security is personal, in the form of police, firefighters, and military. But some is also economic, in the form of a safety net that should be designed to ensure that none of our fellow Americans are living in abject poverty, or going without necessities such as medical care.

    And the second is that government creates the rules by which the capitalistic game is played. As we've seen time and time again, capitalism is a great wealth generator, but only if it occurs within a stringently regulated system that ensures that people have full information, that economic behavior does not destroy the environment or imperil workers, and that economic problems in one sector of the economy does not lead to a total meltdown that destroys the entire economy. This critical governmental role helps maintain the free market, but is likely to be wrongly rejected by Republicans as undermining the achievement focus that Mr. Brooks is pushing.

    http://www.winningprogressive.org

  27. A wonderfully thoughtful piece that I think missed it. To my mind, policy conservatives make sound policy arguments (or not) on why this or that government program may or may not result in this or that societal benefit with the underlying core belief that private or individual industry is a powerful tool in advancing societal interests. Whereas value conservatives value small government as an end in and of itself. That is, they believe small means less intrusive into people's lives - for good or ill. To them, the virtue in autonomy from government trumps societal benefits. This is similar to conservative arguments supporting capitalism. To me, at least, the policy conservatives support capitalism because they believe the societal benefits of a market system (though imperfect) is unmatched by any other paradigm. However, the value conservatives believe there is virtue in simply being unrestrained by government to create your own success (or not) irrespective of the societal benefits or detriments. Both policy and value conservatives have valid premises to promote. However, to frame it as a matter of which policy best energizes society, etc..., assumes it is a solely a policy debate. Since most of the screamers are dulled down to the point of imbecility value conservatives, you will have a hard time even getting to a policy debate.

  28. I think the visions are contradictory though I appreciate the effort. You can't have a "safety net" (read hammock), and still have an incentive.

  29. American politics is the new three card monte. The answer to straight questions is never where it appears. For example, when it comes to investments, a recent Times article reported Indiana's governor saying businesses prefer states with right to work laws. I live in a right-to-work state. It ranks 47th in family income, and has 30 of 45 counties with persistent poverty for more than 20 percent of its population for more than 30 years. It ranked third or fourth in unemployment during the recent recession. Right-to-work laws didn't bring jobs or income.

    Other important American ideas are being moved around. Democracy was the idea that each purpose participated in and had a stake in the common good. Today the meaning stands on its head; democracy is the idea that the public welfare is to remove the common elements of our strength like social security and place them in private hands, increasing the risks for eligible workers while adding profits to companies who manage the accounts.

    This shift of public functions to private companies for profit is an income transfer and a redistribution of wealth to the private sector from the public treasuries. The pea is being moved.

    Yet not one Republican senator has called for a reduction of private contracts. It is especially telling that BP retains $10+ billion in contracts, mainly with Defense, even after the Gulf disaster of the Deepwater Horizon blow out. Yet the unions our forebearers built are under attack.

    Mantras, the phrases that express our social outlook and cherished beliefs, are shifted like peas in the game. Republican candidates for party chair are asked how many guns they own, as if gun ownership was an attribute of political leadership and vision. Daily the cry goes out that our $15 trillion economy with record corporate profits for the last two quarters, is teetering on the brink. Daily the cry is raised about illegal immigrants drug dealers crossing our borders—who when they reach the US apparently work for less than minimum wage!

    But when gloom sets in, I remember SC's Ellison Durant “Cotton Ed” Smith and the16 Democrat and 8 Republican US senators voted against women having the right to vote. The South Carolina legislature voted overwhelmingly against it in 1919. States opposed federal intervention that imposed constitutional guarantees.

    Cotton Ed walked off the 1936 convention floor during the invocation when a black minister began to pray. In a 1924 speech in the Senate well, Smith supported a bill to “shut the door,” on immigration. He claimed he didn't “want to tangle the skein of America's progress,” or “the genius of our government.” The country made advances and achieved much since his time, a reason not to despair. But many achievements are left to be made and sustained.

    We can debate stands on anchor babies and headless bodies, and whether they think tax cuts will create jobs, despite the fact that they haven't and didn't, but for the first time since the 96th Congress, fewer women will be serving in the House.

    Speaking at a rally sponsored by the 2010 SC CEO Roundtable, SC's Jim DeMint harkened back to the days of Cotton Ed, when government routinely protected the right to discriminate, declaring his opposition to persons with intra-gender sexual preferences from teaching in schools.

    The 1923 Supreme Court made headlines when it accepted as legal canon “the Adamite theory of creation.” In U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the court reasoned that a person born in India did not fit the statutory definiton for “white persons.” By that standard, SC's new governor's parents could not have become naturalized US citizens, as they are today.

    But Chicago's Lucy Parsons, born enslaved in Texas in 1853, of African, Native American and Mexican heritage, married to a ex-Confederate in 1871, a stalwart of the labor movement, voiced the achievement principle for our current times: “never be deceived that the rich will let you vote away their wealth” and “governments never lead, they follow progress.” (Which explains much about Barack.)

    In the time of Cotton Ed, my 96 year old uncle tells me SC field workers received 35 cents a hundred pounds for picking cotton by hand. Today, work farms will result when the worker protections, rights, and safety nets have been dismantled.

    Lastly, achievement is tied to awareness. When I was a kid visiting New York, I say the monte played on the streets of Harlem. A few people beat it, but I soon came to realize the pea was hidden for an ulterior motive every time.
    --Walter Rhett
    twitter.com/wlterrhett

  30. This is amazing. Our economy is suffering from a structural decline, with nearly 10 percent unemployment, with no real hope for the foreseeable future. And our politicians are debating the size of our government.

    Do our politicians live in some sort of alternate universe? It does not even require a high school education to understand that closing a local factory, sending the jobs to China, and firing 500 local workers is not a good thing. But our politicians think that this is a good thing for us.

    And our deregulation of trade laws has allowed this to happen to tens of thousands of our factories, with the loss of millions of well-paying jobs. And it is destoying our economy.

    And we are debating the size of government? How about debating the loss of our factories and jobs? Our politicians appear to be totally detached from reality. They do not see the suffering of millions of American workers.

    Frank Mitchell
    jobsback.com

  31. I've only heard one side arguing about the size of government, and it comes from your direction. You better tell your people to give up their #1 argument.

    I wish we were living in a time when your opinion on this fit the circumstances. I think you mean well here, but you are ignoring too many things. And so is Obama.

    None of this matters anymore. Our corporate and banking systems have overtaken government and entrenched. It doesn't matter what people want anymore, and kids growing up here are doomed. Nobody is addressing reality. As an employee, rather than continuing to 'compete' on the playground created by our plutocracy, they'd be better off and happier moving to the competing countries. They'd be better off moving to China or India. But China is not a democracy, you might say; they have an authoritarian government. Well, look at our country in the mirror. No difference anymore. Kids, move if you know what is good for you.

  32. In the midst of all these mobs all screaming at each other for causing the darkness, it's nice to stumble across someone who's managed to light a candle. The novelty of reading someone who's both rational and hopeful at the same time is invigorating. Here's to hoping it catches on...

  33. David Brooks, you took the words out of my mouth. The question is, does anyone think Democrats or Republicans have the moral capital to employ such an achievement test; I sure don't.

    We need a new party focused on exactly this.

  34. `I don't believe it. I actually agree with David on this one. Trouble is, this country just elected a bunch of hyper-partisans to the House who think they are on a mission from God to clean house (or The House, as the case may be), and they will be in no mood for compromise. David, rather than publishing this in the NY Times, where no tea-partier or conservative will read it, maybe you should hand deliver this to every new member of the House. Probably will do no good either, but at least you will see first-hand why your ideas expressed here will be shot down in flames by members of your own party.

  35. re: But amid this season of distraction the entire society suffered a loss of values and almost nobody noticed until it was too late. Both business and government started favoring consumption and short-term comfort and neglecting investment and long-term growth.

    When I first graduate college back in the 70's I was learning about stocks and bonds and investing. The capital gains tax was based on the idea of long term holding of investments which if I remember right was then 10 years. This was shorten over a period of time to about 6 months. Think of that a long term investment is one that is held for 6 months. During that time I worked for a brokerage firm during systems and noticed that investment advice changed - now it was if they are not performing in 3-6 months dump it. I remember financial analysts castigating companies for taking a multi-year view. I have a PhD now and year at a university and what we teach is short term is operation - i.e. solve immediate problems with you operations. Tactical is 1-3 years and strategic is 3 and longer. So if that is what we say why are we fostering such a contrary view via tax policy?
    Does not make sense if we truly want to grow this country and make/keep it strong.

  36. David, the last time we had quality government Ronald Reagan was President.

    Although smaller doesn't automatically mean better, it's been pretty axiomatic that bigger means worse, usually much worse. Smaller government is therefore the most useful general guidepost to use in evaluating new policy initiatives.

    It's time to end the free ride for the nonprofits. The multi-billion dollar foundations and endowments have to start paying their fair share of taxes.

    I, for one, would tell the EPA and the FCC "mission accomplished" and disband them. That's just two examples, there are hundreds more.

  37. I taught students seeking their MBAs for three decades. My experience tells me that contrary to Mr. Brooks' statement that "the geniuses flock to finance", the weakest students went to commercial and investment banking. My guess is that those with lesser moral values go, disproportionately, to the greed trough.

  38. How can government best influence American lives? Those who govern or manage our companies live in their secure bubbles, never experiencing the hardships faced by those whom they govern or manage. Achievement tests should measure whether each funded program improves the lives of the governed. Have you ever had to choose between heating your home and feeding your family? Have you been chronically or acutely ill and been forced into bankruptcy because of the exorbitant costs of your medical care? Have you been a productive employee who is forced into early retirement at age 55 by your employer? Life savings can disappear overnight. Stop criticizing the only programs that truly serve the common US citizen. Are the wars more important than the welfare of the citizen? When was the last time infrastructure was a major focus? In Maine, we don't even have access to natural gas as a heating source because the infrastructure is absent. Intelligence is a bell shaped curve, half the populace has less than average intelligence. Income is a bell shaped curve; half the workers earn less than the mean. If you haven't walked in the shoes of the poor, the sick, the Joe-sixpacks don't pontificate.

  39. Hmmm? Have we lost the definition of small? Certainly it's not to be found among the party which invented big government 150 years ago and has done it's best to make it colossal. That agenda was so successful that the other party could not compete until it upped the stakes and delivered stupendous government. Any President since who's actually failed to grow government rates as a mediocrity.

    After all we're American's! We are exceptional and Manifest Destiny is our game.

  40. To poster #9. In America, people do not live "under a government." And most are not eager to do so. They take seriously the preamble language: We the people...." The phrase "looking out for" has many possible applications. One school of thought, for example, interprets that phrase to mean national security and personal safety, plus a net for people who really cannot help themselves.
    Another school takes the phrase to mean a nanny state, first and foremost.

  41. Yada, yada, yada. Once again Mr. Brooks completely ignores the Pentagon in his rant. The great sacred golden cow, The Military, escapes without a word about the terrible waste of the wars we have waged against other countries for the past 60 years. The uncalculated billions of dollars spent on military hardware that is now either a pile of junk or sitting in the Nevada desert gets swept under the rug and is ignored.
    When, Mr. Brooks are you going to take off the blinders and face up to the fact that our military is a big, big part of our fiscal economic problems and is in dire need of reduction. Come on Mr. Brooks! Just once an article on the military spending. I would like to see how you defend the need for our hundreds of overseas military bases and need to spend billions more on still more nuclear weapons and continuing the stupid war in Afghanistan.
    USMC vet.

  42. As a "leftie," I'm not always in agreement with David Brooks' ideas and suggestions. But I think he's on to something with a governmental achievement test.
    A negative example to illustrate my point: a some mid-point in the Clinton administration, a "compromise" was worked on on domestic public safety. The cost: $23 billion. The program: more cops and more prisons.
    I had worked in the adult corrections field for over two decades and knew that more prisons was not an answer to increase public safety. A wiser use of existing prisons was the way to go. But the compromise brought the Blue Dog Dems and the conversative Repubs together. Result: everyone in the deal felt self-congratulatory and nothing changed on the public safety front. Today, states are trying to figure out how to reduce incarceration rates due to high costs.
    State and federal governments alike need to be judged on achievement. If more prisons don't result in greater public safety, what does? Answer: more precise use of incarceration for offenders too dangerous to be in community programs, and a prohibition of placing low-risk offenders in prison. "Dead time" in prison is a waste of our tax money. Effective inside the walls programs of job preparation, substance abuse treatment, etc., needs to be an integral part of doing time. Prosecutors should not be professionally rewarded for determining punishment options as they do now. Local community panels should work side-by-side with judges to figure out the most cost-effective sentence that keeps offenders in the community while they make restitution to crime victims and address their social deficiencies (job skills, work attitudes, etc). Correctional programs should be funded based on outcome, not on retribution.

  43. The Republicans have made cutting the size government an explicit goal. And two ways they propose to do this is to keep taxes low, especially for the rich and powerful, and to "cut" government programs, by which they mean "entitlement" programs like Social Security that are designed to be self-sustaining and to provide support to the elderly, the infirm etc etc. They never propose to cut military spending. And, in recent years at least, do not propose spending that increases the general welfare - infrastructure, research, education and so forth.

    So they portray the Democrats as profligate and irresponsible spenders and much of our political discourse is taken up by useless squabbling. Opposing spending on health care for the 9/11 responders was breath-takingly short-sighted and cruel, so cruel that they were finally shamed into doing the right thing.

    Brooks is hoping for a responsible and serious national discussion, but if the NY Times is reporting accurately the Republicans will have none of it. In Monday's paper there was this story "GOP Newcomers Set Out to Undo Obama's Victories"
    http://www.nytimes.com...
    As though the national interest can be reduced to "victory" for one party or the other like a sporting event.

    And in today, Tuesday's this one, "GOP Sets up Huge Target for Budget Ax"
    http://www.nytimes.com...
    The only spending not on the chopping block is for the military, national security, and veterans.

    This more of just say "no."

    The Republicans "hate" the health care bill that was passed but they offer nothing in its place. 50 million Americans have no health insurance. Our costs are high and our national outcomes disgraceful.

    Where are the serious grown-ups?

  44. I rarely find much to agree with in a David Brooks essay. There's almost always at least some aspect of what he writes that actually strongly annoys me.

    I find this piece today to be presented in a very balanced and intelligent way. Basically he's saying that we should make government more efficient and effective. Who could be against that?

    However, it's often what Brooks does NOT say that's as annoying as what he does say, and once again the impact and importance of his writing falls short because of that flaw.

    In this case, what he's ignoring is that it's almost impossible for Democrats to get anything done in cooperation with Republicans because the latter are so blatantly sold out to corporate donors in denying widely recognized scientific evidence (climate change), so deceitful in misrepresenting Democratic initiatives (such as calling health care reform "government-run health care"), and so cynical in setting the defeat of Obama as their number one legislative objective.

    How can government be made more efficient and effective when so many Republicans are more concerned about coddling the rich and catering to the powerful than they are about making true forward-leaning progress? Their agenda is inherently anti-change.

    If some day Brooks has an epiphany and realizes that Republicans will always be against progress because it is not always in the immediate best interest of their donors and buddies, his writing may actually become more than just a waste of talent.

  45. Chicago's Lucy Parsons, born enslaved in Texas in 1853, of African, Native American and Mexican heritage, married to a ex-Confederate, a noted stalwart of the labor movement, voiced this two axioms from her experience: “never be deceived that the rich will let you vote away their wealth” and “governments never lead, they follow progress.” (Which explains much about Barack.)

    My 96 year old uncle tells me SC field workers received 35 cents a hundred pounds for picking cotton by hand. Today, work farms will result when the worker protections, rights, and safety nets have been dismantled.

    Income, falling behind prices, is now divided by ceilings. It is broken into horizontal layers, with no trickle down to the unemployed, with minimum wage workers locked in to service occupations that offer limited advancement and even fewer benefits, with middle class professionals having no employment guarantees, with retirees not able to depend on pensions (re: Prichard, Alabama), with fewer services provided by businesses at the local level. We have misdirected economic efforts away from a conservation model that would conserve resources, produce growth, enhance prosperity and grow wages. (Example: the $80 solar power units made by the Chinese in demand in African villages cited in a recent Times story.) Instead we have turned to a consumer model that produces a runaway contradictory spiral of profits, shortages, and declining wages – a model rapidly approaching the limits of diminishing returns with the working class family as its first catastrophic victim.
    --Walter Rhett
    twitter.com/walterrhett

  46. Since I am in the educational system, I want to speak for some aspects of education. Many students are listed as "disabled" (ADHD, ADD, reading or writing problem, etc). That means the parents get at least $600 for the student, each month, every year until the student reaches the age of 18/21. This money is tax free. Many parents waste teachers/administrators time by attending fruitless IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings that are supposed to meet the educational needs of the child. Why? Because the parent is afraid if the child improves, the parent will lose that tax free money. So, these same parents have the best video/computer/etc games on the block - while the same child may go to school dirty, has behavior problems, doesn't participate in school functions, can never do homework, and always forgets his/her books. Yet, if the school took over this $600 as representative payee that same child can be assured of attending school activities, getting new clothes, paying for summer food, etc. So many parents do not want their child to achieve because of the tax free cash. Academics can be improved, the budget can be reduced if we have achieving students - rather than low test scores. Also, when the student reaches 18/21 and the funds dry up, and he/she has been dragged through the system - the parent has the right to throw the student out of the house because he/she is an adult (18) and the government is left with more programs to "educate" or "employ" this person who did nothing in his/her life except to have the parent rewarded if he/she doesn't succeed.

  47. The Age of Information increases one's knowledge, but leads to more questions, and oxymoronically decreases our collective trust. We some how have been relying less on our parents, our neighbors, our spiritual leaders, our teachers, our doctors, our spouses, our friends, our colleagues at work, and yes, our government for first-hand information and more on our Googling, our mouse-clicking index fingers, our thumb twittering texts for instant answers, or TIVO'ed cable programming to be watched late into the nights - alone.

    The short-term effect is very empowering. Anyone with enough information, footnoted by experts and talking heads at national clearinghouse for standards and guidelines can start thinking like doctors, or teachers, and becomes Masters of the Universe. It is even more empowering when one becomes hypercritical and judges others who have dedicated their life to uphold the highest standards of professionalisms - simple based on ready-made easy-to-read web-based ranked information that is cranked out by search-engines, ranked by paid marketing, politicized by a fee-for-service corporate donations made anonymously with all thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The long-term effect is more insatiable fear. The more you know the more you realize how little you really know, especially when the information is really marketed and tailored towards one's biased selection. Knowledge alone is not power, even if it's voluminous. It must be applied correctly, and not every application will be successful or guaranteed. Just because one can access more information does not mean that the information is correct.

    For most of human history information and the sharing of information from one person to another have been the tokens of real social bonding, not to be dictated by marketing propaganda before the advent of cable programming and the internet. Back then human behaviors took their time to filter information wisely, to integrate and consolidate them into accepted cultures that are enacted by all in society, and to be passed down the generations like grandma's story time.

    You've asked, "How can government best influence Americans’ lives?" During the good times of the past, not many were interested in politics, and most didn't care about policies, they trusted their elected leaders, and lived a life of true communions with others, balancing their time for work, friendship, family, others in need of help, and most yearn to return to their community to contribute.

    Now we know more, trust less, consume more, save less, take risks and bets on formulas of instant success, live in ignorance of social inequalities as if they were not a matter to our children, our grand children, trust changes rather than tested traditions, trust machines more than people, reward people who think like machines irregardless of conscience, popularized extreme behaviors, fantasies and makeovers rather than common shared feel good social bonds, etc.

    Before we start to glare down at our government, which in a democracy is truly a representation of us, we should examine if Americans are truly living the "American life?" It used to be so much more fun growing up, but I tried not to reflect too much during this past winter break for what it will be required for our children. Nevertheless, I'm proud of them for knowing more than I did at the same age, yet young enough to have yet been inculcated into the "Us vs. Them" mentality, and I hope they never will. The same goes for our government. There's only 'Us," and I don't think I'm the first to say that.

  48. C Davis wrote, "Big centralized Government always drives up costs and restricts freedom. You can't say that Medicare was a great achievement, without looking at alternative and better ways that we could have insured medical care for the elderly".

    Like "Obama Care", actually a law written by big Insurance Companies for the mandate? A better idea? What are your better ideas to fund and run Medicare for the elderly? You imply there are some, but fail to inform us of those thoughts.
    But your main assertion, that big government "always" adds cost and waste to any policy, is extreme. Actually, big government policy, as in SS and Medicare, can be the very best way to do such tasks. Around this Earth, most countries use big governmant programs to run or regulate healthcare systems, and they are all more efficient and more inclusive than our private for profit system. Those countries, spend an average of 10% GDP on healthcare, that is more comprehensive than most policies here, and at the same time, insure or cover eeryone. Our small government system meanwhile, is spending 18% of GDP and can only insure 83% of the people, and at that, some high percentage have very poor coverage.
    Big government, has a place, as proven every day in most countries use of non profit single payer. By the more efficient administration costs of our own Medicare as well.
    Yes, the Insurance Companies are very powerful, they pay our politicians what we used to call bribes, but now those payments are cited as "campaign funds".
    There is, in the constitution, a powerful phrase, "promote the general welfare", what would more promote the general welfare, than single payer healthcare for all of us?

  49. David Brooks wants the Republicans to win big for the rich and the Democrats to settle for crumbs for the rest of us. EVERY other long term industrialized representative democracy has a health care insurance system that covers over 90% of their citizens from birth to death. Every one of the largest corporations that operate in the US, operates in many of those countries successfully. Honda, 3M, Toyota, IBM, etc. The Democrats are not looking for a few infrastructure projects as consolidation prizes for giving the rich and their puppets control of everything based on lies. To the Republicans who do not like duplication of projects and multiple tiny programs, much of that is your fault. You demand that every health care insurance program be "targeted" and "documented" so that no undeserving person should get it. Thus the massive restrictive paperwork for Medicaid. You demand the states get a say in how much funding the program runs on within each state. So we get ridiculous shared funding schemes, that cause the citizens in one state to get Medicaid funded to one level and those in another state to get it differently. And the paperwork is different also. This is the result of excessive focus on "states rights" and "local government". Notice the relative simplicity of Medicare. Federal rules and funding for a Federal program. The states have much less chance to interfere. But even there the Republicans have messed it up. Because of the strict funding limits imposed on Medicare, many poor senior citizens end up using both Medicare and Medicaid. Too much of Medicaid funding goes for what Medicare should do. If Medicare was FULLY funded for ALL senior citizens, similar to the way those other countries do things, that would get rid of paperwork and waste. Bu it would get rid of some "states rights". So the Republicans do not want it. Guess what? The states would love it if the Feds took over funding and running Medicaid, since most of Medicaid money goes to senior citizens anyway. They just can't see it because of their obsession with "states rights". The last election was not about the size or scope of government. It was about disillusioned voters, who had supported Barak Obama, who could not understand how you can have a majority in both houses of Congress and not pass legislation. The Senate's secret holds, filibuster rules, cloture rules, and 60 vote rules are NOT in the US Constitution. But many of the supporters could not see that you must work the situation until you get enough Senate members to easily get passed the filibuster. They needed to come out in 2010 and vote for the Democrats again, even if disappointed. They did not. And so the filibuster threats won the day and we end up with more lies from those who serve the rich about how the country supports their vision based on the election of 2010. And how we should settle for a society based on their vision of "states rights" and "limited government".

  50. Again Mr. Brooks shows that he does not understand the circumstances.

    Big government could be a problem if indeed it were as big as the Republicans tell us, but they are lying. The government employment roles went up during the Census, but those people are gone, along with the government not replacing those who have retired for the past couple of years. Government is far smaller today than in any of the Republican administrations since and including Ronald Reagan.

    But to say that self-indulgence and irresponsibility is the cause of Greece's debt problems doesn't express the problem correctly. That problem is largely caused by Greece's admission to the EU and accepting the Euro as their source of currency.

    The self-indulgent attitude was exported wholly by the United States financial services market and exacerbated by 8 years of underachieving politicization of the Bush administration. It took years to create this problem. These things did not happen over night and those 8 years of bad management and politics as policy will continue to haunt us for years to come.

    Corporations are continuing to hold back Trillions of dollars available for investment which could create jobs, but they hold back to create a cheaper American workforce. And it's working. Today the Unions are far less powerful than they were when Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers, and cities and states are now pointing their fingers at the Unions for their lack of financial responsibility.

    California needs to change their Constitution so that budget items can't simply be put up to a vote on a ballot, but brought forth through a rigorous budgetary analysis process in their state houses.

    I'm sorry, but it really is Bush's fault because we elected a chimp who allowed too much of his power to be usurped by people in his administration who did not have the people's work in mind. They had Corporation's work in mind, and the virtually left the country unprotected from something worse than a terrorist attack.

    Let's talk about the fact that in a couple of years it will be normal to have a 6%+ unemployment rate, just in the manner they measure at this point. But that won't address the 20 million people who will have fallen off the unemployment roles by then.

    No, Greece had problems, but they didn't create those problems. America and Americans led the way and the Republicans want to keep it that way by telling you it is the fault of someone else.

    Roger W. Norman
    http://rwnorman.typepad.com...
    http://blogs.salon.com/0004478
    http://www.reverbnation.com/rogerwnorman

  51. Most of the policy decisions you refer too that have led to our rise from a country that valued investment over consumption began during Republican Administrations. Prior to the Reagan Era the investment portion of GDP was in the mid 60's. Consumption began to creep up to where it now stands at 70% of GDP.
    As to the small government rhetoric of the Republican Party, it has been nothing more than just that rhetoric. Since the 80's our largest gains in the size of goernment and restrictions on individual Rights have also come during Republican Administrations enhanced by their Judicial Selections to the Supreme Court. On the issue of law enforcemnt over the Rights of the individual are almost exclusively ruled in favor of law enforcement. This coincides with the Federal build up of law enforcement agencies.
    As the Citizens United case demonstrated the current makeup of the Supreme Court will make their rulings by ignoring most precedents from the 20th century and find rulings from the late 18th and early 19th centuries to justify their decisions.
    The bottom line is not which Party represents Small Governmnent, because neither Party is in favor of small government it is just a matter of where the dollars are spent. In this regard the policies of the past thirty years definitely fail the "Achievement Test."

  52. I agree: the big government small government is misleading way to frame the political debate. But influencing our lives must somehow involve influencing our economic circumstances. Yes, we need to invest in our infrastructure and education but what good is it if all our efforts are wiped away by an illness that makes us a hostage of, what is by any objective measure, the worst and most expensive heath care system in the world. Nations with high rates of capital investment have the kind of social safety nets to insure that workers have more of an incentive pursue development through education (an option that was once available in America before it became too expensive) and less incentive to keep a job serving up hamburgers just to keep their health insurance coverage that they are afraid of losing.

    To me, the recent tax cut extension finally threw the political and social debate into the great wide open demonstrating that the primary concern is how the economic pie is cut up and shared, a process which Ricardo, a classical economist, thought should be a primary concern of economics. "Political economy . . . should be called an enquiry into the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry amongst the classes who concur in its formation." (Footnote 1, Keynes General Theory quoting Ricardo) But suggesting such a thing is still considered nearly subversive or socialist even while our economic decline seems to follow not the rate of consumption, but the increasing concentration of wealth in the few and the stagnant real incomes, increasing debt and declining wealth of the middle class. We are turning into Chile, or perhaps modern Russia,rather than Greece, a nation in which the government actively works to preserve existing wealth, whatever its nature or source, (note the high priority given to preserving wealth acquired by inheritance using the preservation of the "family business" as an excuse to return us to a system of primogeniture. As for non-economic moral issues, I hope the government focuses on preserving my freedom to make my own moral choices.

  53. Well, you're getting close but I think you should consider it this way. Is the marketplace meeting our needs or does the public sector need to take over where the market has failed?

    It was decided long ago that the public sector is better equipped to handle police, firefighting, highway management. The private sector gave up on mass transit because it is not profitable but no one (at least here in New York) would argue it necessity. Welfare may be money for nothing to conservatives, and for liberals it may be a moral obligation but it could also be considered a crime abatement program because unemployed, hungry people will try to survive.

    I would argue, by virtue of the observation of my paycheck, that the current healthcare system is a failure. Each year it takes another 10%-20% increase or 25% co-pay increase to keep insurance, that basically is designed to stop me from using that product I am purchasing. This affects not only me but workers and companies across the US as it swallows a larger percentage of our GDP than other, competing countries pay, and with no better outcome.

    A forward thinking country that uses the market versus public method could be more efficient and therefore more competitive.

  54. I like the thought process reflected in this, but, like an answer to a math problem that is clearly out of line with what we would expect, I think we need to go back and reapply our technique: safety nets as "consumption"? Well, yes, they are, they're not consumption in the same way as buying yachts or even Starbucks. What I think has gone wrong is that the thinker has applied the thinking process without first ridding the self of biases that keep the thinking from being applied neutrally -- we need to clean out our own issues before we get started. Here, I think the issue the self needs to resolve first has to do with why some people need help, and whether such people could do better on their own if we just put enough pressure on them (unless, of course, we don't care whether they could do better on their own and are just okay with sacrificing them if they can't make it on their own), or even gave them better versions of some of the things that have helped us -- why some people succeed and some don't in our country is not so simple -- the help must be tailored to the needs of the person to be helped, not tailored to the needs of the helper were they in the position of needing help.

  55. Good think piece. Problem is that it requires for effective execution a holistic vision of governance; and I'm afraid neither side currently fields a leader who appears to possess one. On one side you have the formerly-enthused who dreamt once of income redistribution writ enormous that was dictated by their personal sense of what is appropriate for an individual to earn and consume (as if anyone on Earth cares what they think on this issue, or even grants them the authority for such presumptuous meddling); and who dreamt of a world of entitlements paid for (kind sorta) by what they had taken from the profligate and given to those who don't contribute to the entitlements. On the other side you have the newly-enthused who, quite convinced that big-government simply cannot be restrained, or its incremental growth rationally capped, have concluded that the only solution is its destruction. This is a Gotterdammerung scenario, not one where reasonable leaders compromise for the greater good.

    Changing things requires sausage-making in both houses of Congress, but with a basic, shared sense of what America should be; and with some basic trust. Yet neither side has a balanced view of what America should be, and neither side has the slightest glimmer of trust, either in the American people or in one another.

    A flatter, simpler tax code with lower corporate rates? With every simplification of the tax code, you return a measure of liberty to Americans (those who actually pay taxes) stolen by a Congress that wishes to impose behavioral biases on the people; and you take from Congress some measure of the power to do that. Many on both sides of the aisles would never allow that: they didn't come to Congress to exercise less power over the lives of our people, but more power.

    Find a leader who can connect with the people by articulating first a vision (not a motto, such as "it's about Change"), who can paint a complete picture of what America should look like in a generation; then, second, explain what it will cost, who will pay for it and what actions we must take to get there. If the vision resonates and the costs and means are accepted as reasonable, the leader might succeed if he or she also can mobilize the people to intimidate the legislature.

    Failing that, let the Gotterdammerung come, and let one side or the other win. Sometimes, it's only from ashes that a phoenix can rise.

  56. I agree. Whenever I hear the mantra low taxes, small government I cringe.

    I suggest that the objective should be to maximize our standard of living. I accept that this will involve a continued mix of public and private enterprises as we currently have. The question then is what services will contribute to my standard of living and where is it most cost effective to deliver those services from.

    I'm a big fan of private corporations - I worked in them all my life. But corporations main goal is to make money and the services they provide is just their tools to make their money. As a citizen I may benefit from services that are not in the interest of any private corporation to provide.

    I recently read that Sweden (I think it's now Norway) had the highest productivity in the world. Sweden also has a very high tax rate so this suggests to me that they have found the sweet spot of the private/public mix that produces the best benefits.

    As Mr. Brooks said, you cannot link corruption, efficiency, productivity, etc. with the size of government. There is such a thing as the right size for the best benefits.

    We also associate social security and Medicare as only big spending items. I think of social security as an insurance system that I've paid into all my life for benefits after I retire. It is not a giveaway program. Indeed, the trust fund has something like $2T in it and it is still generating more premiums as income than benefits going out. Medicare was also set up as an insurance system but it's getting into difficulty because of the costs for providing medical services and these costs are inflating at higher than overall inflation. In addition to nurses and attendants there are also a lot of people making a ton of money and bonuses in the medical industry and we will eventually have to control the costs of medical services.

    Keep the focus on how to maximize standard of living for everyone.

  57. Mr Brooks, here's an Achievement Test for all policies and programs: Does this policy/program increase the freedom of every American, or decrease it?

    Welfare increases the amount of cash certain individuals possess, by removing cash from other individuals, at arbitrary marks and metrics for each. In other words, it increases some kinds of freedom for some kinds of Americans, while simultaneously decreasing the same freedom for all other Americans. The same is true for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. And any and all programs necessarily increase the amount of Government - the number of people who work for it must increase, with more buildings, computers, janitors, chairs, etc.

    All policies which target the freedoms of a particular group are necessarily going to increase the cost and the size of Government. This is what must stop. Nowhere in the Constitution is there a clause or an Article or an Amendment that states any one particular group must be held higher than any other. In truth, a direct literal reading of the Constitution holds that Government should be restrained, not unleashed. Constitutional experts claim that they know - somehow - what the original writers of the Constitution meant, and that therefore modern interpretations must take precedence over the actual thoughts of 18th century statesmen. This is a lie, intended to hoist so-called "experts" higher than the Framers.

    To paraphrase the greatest American, Thomas Jefferson, "Government is best which governs least." This was certainly possible in the 18th century, and so we should consider applying Jefferson's ideal to today's government. Remove all the bureaucracies - they can only ever get in the way. Remove all the entitlements - no one is entitled to the product of effort except the individual exerting that effort. Remove all the policies and programs that only get in the way of businesses and individuals trying to produce. Remove Government interference in the marketplace - all marketplaces - and unleash the productive and creative ability that Americans demonstrate over and over again, throughout our noble history. Then you will see America strong and wealthy, as our Founding Fathers really Intended. Don't need any Constitutional "expert" to tell us this.

  58. The debate that needs to occur is around what do we want government to do? The problem we have now is that small government advocates have yet to come up with a clear set of proposals about which areas of government they would reduce. Practically everyone wants limited government that does only what the people want without programs that are added by small minority interests groups. The Republicans do exempt military/homeland security and veterans programs so immediately a huge source of spending is eliminated from the spending reduction calculus. Lets examine what the Department of Education does and see if that is something we believe is worthy of doing? What about the Department of Agriculture? Department of Commerce? These are traditional Republican boogey men, but most people don't have a clue about what doing away with these agencies would mean for the country, and especially state and local governments. If I am rich and powerful, I don't want a strong national government because it might diminish my ability to do whatever I want. If I am poor and powerless, I want a government that will ensure that someday I might be able to bootstrap myself to a better position. In the latter case, I would like a government that is strong enough, and willing, to take on the rich and powerful when they get too predatory. Lets have the debate about what we want government to do. Then lets ensure that our government is organized and resourced to do its job without micromanagement by individual congressional members.

  59. This column by David Brooks might well have been written in January of 2001, on the cusp of the so-called "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush. After the stolen election in Florida, Bush promised to be the president for "all Americans."

    But he failed to deliver. Instead, the agenda he pursued was quite the opposite.

    From the get-go, the Bush administration focused obsessively on supply-side tax cuts and deregulation, and ignored serious national security threats. http://news.findlaw.com...

    The last decade has been a lost one; it's been a political and economic and moral failure of epic proportions. Budget surpluses that might have been used to pay down previous supply-side-generated debt, strengthen Social Security, and invest in the nation's future were squandered. Wars were managed terribly and left unfunded. Torture was "legalized." Child poverty increased, as did income stratification. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the middle class got squeezed. Government officials turned a blind eye to the neediest, and helped Wall Street become one huge casino with private profits and taxpayer-subsidized losses. Millions of people lost jobs and homes. The economy was broken. And the fall-out continues.

    In essence, Brooks is saying, "C'mon guys. Let the past remain in the past. Let's make amends and share ideas."

    Brooks evades the truth. Conservative supply-side economic policies have failed utterly; conservative "moral leadership" is morally bankrupt; and "compassionate conservatism" is a lie. Worse, in-coming House Republicans are even more rigidly conservative than the Bushies; they want more of the same bad medicine that sickened the nation's economy and weakened its democratic ethos.

    A future David Brooks column might dwell on the imperative that conservative Republicans take personal responsibility for their lies ( http://politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2010/dec/16/lie-year-government-takeover-health-care/ ), and for their policies; policies that have proved harmful and that continue to jeopardize the national and economic security of the nation.

    Owning up is a test of character. Brooks opted out. I bet conservatives continue to fail the test.

  60. It seems to me that by the end of the column Mr. Brooks has to some extent lost track of his initial claim: that the social and moral content of governmental and private actions is what determines the "rightness" of those actions. As many of the readers have pointed out, not dealing forthrightly or honestly with either the crazed morality of the continuing American military presence in Western Asia or its costs is a good sign of the wrongness of our imperial mission. Similarly, the intransigent selfishness of most of what I hear from Tea Party folks -- never a word about taking care of anyone but themselves, disguised in the foolishness that everyone deserves what they get -- flies in the face of the social responsibility one would normally try to teach a seven-year old. The elite democratic prophets though are just as off-kilter: the world they want and like seems to depend vitally on capitalism, so the constant mantra of starve the rich and its corollaries is amounts to a form of self-delusion aptly described by real Marxists. I don't know what the answer is, but papering over reality in the interest of re-election or self-aggrandizement, and the devil take the hindmost, can't be it. I can point to my children's high school, where the only virtues encouraged are belief in the value of good test scores and good grades for oneself, following the rules without question, and anything that looks like a topical, relevant, and challenging discussion is avoided as potentially disruptive of law and order. Nobody is responsible individually for how this system runs, but it runs nonetheless and most of us play our part in its running, even if we want to run the other way. A little discomfort and compassion, along with a great deal of personal risk, will be required for any change.

  61. This commentary assumes the Republicans are serious about smaller government. How can they be taken seriously, however, when they exempt the defense budget and national security from budget cuts? How can they be taken seriously when over 50% of the current deficit is due to programs they enacted when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House?

    The only argument here is which party gets to loot the government coffers on behalf of their constituents. Republicans want to loot the government on behalf of the defense and national security industries, corporations, and the wealthiest one percent. Democrats want to loot government coffers on behalf of pensioners, retirees with an unbounded sense of entitlement, the chronically unemployed, the dependent and unmotivated, the self-appointed victims, public employees, and unions.

    We will never, actually, really, ever see smaller government. Nobody wants it, left right or center. Everyone is too busy looting the treasury.

  62. The debate about smaller or larger government answers the wrong question: What size should government be? The real question is: What's the right size for a government, given what it needs to accomplish right now?

    Today's government may be too large, or too small for needs that arise a decade from now. It's clear that in general, governments are too large given the budgetary constraints of today compared with revenue excesses pof several years ago. In addition, some areas of government -- for instance regulatory bodies that have been woefully underfunded, leading to costly industrial lapses -- may need to grow, while others may need to shrink.

    Arguing "smaller versus larger" as an overall enthos for governing means that we will always be wrong. Unless we have the discipline to constantly examine the current and future needs of the nation and adjust the sizes and budgets of the various agencies and arms of government accordingly, we will constantly have Republicans and Democrats chasing each others' tails.

  63. The Republican Party, and those who vote for and follow the Party line, have been held captive by the that (in)famous utterance by Ronald Reagan: "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." Well, that looks great on a bumper sticker but in a country of 300 million people it is incredibly irresponsible. We are not Greece, Mr. Brooks, and to make that comparison is absurd. You talk about the problems we have today as if these were less than extraordinary times that required the less than extraordinary solutions. Let's not forget where we are and how we got here.

    I think business wants to be a partner with government in a lot of ways. Just one example: Pass a carbon tax and you give power companies and big industry an incentive to improve efficiency. That is a business plan that makes sense for them and benefits all of society. All of the coal burning power plants in the U.S. will have to be replaced or rebuilt by 2050. Power company executives want the new regulations and protocols in place now while they are still in the planning and development stages. But here the Republicans are the problem as they defend the power plants of the 20th century with their Reaganesque ideal of getting "big government" off of the backs of business.

    But big government can also be a problem. One example: End the wars now and lets see what we can do with that monkey off of all our backs.

  64. I find much to agree with in this column. I don't know how many others share the views I wish to add. First, regardless of government size, I am deeply concerned that those we elect are simply not capable of creating effective policy - which is different from good policy. I believe that is because they know they can placate us by enacting good policy that they have no intention of making effective because they won't fund it adequately or find effective leadership for those policies. It's a method of placating both sides in the matter. So, for example, financial institutions know they will triumph despite reform, politicians claim they were tough for the American people and we get suckered again.
    The second view I offer is that we have a dangerous mindset in goverment with regard to managing public money and reducng the deficit. To get attention an opportunity for lower cost must be big. Small things are too trivial to waste time on. This is like telling a homeowner facing default that foregoing expensive coffees, the boat, premium groceries, etc., makes no sense because such svaings would not be adequate. We have a mindset in government that is very unhealthy.
    So, let's suspend some of the non-productive partisan debate, emphasize effectiveness and competence, applied to all aspects of public spending. Many will regard this as naive or overly simplistic. There is a saying that is proven true time and again, "culture trumps strategy all the time." If we don't demand effective policies, adequately finded and competently managed, i.e3., a major change in culture, it won't matter if it's good policy because we no longer can afford the luxury of incompetence.

  65. Brooks comes close to an insight when he cites the long-running practice of fueling consumption through debt. He fails to connect this to the nasty truth, however: that the substitution of access to credit for a fair valuation of labor has made a profound imbalance in economic, social and political power, with the direction of movement away from government or working people toward multinational corporations.

    The measure of a government is neither its size nor its ability to promote virtue in its citizenry. It's its use of power for better or for worse. The main story of the last 30 years is the shift of power in all its forms away from government to an unaccountable corporate oligarchy that keeps its workforce in a state of unorganized debt peonage.

    Size of government is merely shorthand for a public sector's effective ability to impose and enforce its policies. If the policy preference of the moment is clean streets, then the public street-cleaning apparatus will be substantially bigger and better funded than it has been previously. If the policy preference continues to favor deepening feudalism in favor of corporate lords, then obviously a bigger or stronger regulatory system will be the last thing the government will be expected to deliver.

  66. David, your points are at once both right and wrong. Most of us agree that government should make it easier for entrepreneurs to create jobs. We also agree that Americans should be better educated. The fundamental points you overlook(probably for arguments sake)is that the "size of government isn't the point of the story --- but the real point is SOCIAL ECONOMICS or who gets to spend my money.

    The bigger government is, the more tax is needed to pay for it. So, the argument is really about who gets to spend the money I earn, me or government. Some of us argue that we can make better decisions about how to invest our cash than Barney Frank can or will. The difference is simply this: In the past, he has decided that government should have a home mortgage system that resulted in liar loans and economic disaster. We want to go back to a system where a local banker, who probably knows the borrower, decides if he/she is credit worthy. Government has failed at this and to many other economic tasks and should not continue to intrude into investment decisions or others like them.

    The other example is education. After many years of government subsidizing, passing laws about it, and of judges deciding how schools should be run, about half of the kids in large city high schools don't graduate. Politicians & judges are not capable of telling parents (voting constituents) that they are the problem,not the teachers. Parents don't read to toddlers, they don't have stable families, their kids are not prepared to learn when they arrive at school, and too many parents don't value education and their children don't either. US Senators can't fix this problem and shouldn't try. It can only be solved when communities themselves develop higher expectations and peer pressure helps bring about change.

    Government has been taking our money and but has largely failed at spending it wisely. We want smaller and less costly government so they stop wasting our resources and let us solve problems in our own communities.

    David, the current argument isn't only between politicians in Washington. Its an argument between Americans who have seen government fail to make the right decisions and politicians who want to maintain control via taxation with the result that we won't have the cash to fix the problems ourselves.

  67. Your comments on government remind me of the debate between progressives and conservatives on the abortion issue which is also often irrelevant to the actual needs of people. If children are to be born into this world they need the safety and support of society such as adequate health, education and nurturing, loving people. This is the true issue not whether government will or will not intrude directly into the decisions of individuals to outlaw abortions. People make better decisions when they live in a supportive environment.
    This goes for individuals, governments and businesses as well. Clear laws, tax codes and policies that promote growth and initiative rather than greed and piracy qre required if our country is not to sink into third world status and an attitude of every person for themself.
    I do not know if we are capable of making these clear headed, heart centered decisions at this point, but if we do not find a way then we are bound to continue our floundering descent. Government as a major binding element in society must lead the way.

  68. I like the way David has framed the dilemma of Government. I think that the inner contradictions of our way of doing business, including governance of course, calls for extraordinary leadership. The late Ed Schein contributed an eye-opening analyis:

    "Historians, sociologists, and empirically oriented social psychologists agree that what leadership should be depends on the particular situation, the task to be performed, and the characteristics of the leader’s subordinates.

    It takes learning ability and personal flexibility to evolve and change organizations. The one thing that is becoming clearer is that the institutions of the past may be obsolete and that new forms of governance and leadership will have to be learned. Furthermore, as the rate of change itself increases, learning ability will not consist of the one-time learning of a new system; perpetual learning and change will be the only constant. Leaders of the future will therefore have to have more of the following characteristics:

    • Extraordinary levels of perception and insight into the realities of the world and into themselves. Extraordinary levels of motivation to enable them to go through the inevitable pain of learning and change, especially in a world with looser boundaries, in which loyalties become more difficult to define.
    • The emotional strength to manage their own and others’ anxiety as learning and change become more and more a way of life.
    • New skills in analyzing cultural assumptions, identifying functional and dysfunctional assumptions, and evolving processes that enlarge the culture by building on its strengths and functional elements.
    • The willingness and ability to involve others and elicit their participation, because tasks will be too complex and information too widely distributed for leaders to solve problems on their own.
    • The willingness and ability to share power and control according to people’s knowledge and skills, that is, to permit and encourage leadership to flourish throughout the organization.

    Perhaps the most salient aspect of future leadership will be that these characteristics will not be present in a few people all the time, but will be present in many people some of the times, as circumstances change and as different people develop the insight to move into leadership roles. Leadership will then increasingly be an emergent function rather than a property of people appointed to formal roles.

    Whereas today the process of appointing leaders is a critical function of boards of directors, electorates, government agencies, and so on, we can imagine that, in the future, appointed leaders will not play the key leadership roles but will be perpetual diagnosticians who will be able to empower different people at different times and to let emergent leadership flourish. They will not assume that all groups need leadership; they will not assume that leadership means hierarchy and control of others, and they will not assume that accountability must always be individual. Instead, the leader of the future will be a person with the characteristics mentioned above who can lead and follow, be central and marginal, be hierarchically above and below, be individualistic and a team player, and, above all, be a perpetual learner. If the world is to learn to manage itself better, many more people in organizations will have to be leaders and the leadership functions described above will have to be much more widely shared.

  69. Words are important. They can be used to mold opinion as much as elucidate an opinion. The term "Welfare State" is used in America primarily in a pegorative sense. The right creates a box with the label "Welfare State" and puts in it all those things it doesn't like or those things from which it feels the private sector should be making a profit. Health care is not a right it's an opportunity for profit as are retirement savings, water treatment, food inspection etc. etc..

    When the foundation of a society is profit and services become commodities citizens become consumers. Consumers don't make good citizens. The consumers interest is narrow. They are only interested in the deal they are getting and are not interested in the common good. If you want an explanation for the recent electoral swings I would suggest that the American consumer wants a better warrantee on the product they are getting. America is and perhaps always has been a country where all things are measured by the same yardstick - the dollar. There is no measure of the public good other than that. Two women were pardoned in Mississippi recently because, in the words of the governor, it cost too much to keep them in jail (one was on dialysis).

    Americans talk a lot about freedom and liberty but the only freedom they really care about is the freedom to keep what's theirs. The biggest fear isn't terrorism, it is that the other guy might be getting a free ride on their money. Altruism is a four letter word. A crisis can bring out the best in people or the worst. In WWII it brought out the best. So far the crisis of 2008 has brought out the worst.

  70. Mr. Brooks takes a brief look at history, but is forced to look outside the US to Greece for an example of the evils of big government. What is the history in the US? Have high taxes wrecked the economy? Have low taxes led to economic nirvana? Here are some of the answers:

    When Clinton was inaugurated, unemployment was something like 8.6%, not much different than when Obama took office. (I know, the state of the economy was much worse.) Clinton raised taxes and in spite of the Republican takeover in 1994, taxes remained high during his administration. Over 20 million private sector jobs were created. Bush took office with a much better economic situation, cut taxes over $2 TRILLION and practically no private sector jobs were created.

    I know it sounds good to say that increasing taxes will lower demand, but suppose the extra revenue were use to repair infrastructure, boost education, etc. Is it clear, as you seem to believe, that we would not be better off? History seems to come down squarely on the side of higher taxes.

    In 1946 the debt was 120% of the GDP, It went straight down to about 32% in 1973. During this period 1946 - 1973 taxes were much higher. Marginal rates were at least 70%; they were 93% under Eisenhower. The economy was better than what we now have. For example, median wages went up 3 times as fast as since 1973. CEO's earned 50 times what their workers earned; it is 500 times today. Staring in 1973, the percent of wealth and income taken by the richest 10%, 1%, and 0.1% has gone up at an ever increasing rate.

    Since 1900 the two periods with the most economic inequality were the years leading to 1929 and 2008. These happened to coincide with the two periods of lowest taxes on the Rich and the greatest financial speculation. Here's a theory which fits this data.

    The Rich hate to pay taxes. You may have heard of the rich guy who will spend $2 to avoid $1 in taxes. So when marginal rates are high, they will leave their money in their companies and use it to pay their workers more, improve their means of production and perhaps hire more. This works out because when there are more workers with more money, there is more demand. When marginal rates are low, the Rich take their profits out of their businesses. Since they can only buy so many houses in Barbados, they use the money to speculate. They buy Argentinean railroad bond (1920's) and CDO's, CDS's and oil futures (2000's). Notice that both these periods of low marginal rates, high inequality and great speculation led to economic disaster.

  71. Keep writing in this vein David - this is the trim and good governance, rather than the "no big gub'mint", message that we need to hear and discuss.

    In reading this, the need for a VAT tax, to allow the reduction of other taxes, came to mind again and again. Tax consumption, not productive effort and investment.

    Concerning this paragraph:"Democrats could champion the things they believe will enhance productivity and mobility. Many of these will mean making sure everybody has the tools to compete: early childhood education, infrastructure programs to create jobs, immigration policies that recruit talent, incentives for energy innovation. "

    As a moderate often voting Republican in the past, I looked to the GOP for an emphasis on infrastructure and investment. I looked to the Democrats to make sure the land wasn't despoiled in the building of infrastructure. Now you acknowledge we have to look to the Dems for these things. What a sign of things moving to the right. This is why I have been voting blue for four years.

  72. David, this column takes us out of the liberal/conservative rut we are in and provides us with a better place to stand. Congratulations and Thanks!

  73. I think this is a well positioned article. The focus should always be on quality and not quantity when arguing about politics and the best state. A problem right now is the focus on quantifying everything. Arguments about quantity and economics are helpful when building a bridge or exploring for oil but are not helpful when talking about political justice and how government should act. Unfortunately, we have now come to expect quantitative analysis of everything; this spends too much time on economics and its relationship to the political agenda than on words like education, justice, and "transforming lives." As Aristotle said: "precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions ... it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrative proofs."

  74. I am certainly a fan of Mr. Brooks, but once again, it's frustrating to hear that graduates are "flocking to finance, not industry." I'm a recent college graduate that attended one of the top universities. And I definitely think more undergrads should study engineering/computer science, and not just business and finance. However, exactly what companies, and what types of jobs is Mr. Brooks referring to? The overwhelming majority of recruiting that happens on campus is by the finance/consulting industry. For a graduate over a university, for example, in Boston or New York, generally the only way to afford to still live in those cities is to take a job with one of those companies.

    I'm very excited about "green companies", but they do almost no recruiting on campus. They usually don't have the budget/size to do so.

    It's not like my classmates and I had any great desire to get into finance/consulting, but we did want to stay in cities like Boston and New York, cities we loved where we had friends and family, and the most common way to do so was to take jobs in finance and consulting. These cutting-edge companies really need to find a better way to recruit top graduates.

  75. It's true that with every passing legislation we see nothing but addendum to consumption and slackening in investment. Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare are all important and need urgent interference by the Government but without any regulating oversight it's like a shot in the dark. The lack of investment or thereof may be blamed on States going bankrupt and having to file for Chapter 11. What really concerns me is the character of our Congress. They fight tooth and nail to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and extend the tax-cut benefits to the wealthy segment of the society but have no incentive to pass the 9/11 First Responders Bill until a comedian on the late night show decides to make it a priority and reveals the ineptitude of the Government by belaboring it night after night in his show.

    Our Declaration of Independence attests to the fact that "when things go wrong, those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to do so". With the mindset possessed by our Congress, who do we turn to for such succor?

  76. Since the 1960s, real income has plummeted for all but the top few percent of American earners. That trend is not the result of a failure of "Achievement," but of policies that are systematically designed to funnel wealth upward. No elected Republican will acknowledge these basic, sobering facts, which clutter our collective living room like so many 900-pound gorillas.

  77. The achievement test should include intergenerational equity. Our youth should be able to study for, plan and build their own future without being burdened by the fact that the generation before them ran up such a large debt. Short term debt, to get through a recession or a war, is one thing; but habitual, persistent deficit spending for no other reason than a lack of resolve and lack of intRAgenerational discipline is unacceptable.
    An intergeneration equity act would apply a "pay as you leave" surcharge on the estate tax,which would correspond to the number of dollars one ought to have paid during each of their working years to attain a balanced budget in each of those years. If you, while living, do not want to have such a large surcharge on your estate tax, then take more responsibility for each year's federal budget when you are alive. Don't just demand lower taxes, demand a balanced budget over the intermediate, if not the short term.
    This will give our next generation the hope, clarity and freedom they need to build their own prosperity.

  78. I wish the GOP was sensible enough to adopt your attitude. Sadly, what once touted itself as "the party of ideas" has degenerated into the party of lickspittles and toadies for the political donor class. One need look no further than how the GOP months of screaming for cutting deficits but, when the chips were down, sacrificed all to guarantee extending the Bush Tax cuts to the America's sorely afflicted millionaires and billionaires and country clubbers.

  79. While I could quibble about your analysis of where to go from here, I am in absolute agreement with you that the size of government is not the issue. "Big Government" as a campaign slogan goes back at least as far as Reagan. It's been the major factor behind Republican election successes since, along with similar empty generalizations like "Taxes bad, Tax Cuts Good", "Activist Judges", "Tax and Spend" and so on. These expressions are in themselves meaningless - as you have argued today. In fact, they are useful only to stifle true governance, while inciting emotions; debate is reduced to third grade playground name-calling.

    As Republican administrations have demonstrated, these phrases make bad policy. After all, just how far can you cut taxes? Why don't we just stop all taxation? Let our military pay for itself through foreign actions that generate revenue, say, take over Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well as Iraq? We're ideally positioned to become the Global Drug Lord too.

    Seriously, before we can return to useful politicking these catch phrases have to disappear. Since the Democrats either don't want to campaign on such empty promises or aren't clever enough to come up with their own, it falls on Republicans to step up. Drop the slogans, stick to facts and act like adults.

    Could you start us on the road to sanity? I'm sure that the vast majority of Americans will join you and thank you.

  80. I hope I misread your column, because after reading it through twice it looks to me as if you consider things like education and rebuilding the roads moral because they count as production. While things like Social Security and Medicare are bad because they encourage consumption. Is this what you really meant to say?
    Those of us now depending on these programs were productive while we were able to be, and we aren't consuming a whole lot now. I'm still wearing many of the same clothes I wore when I was working--twenty-five years ago. Have to buy new shoes and socks once in awhile, as those things wear out. And except for the occasional hamburger, I gave up red meat years ago. (Okay, it was only partly the price. I also can't chew it any more.) And I depend on Medicare to stay alive, which may be bad for the economy, but I prefer it.
    If a truly moral society should cut off people's income because they aren't producing or investing,give me immoral care for the old and the sick any day.

  81. Way to go Brooks! Your column is, as usual, going to draw entertaining comments.

  82. Government contracting is the real issue here - bloated bonuses for politically connected firms, often hidden under the secrecy of "propriety laws" and "national security considerations."

    This includes federal military contracts, state management contracts, city water contracts - the web of corruption is getting close to the size of that seen in the Soviet Union or 1930s Germany, and yet remains a taboo topic for the newspapers.

    Maybe that's because of conflicts of interests between media directors and these government contracting outfits? Like the Carlyle Group, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, etc. etc. etc.?

    If you want to trim the fat, the place to start is with the bloated public-private partnerships - and no, they are not "more efficient."

  83. Mr. Brooks, thank you for writing this article.

  84. David, excellent article! Every American I know except the ones personally benefiting from government and business largess want the needed changes to get the government's focus off consumption and back to education, research and infrastructure.

  85. I have been an avid reader and long-time admirer of yours. For the record, I am a pregressive; but this is by far the best, most measured article that you have ever written on this issue.

  86. One is never quite sure exactly where David Brooks stands. In any case, theorizing is his forte whereas implementation escapes him entirely. Let us hope, for his sake, that he sticks with journalism for he would never last a minute in the world of commerce.

    I shall leave the commentary to all of you out there with stamina and say only that I refuse to be sucked into sorting out the various points made regarding government per se and how it may or may not impact our existence - present and future. I am glad, however, that he eschews the actual size of government as not necessarily the really important issue it has become - and endlessly so.

    I will say this: Carrying on such debates - earnestly - while the house is burning down is simply an exercise in futility and/or oversight on his part. I always feel that tapping him on the shoulder and pointing out the encroaching flames would be met by a very blank and recognizable stare. Vaya con dios.

  87. Once again Social Security is lumped in with Medicare and Medicaid as if the benefits paid out by Social Security are paid for with federal income tax dollars. They are not. Social Security is an entirely separate fund that has nothing to do with the deficit. Everyone of us that pays the FICA tax pays into this fund. Our benefits will come out of this fund, not out of income tax revenue. Social Security benefits could end tomorrow and the deficit would remain the same.

    Having a discussion about the role of government is absolutely necessary. Identifying what we want government to do and how we want it to do it is absolutely necessary. Here is my two bits: I want government (we the people)to provide medical care for the sick and the elderly. I want government to make sure that all of us have sufficient food and adequate housing. I want government to ensure that all of us have access to education and employment. I want government to enforce the laws, maintain the physical infrastructure, and provide seed money for research and development for new forms of energy that will make us independent. I want government to ensure our food is safe and the workplace is a safe environment... You know, it would just be easier to say what I don't want government to do. I don't want the government to spy on us, to eavesdrop on all internet communications, to murder people here or overseas, to develop weapons of mass destruction or drones, or decide who may or may not marry. I would be very happy to see the defense budget cut to about 10% of what it is now.

    Leave Social Security alone. It is working just fine, thank you.

  88. There is one single measure that would aid tremdously in the shift that Brooks dreams of -- carbon tax and dividend.

    With its corresponding emphasis on energy independence, it would shift our focus to new industries and less on consumption, and provide a vehicle for reinvestment, education, and global competitiveness, while enhancing our position in the global economy (less funding for middle east and reduction in transfer of wealth to China). It has the potential to create large numbers of jobs, and to put money in the hands of the middle class, rather than the oil barrons.

    A carbon tax and dividend plan, properly established, with equitable distribution of the dividend to all citizens, would fuel private sector growth and development, because the market will direct investment and private sector entrepreneurs will seek to capitalize on the opportunities in other than fossil fuel energy that are created.

    Like Mr. Brooks, I can dream.

  89. The irony is that we have so much work to do and so many people are unemployed.

    Let's face it. While we sit here arguing about big government versus small government, China, a command economy, is having us for lunch. Canada, what some Republicans would call a welfare state, deftly avoided the banking crisis. China will be able to serve 1.2 billion people with clean energy and be completely energy independent in the coming decade. Why? Because they are simply unwilling to fight for corporate oil revenues in the Middle East.

    And the same corporations that kowtow to the Chinese government sell us the free market fantasy in the United States.

    We need an energy policy that will enhance our independence and security.

    We need affordable and accessible health care, toughly regulated or administered by the government, to unleash the entrepreneurship among the struggling working and middle classes who need to work for self as opportunities to get hired from someone else dwindle.

    We need an infrastructure that will allow people and goods to travel more efficiently to get business done.

    We need an education system that promotes the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, doctors, teachers, and experts to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

    And what do we get. Pablum about how free markets will save the world.

    Forgive me, but the market isn't free. Just cost us $800 billion. And guess who bailed them out-- the government (aka the American people).

    In summation, we have a lot of work to do. The corporations aren't going to do it. The wealthy few who own them aren't going to do it. The government is the only institution in this country that can. Whether it has the will is up to the American people. But, the free market ideologues will have to be voted out. Maybe one day they will be on the right side of history. But, right now, the ideology is bankrupt and gets bailed out by US (the government).

  90. John F. Kennedy started this nation on a course of space exploration, an his vision of that purpose was a driving force to that end for decades. This nation has lost it's vision, it has been veiled over by the neocons who can and will make war at will without the complete authority of the American constitution, or congress's approval. Have we taken a wrong turn, you betcha, and we had better bring the horse back to the barn or this nation's future is one of a series of wars and more wars to enhance the profits of the corporations who need them to practice using the tools they just developed for that purpose. How many trillions of the taxpayers money has been spent in a decades long debacle fighting insurgents who spend three cents to make a bullet while we spend over fifty dollars for every bullet fired. War, and more war is this nations downfall, it supplants education, health care, infrastructure and the vision of peace.

  91. It is not accurate to describe Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on debt as government spending on "consumption". The first two are a form of consumption, but as other commenters have argued it is necessary consumption! The only fair debate on healthcare is about the relative level of that spending and whether or not there exists a comparable private-sector solution.

    Interest on debt is not consumption as it arises from all debt-financed government spending. It might be more accurately termed the "cost of overly low taxes".

    Social Security is an insurance program administered by the government, with premiums collected through a dedicated tax. It does not increase the "size" of government except insofar as the SSA requires administrative staff. Otherwise it's just a transfer payment, most of which is consumed (because most recipients are living on a fixed income that few would argue is based on excessive consumption) and the rest of which is invested.

  92. David,

    Excellent Point. It is a test for government investments at all levels. These investments need to keep in mind that the answer to the question (about what kind of government we need) is not about size or location. It is about being accountable, democratic, responsible, principled, transparent, effective/efficient, pluralist, and dedicated to individual and corporate (at all levels)growth, learning, productivity and achievement. We need to expect experiments and not perfection in these pursuits. The achievement teat is a good way to focus on the results that can and will make a difference for our future.

  93. The Obama Administration gave us the Stress Tests’ now David Brookes suggests “Achievement Tests. His essay today makes a number of misleading statements. First is his reference to an article by Matthew Continetti where he lops in Social Security as a governemtg fed “Consumption” give away and draining funds from investment expenditures. He is wrong because at the moment Social Security is an insurance program where worker and employer share in funding. Brook should know this and that for the past many years congress has raped the Social Security Trust Fund and used it for Add Ons or Ear Marks. Congress in its wisdom has spent billions of this trust fund and all we citizens get is slips of paper but the national debt in no way reflects this as part of the gross National debt. I think this is akin to the off budget expenditures to fund the Mid East Wars. The second misstatement of Brooks relates to his inclusion of “Meanwhile, the private sector has encouraged a huge increase in personal debt to fuel a consumption bubble...” It was the government which is responsible for encouraging the no down payment to purchase a home and where credit or ability to pay was not in question, that it was under Clinton, that was the seed that ended up with the housing bubble which brought on the recession.

  94. Random thoughts

    In the end a government program is only valid if it produces more than it costs. Most don't because the middleman (gov't) siphons off its cut and/or it causes more problems than it cures. See: Great New Society

    Liberals don't care, if the 'intention' meets their definition of good--somebody will pay for it later in inflated Keynesian dollars and anyway all any program needs is some tweaking and a lot more money (increased taxes) to work. There is never a want of tweakers.

    Most problems would be quickly solved if congress, and all government employees were made to live under the legislation they pass. If this were the case, we all would have reasonably priced medical coverage, not the monstrosity called Obamacare.

  95. When I was in business school, one of the key attributes of an "entrepreneur" was a willingness to undertake risk. In order to encourage such risk-taking, the government has created a special legal entity, known as "limited liability" (e.g., a "corporation") that acts as a "safety net" for business.

    Surely, "social safety nets" serve similar purposes. Wasn't one of the prime benefits to society of Social Security the reduction of the need for low-income couples to have huge families in order to provide their own form of "old-age insurance"? Doesn't the availability of affordable health care for the aged and poor serve this same purpose, as well as reducing the incidence of pre- and post-natal maladies that reduce the future employability (and utility to society) of poor children? It's fatuous to bring up the "moral hazrd" of the social safety net without balancing this against the insurance and social investment benefits.

  96. The problem is that the Republicans for the last 30 years have become more and more extremists. The govt has become a dirty word for them, except when it comes to waging wars. Cutting taxes for the wealthy and removing any regulations have become mantra for them, even though it has resulted in endless deficits ( deficits do not matter-Chaney), the greatest financial meltdown and recession in history.

    Unless right wingers admit that the govt has legitimate role to play, and the Corporations and financial institutions are driven by short term profits that may not prudent or right for the nation in long term at times, we will not have a resolution to the task our country is facing. In addtion, the right wingers also need to decide if they want to contine demeaning or discriminating against other human beings.

  97. David, you fail to bring defense spending into your thesis. This spending creates little tangible gain to society. Ending the needless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is probably the biggest issue as to what progress this country can make in the next 2 years.
    Social justice is also overlooked in your thesis. You assume lower corporate taxes result in more competetive industry. The truth is that most corporations pay little for their cost to government. The same is true to high income earners. They require higher societal costs in areas such as police protection, government support for their play things such as boating, country clubs, airports, private schools etc.
    You mention medicare,S.S.,medicaid, as costs to society but fail to mention that Social security and medicare have been self sustaining programs paid for by the recipeints. And as for their future, they can be self sustaining into the future by increasing the base of earners by an immigration policy that is not corrupted by conservative politicians for their political gain. Even without change the S.S system will only have a short term cost to the general budget, it will return to excess once the population rebalances itself.

  98. Mr. Brooks has defined the basic difference between the parties. You can see (below) that the Republicans are concerned mostly about business flourishing and that Democrats are concerned about people succeeding.

    Republicans champion: enhanced productivity and mobility; making sure people have the incentives to take risks; the freedom to adjust to foreign competition; a flatter, simpler tax code with lower corporate rates; a smaller debt burden; predictable regulations; affordable entitlements.

    Democrats champion: enhanced productivity and mobility; making sure everybody has the tools to compete; early childhood education; infrastructure programs to create jobs; immigration policies that recruit talent; incentives for energy innovation.

  99. David this is a wonderful article. I am reminded of the favorite response of those on the right where gun control is concerned: guns don't kill people; people kill people. Well, we can apply this logic to government as well: Government doesn't ruin economies, or enslave people; people ruin economies, and enslave people. For those who somehow think that small localized government is the only solution, realize that such a position is simply a clever way to marginalize their responsibility for something larger than themselves or their city. As long as our population continues to expand at it present rate the necessity for managing how we all interact will require government, and most assuredly not a small one. We long ago lost the space for the wild west! Kudos, David. One of the most intelligent assessments of our present gordian knot! We need to attack the causes, not the symptoms.

  100. An intellligently written article from David Brooks, as usual. However, one must remember that Social security is not a government expense; most of those receiving payments have contributed...Medicare can easily be repaired. Those who receive Medicare should pay for it according to their income. I have always opposed the Medicare part D plan because it is a gift for those who don't need it. Several monoths ago I read a Federal Reserve research papaer that shows that Part D of Medicare is by far the most expensive government program, especially in the outer years (a Republican program). These should be fixed. I'm 73 years old and don't want free medicines!!! I feel that we have earned the insurance payment of Social security and I would be glad to pay more for Medicare. Not too long ago I met a woman in the DMV. Her speech was littered with errors and she was obviously poor. She and her husband lived only from Social security and had Medicare. I can assure you that their checks were not large, although they worked at poorly paying jobs their whole lives. It was the safety net working as it was designed to work, that makes me proud to be an American. I will gladly pay more taxes for safety nets such as these.

  101. I am reminded of the story of Joseph and his interpretation of Pharoah's dream. America had its fat years and failed miserably at setting up the " good" programs Brook's concedes as well worth it as they invest in the future.
    The time for debate was then it is now too late to continue this debate. There is no room for debating the proper role of government. The government is all we have left to save countless Americans from mental and fiscal disaster.
    The party is over do we respond to the crisis with charity or is it every man for himself.
    In the global economy the only thing we have to sell is chicken feet but the US has enough to provide food and shelter to all its people. Will the Us take care of its people or continue the philosophical debate of the proper role of government?

  102. Mr. Brooks: You don't mention government's #1 achievement test - "Is our nation earning it's way in a very competitive global economy? Are we able to pay for whatever programs our leaders adopt - conservative or liberal?" For more than three decades the answer has been a resounding "No - not even close!" Since 1975 we've had a total deficit of $8 trillion in competing with the rest of the world and borrowed money abroad to pay for it. That huge deficit resulted partly from weak U.S. government trade policies,partly by our multinational companies ignoring our home market to grow abroad, and partly by average citizens preferring cheaper goods from low wage countries like China. Domestic
    companies that had been our cornerstone for providing good jobs and
    secure lives in America have been devastated! We've lost tens of thousands of manufacturers and service companies, and along with them
    many millions of jobs. The answer now isn't in tinkering with government
    social programs. It's in mobilizing the nation for survival just as was done so well in World War II. Wake up America!Your leaders are asleep!

  103. The fly in the ointment, or perhaps the hole in the bucket, it the pervasive belief that greed is good, that the self-interests of individuals combine in some divine way to produce the greatest good for all of society.

    This belief is a perversion of Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Any truth behind Smith's 1776 comment was a result of the pound sterling weighing one pound in 1776. A wealthy merchant kept money close at hand, with some resulting benefit to the local community.

    In the modern age, money can be transferred at the click of a mouse. Much of the wealth that 235 years ago would have stayed at home is now invested in Asia, and results in domestic unemployment, low wages and collapsed economic bubbles.

    An ancient truth remains, though: greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

  104. I think it's disengenuous to keep repeating the word "government" as if talking about something real. If we laid Newt Gingrich on a table and sent a robot to examine his physical body, I bet the ranch he won't find it on his person or even in the room. If there was such a thing as a federal "government", most likely it would consist of mostly elected officials making rules and spending money that the governed contributed by way of being taxed so pundits and talking heads would have something to talk about. The real problem is not "big" government but discovering who footed the bill to put these well-off people in power and how much influence the payors exert over the payees. Putting the payors and the political payees all in one room would be a good start. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has put blinders on our citizens/voters so we can't tell who's up to what in the room.

  105. You are on the right track, but didn't go far enough. You still make it sounds like we measure values only in tangible terms, i.e., the size of our toys. Real values involve such intangibles as honesty and honor, and often are reflected in manners and the way we treat our fellow man. Whether the middle class man can afford a hummer, or the poor family a 50-inch HDTV, are not good measures of success, based on such values. The behavior of many of our political and cultural leaders is abominable. Instead of violent athletes and vulgar entertainers, we should be able to point to role models like Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer. Our relatively free and democratic society has betrayed its potential, and the Tea Party vs. Progressive tug-of-war is doing nothing to restore it.

  106. I seem to recall the anti-war protests by the liberals evaporated so it is no use trying to lay that item on conservatives. Frankly, the military seems to have been the most reliable employer and offers the steadiest retirement package- unless it's a coffin.

    The main issue is government intrusion in private lives beyond the common good. Do we really need Michelle or Bloomberg to tell us what to eat or is this a veiled insult? Don't mothers and schools teach facts about nutrition? And the government has done a terrible job regarding food and drug safety, anyway. If one in three Americans are considered overweight or obese and so many teens suffer from anorexia/bulimia isn't this more of an addictive problem? This is just one example of pots and kettles- both black- which could be applied to other areas.

    If one wishes for total security in life, they are chasing a phantom. Jails are generally "secure"- three meals a day, etc.

  107. "and much less on investment (education, research, infrastructure)"
    And why have we spent much lest on investment (education, research, infrastructure)???
    Because the Republican party has opposed it. Just imagine what we could have done with a stimulus package that contained a significant investment in infrastructure, repairing and building our infrastructure, stimulating economic development, while giving people good jobs at good wages. But this is exactly what the Republicans fought against, squeezing down the size of the stimulus package in 2009 until it was predictably far from adequate (leaving many unemployed, our bridges crumbling, our trains slow). And, by leaving so many unemployed by their destructive behavior, they could claim the stimulus package "didn't work" and increase their power. Of course, it didn't work because it was too small thanks to Republicans in the Senate.
    If you believe investment in education, research and infrastructure are important for the future of America, and it is, the only way to get that done is to support Democrats.

  108. The issue is not how big the Gov is, but how big Bus is! Too Big To Fail anything is inherently bad, probably evil, and certainly undesirable! This ugliness is compounded by the simply fact, that Banks, Wall Street racketeers, Investment Banks and Trusts gambling with money provide absolutely no benefit to the nation or its peoples; and provide real risks and destruction as they gambol about! Allowing these corruptions to continue is an evil of government which is charged with the basic responsibility to protect and serve the people! Certainly, no responsible person would argue that 30 millisecond trades are investing, no churning of portfolios is aiding our economy, that allowing these monstrosities to create money from debt is healthy, that the unholy bonuses and pay is productive, or that anything these parasites do is not an example of the dark, dark side of Capitalism!

  109. David Brooks you are fantastic writer and sometimes you even make really good points. But what is your point in this editorial?



    You ask:

    How does government influence how people live?"



    and



    "Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?"



    You write:

"...it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most."



    and



    "If a policy enhances achievement, we should be for that thing. If it displaces investment, we should be skeptical of it. Quality, not quantity, matters most."



    The values you are promoting are so vague: "achievement," "quality," "investment," "energy," "skill," "mobility," "transformation," etc. As though the transcendent power of these words makes any physical action representing them a worthy activity.

Be plain. What values are saying that government should promote?

Is the base of your philosophy that true-blue capitalist idea that every person working in his own self-interest is what is good for the country and government should just get out of peoples way?



    Henry Thoreau, a true believer in small government, writes in "Walden":



    "The nation itself, with all its so called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and
superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it as for them is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the
Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour,.... but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain."



    I am tired of listening to politicians talk about "growing the economy." What is the purpose of "growing the economy"? Simply to elevate living standards without regard to the social and environmental costs? Where is the "worthy aim"?, the elevated purpose?



    If you are going to promote abstractions, why not promote fairness, justice, love and compassion? Why not promote simplicity and conservation? These would be worthwhile "investments" in "quality" "skills" that would "transform peoples lives."



    Government policies that just allow a bunch of already rich people to get a whole lot richer at everyone else's expense are not going to build a better nation. Even if they manage to "grow the economy" in the short term, in the long term, we will all be poorer for their "achievements."

  110. I like the point of this article but unfortunately it should have been written on the day when our government decided that they were going to just scrap private industry and run these projects themselves along with the unions. In doing so, it became more about flushing what is now trillions when our roads and bridges are falling apart. Government investment in infrastructure I have felt was a very neccesary thing for a long time, despite my libertarian leanings but now it's practically been proven that the last people to fix our highways should be the government.

    I never lived in a time when a big government program turned out a successful result. Even welfare state programs have become ponzi schemes and they can't even be debated without some beltway hack blocking them. So it pains me to say it. I know the intentions are often good. The only thing big government has "achieved" is bankrupting this nation. These great programs we speak of will only continue to do so and will not solve a thing.

  111. Changing the focus of the liberal/conservative debate from Big versus Small Government to the common value that the two sides share (i.e. Productivity and Mobility) will not get us out of our collective funk. The cure Mr. Brooks pushing is only more of what ails us: namely, this American obsession with Productivity and Mobility.

    I don't want to underestimate the financial devastation the Great Recession has caused, but it is also teaching many of us how little we need to make us happy and how little of what the economic powers that be are pushing is of true value.

    Preaching in favor of a little more investment and a little less consumption is hardly the solution to our problems. But let's face it: in this article, Mr. Brooks is just another ad-man for the economic status quo, and that's why they give him a permanent soap-box.

    We need a massive shift in values, if we had let the Great Recession bear the ugly Depression it should have born, we might have had it--which is why Republicans and Democrats agreed on the Great Bailout. Anything to keep people consuming the junk they keep making, and we, in our idiocy, keep buying.

    I am certainly not buying this article.

  112. The basic assumption is false. There are no "small government conservatives." There are "lip service conservatives," but once they're in power they NEVER reduce the size of government. They just change who gets the money. The ink is not even dry on the "compromise" forced on the President in exchange for helping the unemployed and the middle class, an enormous tax cut for the wealthiest, and a new estate tax that even George W. Bush could never dream of. So we don't have to choose between "big government Democrats" and "small government conservatives." We have to choose between "government helping the working class Democrats" and "the government giving it all away to the rich Republicans."

  113. It's interesting that David speaks in favor of government policies which inspire citizens to improve their lives. It will never work. There are too many people who will criticize the government for any "interference" in our personal lives. Example ad extremis: Our First Lady takes on as a project the improvement of the American diet and the reduction of the incidence of obesity (which, if not reduced, will start costing America a lot of money for knee replacements, diabetes care, etc.) and Sarah Palin immediately accuses the FLOTUS of telling people they can't eat dessert, as she buys ingredients for S'mores.

    What will improve our country is throwing people out of the legislature who have no stated goal but to obstruct legislation and to make the President look bad. They should not be paid for that! Why are we giving them a pay check (and healthcare and an eventual pension) if they state from the outset that they plan do do no constructive work when they are elected to do legislative work?

  114. To enhance RR, Government is not, will not, cannot be the solution. Government is the problem. You have a moment of brilliance in pointing out that a country's values are most important in assessing that country's ability to succeed or fail. The government, at all levels, has become an end unto itself. The government has forgotten that its purpose is to serve the people. I'm not so naive as to believe that altruism exists in government. Thus, government, at every level, should be restricted in its growth.

    With that out of the way, let's turn to your final point. Democrats promote mobility? Really? If the Democrats' policies actually succeeded in achieving mobility, the party would lose its voter base. The Democrats need people to need them, and hence, Democratic policies have been some of the most destructive policies wrought on this country, as you pointed out with the original construction of welfare. However, you fail to mention the impacts Democratic policies have had on education, which have served to destroy two generations of students, and rob them of the necessary ingredient that has allowed this country to achieve as much as it has: self-reliance, aka accountability.

  115. You ask, "Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?"

    You then ignore the fact that adequate universal health care should be near the top of any list designed to pass your so-called Achievement Test. Passing the costs of health care to businesses has been a fiasco for both citizens and businesses in this country, tying people to their jobs and making them more risk-averse, and rendering businesses less competitive in the global market. if Republicans were rational, they would recognize that fact. There is, however, no evidence that rationality will enter into the coming debate. Case in point: Republicans only want "small government" when they are not in power, and when they are in power, "deficits don't matter."

  116. Another Brooks column laden with false framing and misdirection terminology.

    Not to mention humor (ruff-n-tuff republicans that "critique" government? You may as well accuse them of eating quiche.)
    And not to mention a moment of honesty: (Brooks posits that early childhood education is a distinctly Democratic value.)

    But seriously, this cherished conservative phrase: "small-government conservatives" Simply. Doesn't. Fly.
    That game is up.
    Conservatives want to conserve -- their own money and that of their cronies.
    "Social Democrats" (as defined by somebody like Tony Judt), also want to conserve their money, because like all humans they too are innately greedy, but grudgingly give up a piece of their own pie to help others less fortunate.

    Some consider Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to be brick and mortar examples of humans transcending their own immediate interests in the attempt to extend a hand to others.

    Some, like Mr. Brooks, consider them to be "consumption".

    Maybe it's a genetic divide.
    That might be an awfully reductionist way to put it, but that fact is only becoming more cartoonishly apparent, not less.

  117. Amazing, and amusing, how Republicans always think that they work harder than everyone else. They don't want their tax dollars subsidizing those vast legions of freeloading Americans who are just not as industrious, and virtuous we should suppose, as the Republicans. But then they are singing a different tune when they lose their jobs or health insurance. This amounts either to hypocrisy or to a lack of empathy, but either way it's lamentable.

    Even more ludicrous is the fact that they are mostly unaware that Medicare is a government program, and more importantly, that what you get out the system far exceeds what you pay in Medicare taxes. So are these folks going to pay out of pocket for health care after retirement?

    And I'm not sure if it would be more disturbing if the commenter complaining about "the awfulness of the Great Society programs of the 19060s" were aware or unaware of the fact that first and foremost among these programs was the Civil Rights Act.

  118. This is called "controlling the narrative". In Mr. Brooks' sensible world Social Security and Medicare are government handouts and the war industry is entrepreneurial and operating in a free market. Sick people are consumers of government largess while Haliburton is a producer standing on its own two feet. The richest rich we, or anyone else, have ever seen are victimized by an outrageous tax rate, while working folks need to start paying their fair share. Infrastructure maintenance and development are just as likely to come from small as from big government. Clean energy has as much influence as oil and coal in the free marketplace of ideas. And government has not been and will not be shaped by the money that pays for it.
    Brooks knows better; he's no fool. So, why is he writing these things? Is he finding himself drifting towards the middle out of a ravaged conscience and, for the moment, caught in a muddle of thoughts? Balance is a good and plausible story, but it does need to have something to do with how things are and be free of pixie dust.

  119. Mr. Brooks, you yourself overlook some of the ways in which party goals may fit together. You write that "Republicans could champion the things they believe will enhance productivity and mobility. Many of these will mean making sure people have the incentives to take risks and the freedom to adjust to foreign competition:"

    One of those incentives is making sure that people are not left standing on the edge of a cliff, facing a tornado of things like illness and injury. And yes, I mean health insurance. Entrepreneurs should be able to begin a small business or work for themselves without sacrificing affordable insurance. An innovator with a business idea should not have to remain glued to the current employer because her husband is a survivor of a pre-existing condition like childhood leukemia, and so could only be covered by an affordable policy.

  120. Many informed comments about this article. But there are some fundamentals that too many folks don't understand. First, Social Security is not welfare or an entitlement. It is a social insurance program into which people have paid. The only difference between it and private insurance, is that the money was held and invested and administered by the government. And the government actually administers it for less than private companies because it does not need to make a profit. We also pay for Medicare. The problem with Medicare is that we have emphasized more and more, expensive medical procedures instead of preventive and wellness medicine. Competition in the medical field has led to more and more doctors and hospitals trying to get the most expensive equipment instead of the most cost-effective health procedures. And by the way, I paid for my modest pension, which is not part of the federal government. But pensions are being targeted as government give-aways, which is nonsense. As for "welfare", many of the people who criticize such programs apparently have never suffered privation. Yes, we should have ways in which those who receive such help (and most of them are only temporary receivers, contrary to popular opinion or else they are children who do not have a say into what and where they are born) can be helped to become more independent and givers as well as receivers. Many folks who demonize people who receive help from governmental entities do not realize that people would rather be productive nor do these demonizers understand that helping people to escape poverty improves society as a whole in the long run. There are still too many of us who believe that people who have economic or other problems deserve what they are getting. That, somehow, people with money are really better than anyone else. Or, that God has chosen the rich, and the poor or needy in other ways have displeased God.

    I am for basic security for all and positive incentives through education and training and investment for people to develop their abilities. I am also for pooling our resources for those services that benefit all society. For example, I do not drive. I cannot set up a transit system by myself, but by paying taxes that are then pooled to create a transit system, I have contributed to benefitting society.

    Finally, the legislators and others who believe that our Constitution as supposedly written should be the abiter for what we need now. Constitutions are purposely written as general documents that are living, not limiting. How could our forefathers have known what today's needs would be? And, don't forget, our forefathers did not give women the right to vote and believed that certain minorities were only 3/5 persons. Do the "originalists" really want to go back to those days?

  121. I agree with almost all you say...BUT...how do we get there?
    How do we change minds and attitudes, how do we sacrifice our own desires and get to the long-range common good?
    We are so "instant gratification adapted" at this point.
    President Obama has said, "We are all in this together". It's that basic.

    The education gap between groups is unsustainable if the future is to be any good at all. Educated people and the institutions that produced them are called "elite" in a very snide way. It's not elitism, it's education.

    The tax code has to be completely revised. For the heads of companies who brought us to the brink to get away without so much as a fine to themselves, but instead walk away with a newly made fortune, is immoral.
    These men are now being paid to take responsibility for nearly bankrupting the country.

    Lobbying laws need to be revisited and dollar ceilings on spending by lobbyists have to be enforced.

    Is anyone in Congress willing to take the long view, the world view, and not the instant gratification view of being re-elected? Term limits for all ought to be discussed; a Constitutional change is needed.

    Get out of Afghanistan for starters. History repeats itself, e.g., wars as in Afghanistan that bankrupt kingdoms and countries. If that isn't learned through education, then where are we going? Forget theories. It's about the money. We cannot afford this war if we want to get productive at home.

  122. The current debate over the size of government or the deficit volume is simply a diversion sought by the Republicans and the Democrats that seem to have come to a sort of tacit understanding as to how best to avert public gaze from their self seeking agenda being better served by their being on the side of corporate and special interests than by representing the larger societal interests, hence an aversion to the people-centric policies, which might help unleash the productive energies of people, as also open up new innovative avenues of wealth generation which might benefit all. Unless the political class regains conscience, and comes to realise the social and political cost of their irresponsible behaviour, the US polity would continue to be under the veil of confusion.

  123. Unless something big happens in 2011 the Republican led Congress will become bogged down in endless taxpayer funded investigations into Barack Obama that will go absolutely no where and waste lots of precious time. They also plan to read the Constitution every day.

    Personally I'm weary of this "government is evil" shtick. We don't live in Jefferson's America anymore where everyone is supposed to be self reliant managing their own little store or farm. I'm also sick to death of all the emphasis on "small businesses" as romantic and noble. The majority of us are going to spend our working lives in someone else's employ going to a horrible screaming death every day until age 78 when we can finally retire and claim our miniscule Social Security entitlements. Sheesh, what a life.

  124. Considering that the US puts more of its treasure to military purposes than the rest of the world combined and can't even prevail against a rag tag adversary (which we created and fund as well), I am surprised that is not listed by you as among those government programs in need of reconsideration.

    I think I am a conservative in the plain sense of the word but when the lone citizen must face huge economic institutions that are treated as individuals who know no boundaries, then where is that citizen to look for protection from these Frankenstinian monsters other than from a like size creature where he/she has at least a bit of influence no matter how infinitesimal?

    If I had a magic wand that could recreate the world of Adam Smith, I would do it in a heart beat. Unfortunately, that world is gone.

  125. Medicare is an excellent example of comparing options and choosing the most efficient as suggested by the first commenter. Administrative costs are less than 2% as compared to private sector costs of about 14%. Social Security similarly has lower administrative costs than alternative private funds. Cannot make intelligent decisions about public policy without taking into account that reality. If government can do it more efficiently; let government do it. Provide an incentive for the private sector to become more efficient.