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INSIGHT | TIMES BOARD OF ADVISORS

Politics '96: Deciding Whose Duties Are Whose

September 22, 1996|JUDY B. ROSENER

The United States has a mongrel economy in which the roles of business and government are intertwined. Yet the birth of this country took place in an outburst of anti-authoritarianism, and for many years the line between the responsibilities of business and government was clear.

Being preoccupied with economic growth, government in the early days of our nation left business alone and the role of the federal government was minimal. The New Deal in the 1930s changed all that, and today the responsibilities of business and government have blurred.

Harvard University professor Richard Zeckhauser has called the American economy a "lumpy soup of mottled hue" in which the distinctive identities of business and government have been eroded. He suggests it would be a good idea to distinguish between public and private functions and to reassign them according to principles of comparative advantage.

Democrats and Republicans was how they viewed the role of government relative to market forces and the individual. Democrats felt government was an enabling institution, that individuals and the market sometimes need a guiding hand. Republicans felt government was a constraining institution, that the less government the better.

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Today, although the distinction remains, it has become fuzzy. Many Republicans want government out of business but in the bedroom. Many Democrats want government regulating business but not their personal lives. The question today is: When and where should government enable, and when and where should it constrain? Neither political party has a monopoly on knowledge about how the ideas and programs being proposed will play out over time, and it's not clear who will win, lose or pay.

Today corporations, trade associations, unions and a wide variety of cause-based organizations have replaced political parties as the main shapers of public opinion and policy. At the same time, television has overtaken newspapers and radio as the main source of knowledge about business and government. Although talk radio (often a pooling of ignorance) has become a major stage for political and economic discussion, TV images remain the key to national political and economic fortunes. A picture is still worth a thousand words, and, consequently, voters are bombarded with images instead of information.

More than 10 years ago, New York University professor Neil Postman warned in his provocative book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" that "television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations."

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The 1996 political conventions made his statement prophetic. Rather than getting explanations of the complexity of such issues as responsibility and tax shifting, deregulation, privatization, and workfare, the public is being sent simplistic, emotional messages devoid of historical or substantive context. And as presidential candidates battle for the political center and shun the ideological extremes, any chance for debate over the economic and social implications of what they are saying has been lost. How can voters make informed choices when their main source of knowledge consists of 30-second ads and packaged infomercials?

Four centuries ago Machiavelli observed in "The Prince" that "Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for deception." Has anything changed?

When candidate Bob Dole promised voters he would "send the IRS to the showers," what did he mean? Abolish the IRS or just clean it up a little? When candidate Bill Clinton promised voters he would "end welfare as we know it," what did he mean? Deprive children of school lunches or ensure more job training for welfare mothers? Tantalizing promises accompanied by images of waving flags, cute babies, clean streams and blue skies mask the reality that this election is about more than cliches.

In 1992, citizens didn't understand what was meant by the "contract with America," though Newt Gingrich thought they did. It's questionable voters understand what they're being promised today. They need to be reminded that today's increased federal regulation of financial institutions is due in part to yesterday's failure of savings and loans to regulate themselves. They need to be reminded that the proliferation of federal environmental protection laws in the 1960s and '70s resulted from corporate and local government inattention to the environment at the time. They need to be reminded that the federal Department of Education was created because children born in poor states had historically received a poor education while those born in rich states did not.

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