WASHINGTON – Just a few Republican electoral victories, significant but not overwhelming, aside from the strong symbolism of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat abruptly changing hands, have engendered the perception that the Democrats are not just vulnerable; but truly rudderless and perhaps “finished”. President Barack Obama, until recently believed to be all knowing and serenely poised to fix any and all of America’s problems, one by one, with wise determination, now looks weak and almost powerless. And all this, mind you, in a political environment in which the Democrats still control “everything” in Washington.
New conservative confidence
Given this background, the annual gathering of the Conservatives in Washington, for CPAC, or Conservative Political Action Conference, was more boisterous and more self-confident than other such meetings. The smell of victory is in the air. Leaning a bit on over confidence, many leaders or would be leaders predicted that the Republicans will regain their lost majority in Congress after the November mid-term elections.
In all this, the real problem is that the Conservatives and the Republicans are attempting to ride a wave of an intense but still somewhat ill-defined national discontent, (witness the spontaneous combustion phenomenon of the “Tea Party Movement”), without having much to propose. Up to a point it is fine in politics to simply take advantage of the self-inflicted wounds of your own adversary: in this case the perceived statist over-reaching of the leftwing Democrats. But it would be nice to hear something new and different that would allow the opposition to rally public opinion around some new, forward looking and constructive ideas.
A new Republican agenda?
What is the “New Republican Agenda” for a weakened America, fully immersed in the global economy? What do they propose for a once leading nation now in need to reinvent itself in order to maintain an economic leadership that used to be based on a superior ability to innovate and to competently bring state of the art innovation to market?
Much of this ability rested on a uniquely well designed innovation friendly “eco-system” and on a uniquely flexible society willing to bend, change and transform itself at superior speed, in order to meet the new challenges and opportunities of the day.
At Issue: “Freedom” versus “Equality”
But if these were the superior cultural assets of American society that in turn gave America the edge, many of them are now in question. In a well crafted address to the CPAC crowd, conservative columnist George Will correctly outlined the broad terms of a political values debate that may lead the US towards self-confidence or towards a passive welfare mindset. It is all about the tension between “Freedom” and” Equality”, he said. The pursuit of Equality by the Liberals, especially of equality of outcome, inevitably breeds a culture of entitlement that leads to dependency, eventually stifling the risk taking spirit, innovation and wealth creation. Larger and larger segments of the lives of Americans will depend on what is done and provided for them in Washington. George Will warned his audience that entitlements and dependence are mainly a spiritual poison that enfeebles people’s souls. But the consequences of a passive mindset are practical. Passivity creates a dull spirit that will inevitably weaken the spark of enterprise thus impeding innovation and damaging the economy.
The dangers of dependency
And this, while debatable, is not a totally preposterous argument; especially if we compare the purported virtue of the old fashioned American self-reliance with the widespread collectivist mind set prevailing in Europe. The nanny state approach, with all its cushions and provisions, while shielding people from the consequences of misfortune, also blunts the appetite for risk taking. As a result, at best Europe is coasting. Do not look at Europe for courageous, risk taking enterprise. The rate of innovation is unremarkable; productivity is low.
America: the land of “Opportunity”?
This much is true. But, by embracing the opposite end of the spectrum, “Freedom”, we have to be careful about how we define it, as the meaning of Freedom changes quite a bit, depending on the larger context that truly determines how much Freedom can be enjoyed by how many. Indeed, at the center of the generally accepted American mythology and folklore about what makes this country “so great” is the heretofore semi-unchallenged creed that America is “the Country of Freedom and Opportunity“, as enshrined in the many uplifting Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. In fact, it is difficult to envisage what can be done with Freedom without real Opportunity. So the two are to viewed together. Supporting Freedom without consideration as to how much Opportunity there is, is not very meaningful; because in the end it is material circumstances that make it possible for the average person to take advantage of the Freedom guaranteed by society.
Opportunity: this is why immigrants come
Indeed the concept of “Access to Opportunity”, along with the fierce protection of Individual Liberties is what defines the uniqueness of the American experience. The accepted American belief has been and is that anybody, no matter how disadvantaged, no matter how lowly their station in life may be, if they are indeed armed with fortitude and persistence, they can achieve “anything”.
And indeed the iconography of so many self-made American millionaires and now billionaires, at least some of them first generation immigrants, would seem to underscore the truthfulness of this basic belief. And, no doubt, this notion of America as the country of Opportunity where all things are possible was part of the irresistible magnetism that attracted and still attracts so many millions from all over the world. They want to come to America armed with the firm belief that only in America they may be able to realize their otherwise unachievable dreams.
Is the old belief in Opportunity just a myth?
So far so good. The problem is that, even assuming that this mythology was at least to some reasonable degree based on fact, it is no longer so. In other words, the boundless Opportunity that in principle at least seemed to be made available to anybody lucky enough to reach America’s soil is now more than ever myth, at least for a sizable segment of this large society. And the consequences are huge. If indeed real Opportunity is no longer available to many if not most, than the promises of the rewards of Freedom ring hollow for the larger and larger numbers who, for all practical purposes, are excluded from the race.
Ending segregation was not the end of the story
In the past, as we know, we had an entire section of society, African-Americans, who were openly and deliberately excluded from real Opportunity through practices of racial discrimination enshrined in laws. After a long and hard struggle those patently unfair obstacles were removed. As of the late 1960s segregation was eliminated, at least as a matter of law; while discriminatory practices were made illegal. So, at least formally, if not entirely in the hearts of some people who may still harbor racist prejudice, that issue was resolved.
Today access to education is Opportunity
But far from being the happy ending, the elimination of legally sanctioned discrimination allowed the creation of a different kind of discrimination, less obvious –in as much as it is about allocation of scarce resources, rather than laws and statutes– but nonetheless pernicious, as it ends up reaffirming a de facto separation between those who are given a real chance and all the others. “And the issue is education”. Whatever the causes and no matter who may be to blame, the fact of the matter is that the consistent shortchanging of public education as a policy priority and consequently of resources allocated to it in practice created a two tier society: those who have the means to buy good (mostly private) education and all the others who depend on education as a deficient –and in many cases disgraceful– public service.
Public education: at the bottom of the heap
The latter group is shortchanged by myopic public policies that have placed the funding of quality education and the upholding of high standards in the delivery of education at the bottom of policy priorities. As a result, today education or lack thereof is the main, real, concrete variable that defines the content of “Opportunity”; thus giving or denying meaning to the otherwise unimpeachable value of Freedom. It is now more than ever clear that Freedom without Opportunity means very little, as those who have no access to quality education lack the basic tools to participate and thus they cannot even begin to exploit the chances that Freedom would otherwise offer. Freedom without education, that is without the real opportunities offered by a good education, means that today for large numbers of Americans “birth is destiny” —just like in a Third World country. It means that in XXI Century America the most significant variable that determines a person’s chances in life is the social environment in which they are born. If they are born poor, living in poor, underserved communities, with bad (and sometimes awful) schools, they are likely to stay poor. A good education might provide the ladder to get out of poverty and build a better life. A bad or inadequate education will not do the trick. The child will be stuck there, without many good chances of personal and social advancement.
No education, no enjoyment of the promises of Freedom
It is great to affirm that in principle any American can go as far as his/her potential may take them. But we know that, objectively, unless all young Americans have true access to a meaningful education, those who do not have access are excluded from the potential benefits of a truly Free Society that now, more than ever before, rewards the educated, while punishing the uneducated by mercilessly relegating them to the very bottom of society. Precisely because we are living now in the midst of an unprecedented knowledge revolution, now education is the New Frontier. The ability to have it or not to have it for all practical purposes determines who may or may not have the material opportunity to enjoy the blessings of Freedom.
While in the past it was possible at least for some totally self-made people to overcome the odds and develop important, marketable skills on their own, nowadays, with the explosion of new, ever more complex knowledge, encompassing almost any field and sector, lack of real, substantive education really amounts to the de facto exclusion from all but the most menial employment opportunities.
Education creates options that define the content of Opportunity
As things are set up, it is clear that a poor family has very few options beyond accepting the kind of schools that are offered to their children by public institutions. And if the schools are lousy, the children will have an awful start that will create a huge disadvantage. A disadvantage so deep that it may end up, rare exceptions notwithstanding, haunting the person for life. If you have little schooling and whatever schooling you get is inadequate, if you get a meaningless high school diploma, despite being functionally illiterate, what are your chances in life? What do you do with your Freedom? Preciously little; because freedom without Opportunity is hollow.
Remedial actions do not provide real solutions
Now, this does not justify, in my mind, resorting to mere ex post facto remedial action via social engineering and redistributive public policies favoring the poor. Giving more “stuff” to the excluded and the disadvantaged is a relief operation, just like helping the victims of a natural disaster. But it cannot be the only or main policy. What the disadvantaged really need is not more subsidies; but intellectual empowerment. And this will come only through the expansion of their own intellect, so that they will have the tools to join –with confidence– the race, and do their best in a complicated and highly competitive environment that rewards superior skills, while it ignores the plight of those not sufficiently well equipped to participate.
Education was on the President’s agenda
In fairness, President Barack Obama had placed education in a rather prominent place on his policy agenda at the beginning of his administration. And the innovative initiatives undertaken by his thoughtful Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, deserve full attention and consideration. But it would appear that in this environment now so deeply poisoned by partisan bickering and lack of conviction displayed by the party in power, the key relevance of the fundamental issue of recreating, via education reform, the true Opportunity that makes Freedom meaningful, is lost. In the ugly cacophony that now passes for political debate in Washington not much attention is paid to this critical problem that, probably more than any other, will shape America’s future, its cohesion and eventually its place in the world.
Can we build a consensus on making education a national priority?
And yet, the issue of how to recreate true Opportunity in America via access to quality education, should not be a partisan priority. Who could be “against” education? Or do we really want a two tier society in which the rewards of Freedom are enjoyed by some; while the Government subsidizes those who did not have a chance, so that the consequences of their systemic disadvantage will be somehow alleviated by relief measures?
Do we want a divided society in which only some truly participate with the confidence of possessing valuable intellectual tools? Or do we want to augment confidence by giving more Opportunity to the many who are out of the game? The reply seems obvious. Not to mention the positive economic consequences that an altogether better society would bring about.
Societal decline is the heavy price of inaction
So, I am for Freedom and I do recognize that too many entitlements breed dependency; while blunting the risk taking spirit of enterprise that is at the foundation of much of this country’s past and present successes. But I do believe that Freedom without reasonably widespread Opportunity for most if not all creates an inherently unfair society; while it plants the seeds of future cultural and social division. Division breeds envy and eventually social strife; not to mention the obvious fact that a society that does not take advantage of the possible contribution of most of its citizens is like a faulty engine. Other engines firing on all their cylinders will take the lead and America will fall behind.