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A True Capacity For Governance’
Despite his feeling that “we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society can be like,” the senior senator from New York—a lifelong student of history—remains an optimist about our system of government and our extraordinary resilience as a people
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Back in the seventies you wrote, “Ours was perhaps the first society to expect the future to be better than the past.” Elsewhere in the same piece, you wrote: “The idea of a society confidently directed to even higher levels of social justice and equality has been shaken by the obstinacy of things. We have aged. It is not to be wondered then that the resistance to challenge is less spirited than it might be.” Yet you still believe that we have the right to be optimistic about our future. What has aged us? And why do we still have the right to be optimistic?
America has not inherited many of the great hatreds that tear apart other places in the world.
That article was written in the 1960s, in a time of great economic vitality. We have seen a long pause in that vitality —which worries me. Under Kennedy, I was made Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Planning and Research, which was a new position. Among my administrative duties—which were very light, I assure you—I had charge of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that very old, very good government agency. It counts things: measures employment, unemployment, wages, productivity. The Commissioner of Labor Statistics was retiring and a number of deputy commissioners came to me to say they would like to be considered for the job. One of them was a very fine man who was responsible for our productivity statistics. I hope I was polite, but the simple fact was that it seemed to me that if all he did was measure productivity, he wasn’t doing anything very interesting—because it kept going up, that’s all.
About that time I had to change my mind in just a little way. A group of American sociologists went to Russia —one of the first such visits ever—and Talcott Parsons, a great scholar, a great American, a professor of sociology at Harvard, wrote a little account of the visit. It was a very disappointed account. He said, in effect: “You know, we went over there, and we wanted to talk about theories of social organization. All that our counterparts wanted to talk about was productivity—how do you get it out of people. Well, you know, for us, productivity is like sunshine—we just have it, that’s all. It’s just there.” And so I shouldn’t have brushed off my colleague who was measuring it. In the past ten years or so, we haven’t had any real increase in productivity in this country. Suddenly it’s beginning to look as if we could be in the same fix that Britain got into somewhere between 1870 and 1914. They continued to have real increases in their standard of living. But their productivity fell behind that of Germany and it stayed there. Those productivity numbers don’t look like much: decimal points. But, boy, you go through twenty or thirty years of decimal-point declines and suddenly you look up, and Britain is one of the poorer countries of Europe and Italy is one of the wealthier. The United States is in that pattern now—our productivity growth rate peaked in 1973 with OPEC oil prices. It has not recovered. It may be coming back a little bit but it is still down. The economic report from the President that we got last February shows that median family income in the United States has not risen in fifteen years. In the history of European settlement in North America there can never have been a fifteen-year period in which there was no increase in median family income.
What does that mean?
Well, it means among other things that there’s a lot less social space. You don’t expect things to be better. You know—if I’m doing well, you ought to be doing well, and if you’re not, I’ll give you a hand. But now I’m not doing very well. One was able to foresee this by the size of the Baby Boom—you could see that it was going to be a conservative generation because it was going to find itself competing with itself for opportunities that were scarcer than they had been previously. The economy is another matter. These are trends of the last fifteen years. There has been a slowing down in the economy of America and Europe —but not in Asia. You can just feel it in the halls of Congress, where the disposition to help other people is nothing like it was, when you could assume that things were going to be better. I don’t think I’d ever assume that again.
In your 1967 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Oration, you suggested that the phenomenon of radical protest among Americans, unique at the time, was the “first heresy of liberalism.” Do you see any comparisons with the rise of the “radical right,” as you call it?
No, but I think those student movements of the time were, in fact, heresies— people rejecting an ordered form that they had inherited—and the movements and their view of life eventually disappeared.
Many believe that the emergence of the radical right was a reaction to those movements.
Oh, the reaction to it was inevitable and it has come and it hasn’t yet gone away. I think the present cultural conservatism so evident around the country is a reaction to those years of liberal heresy. The radical left weakened the society and made it less capable of resisting certain kinds of counter-overreactions.
Of which you feel the zealous conservatism we are seeing now is a part?