Two books have helped me grapple with the federal government’s response to the pandemic with which we continue to live.
The first is a fairly recent book by former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel. It is entitled “The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World.” It is a fresh and optimistic idea of America’s future from a man possessed of genuine political insight, as well a first-hand experience at the helm of large and complex city.
For Emmanuel, it is cities rather than the federal government that stand at the center of innovative and effective governance. He provides examples showing cities improving working conditions, education, environmental policy and infrastructure, all locally.
He reminds us that after small and then larger villages, cities are the most ancient political institutions, dating back millennia. It follows, he argues, that mayors are far more accountable to their constituents than are elected officials at higher levels of government.
It may have been Richard J. Daley who said, “All politics are local.” Wasn’t he also saying that the simplest way to address a social or economic problem is at the lowest possible level?
Another book comes to mind.
“The Peter Principle” (1969) was wildly popular, even though most of its readers were unaware that it was conceived as a satire.
The author, Laurence J. Peter, presented a concept asserting that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence.” Said differently, an employee receives promotions reflecting success in other jobs they have held, but eventually ascend to a position beyond their competence.
The context matters little. Private sector or government—it makes absolutely no difference.
I began to wonder whether the human species is good at government only up to a certain point, beyond which everyone essentially is incompetent. When the political system becomes too large, the necessary process of transforming demands into policies and programs is difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish with any efficiency.
Yet, there never seems to be a shortage of people whose experience, convictions, susceptibility to flattery or misplaced sense of competence impel them to seek ever-higher amounts of responsibility.
Hizzoner knew instinctively, albeit imperfectly, that the three essential functions of government are the establishment and maintenance of order (“The police were there not to create disorder, but to maintain disorder.”), the provision of public goods and the promotion of equality among its citizens.
Whether we peruse our history or speculate about our future, these have been and will continue to be the three basic functions that we expect government to perform on our behalf.
Several troubling conclusions seem to be presented.
First, many American voters have observed the manner in which the federal and state governments have responded to the pandemic. Simultaneously, they have been reminded of the immense disparities in the way that wealth and health care services are provided in the U.S.
We will be obliged to revisit the issue of how health care is readily available to some persons and less available to others. This is particularly true of access to preventative care and to the diagnosis and treatment of common conditions such as hypertension.
Voters are not likely to look to the current administration to lend its weight to any comprehensive remedial effort in this regard, and many voices will join the call for universal health care coverage.
Second, the enduring economic disparity, exacerbated and highlighted by the pandemic, will emerge as the paramount social, and thus political, issue facing our society. Some among us will acknowledge that, throughout history, the gap between the wealthy and poor has been the most reliable variable in insuring social equilibrium, or in almost guaranteeing instability.
The impact internationally will likely be increasing waves of immigration. If discouraging immigration becomes an acceptable national policy, one answer may be to present our country as hopelessly divided economically and a society in which upward class mobility is actually discouraged. That will keep them out.
We all should remember that during the Great Depression, a socialist candidate on a local, state or federal election ballot became routine. If American voters fear socialism today, they should simply, as they say in the Navy, “stand by.”
If we understand the history of our Great Depression, we will recognize that it was only through bold and innovative thinking that growing economic discrepancies, which had long existed in the U.S., did not result in more extensive social disruption.
By the way, recent events have only confirmed in my mind that it is a myth that American voters desire less government. But, that’s fuel for a separate discussion.
Finally, voters will begin to channel political thinkers like Morton Kaplan, who documented the changes that have taken place over time to the international political system. The present arrangement featuring a plethora of independent nation states is being challenged not only by economic forces, but also by the impact of technology.
Today, people around the globe experience never-ending, almost instantaneous, cultural interaction, which inevitably leads to a desire for a less parochial way of social organization. They are noting how other societies handle existential threats, and they are prepared to borrow “best practices” from anywhere they are available.
In other words, U.S. voters should prepare for calls for greater and not less international cooperation and collaboration in the face of problems that simply disregard borders drawn in previous centuries.
Voters also need to prepare for an extended national re-examination of our concept of federalism, which is one of the cornerstones of the republic. Are we to applaud the success of the relationship between the federal and state governments during this crisis?
To those who imagine that our country will ever again resemble the place we knew in 2019 or that economic inequity is not the biggest and most proximate challenge facing our society, I would like to offer to sell you the entire Blue Island Ridge, including all of the homes located there. How much would you pay?
But wait! Behind door number one …