The New York Times columnist and Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently summed up the country’s political puzzle and his comments are worth repeating.
He says the country is divided roughly between two camps. One believes that government is the problem. It was one of President Ronald Reagan’s famous lines, although his presidency showed he didn’t take his comment as literally as many of his followers do today.
Republicans currently carry this torch along with the accompanying, simple dogma that the “free market” best determines economic as well as selective social decisions.
The other political camp, mostly Democrats, believes in a free market economy with limits. This group also sees government, as did President Franklin Roosevelt, as an instrument to make people’s lives better. Mr. Roosevelt and President such as Lyndon Johnson used government’s powers to require employers and employees to save for retirement in the Social Security program and for health care in their old age through Medicare.
This division goes back a long way in American history, but it was underscored and highlighted after the Industrial Revolution and later, the Great Depression. We learned-or most of us did-that a market economy without any controls produces rotten food, toxic drugs, and a landscape of few very wealthy people and cities and farmlands filled with poor and struggling millions.
After World War II, political leaders who had shared lives in a common struggle and who considered the other side as opponents, not enemies, often bridged this divide. Great things came out of these times. Free market advocates understood the value of an interstate federal highway system built by the government. They also saw the long-term economic benefits from an educated and smart work force subsidized by the government funded GI Bill.
And those who believed in government found that it could stifle innovation, and deregulation of industries such as communication produced a vibrant and exciting new economy.
Now, the divide between these two views of government and markets attracts few bridge builders. As Mr. Krugman observes, “Politics as a whole now resembles the longstanding politics of abortion-a subject that puts fundamental values at odds, in which each side believes the other side is morally wrong.”
This is not a sustainable position for a nation that must move forward. And ironically, it flies in the face of America’s great genius in politics of hearing the other fellow out and meeting somewhere in the middle.