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Coping During the 70s

ISSUE:  Spring 1980
Setting National Priorities: The 1980 Budget. Edited by Joseph A. Pechman. The Brookings Institution. $11.95.

The federal budget is a large, forbidding, menacing, and, for most citizens, an unintelligible tome. Last year’s edition ran to 1,188 pages. It is crammed with statistics that repel many. Those who strive to decipher its meaning are scared by the magnitude of the levies it would impose, the vast sums it proposes be expended, and the new regulations it promises. Much of its content for all other than the most arcane specialists in federal finance is simply imperspicuous.

Yet this annual document presents the proposals of the leader of this sovereign democracy as to how we shall cope with the problems that beset us. The plans and programs that it includes provide not only for the support of the routine operations of a very large government. They also indicate how we will cope with such emerging and often persisting problems as abortion, energy, foreign aid, housing, inflation, urbanization, the prevention of war, and youth education or employment. Even if little known and little read, this annual document is of vital significance to you, me, our neighbors at home, and people of many nations around the world.

President Carter, when presenting the 1980 budget described it as “lean and austere.” It proposed the collection of only 46 billion dollars more than in 1979, and it would have the federal government spend only 38 billion dollars more in the fiscal year 1980 than in 1979. How “lean and austere” it is and how in many, many ways it would have the federal government better the lives we live, is depicted by Joseph Pechman and his colleagues in the Brookings Institution in the tenth volume of their series, Setting National Priorities.

Each volume in this series has explained the President’s budget, and has presented its explanation within ten to twelve weeks after the budget has been laid before the Congress. From 20,000 to 30,000 copies have been distributed each year, principally to members of the Congress, to business executives, civic leaders, to a few citizens, and, of course, to many libraries. These volumes reach only a handful of those affected, but for them it provides a reasonable interpretation of what the budget says, an evaluation of its principal recommendations, proposed (but unfortunately not very imaginative) alternatives to these recommendations, and a pointing of the finger at problems not met or half met.

This year’s volume pictures the President’s budgetary proposals as “tight, not only for 1980 but also for the entire five year period 1980—84.” It explains that the uncustomary austerity of the 1980 budget is a necessary (even if incoherent) response to the overheated economy and to persistent inflation. The 1980 budget is, as well, a reflection of the fact that California’s Proposition 13 put the fear of God in the hearts of politicians at all levels, and it is a short-term response to the clamor of individuals of such widely ranging views as Governor Jerry Brown of California and Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., of Virginia for constitutional limitations on spending by the federal government.

Looking back over the ten annual volumes impresses one that the annual budgets and the Brookings’ assessments of these budgets did indeed identify “national priorities.” Viewing these priority problems in 1980, one is equally impressed with the sobering fact that the problems remain.

Write the chapter headings of each annual volume down in parallel columns, and it becomes patent that our national leaders are dealing with the same (in some instances more acute) basic problems in 1980 that their predecessors dealt with in 1971. In each successive year our leaders have struggled with such problems as: How to contain defense expenditures while ensuring national security? How to be our brother’s keeper while containing welfare expenditures? How to curb inflation without increasing unemployment? How to assist families to meet persisting and rapidly rising health care costs? What changes in the social security system are needed to ensure its financial integrity and limit oppressive payroll taxes? How can government regulation be limited and still ensure the protection of consumers, investors, workers, breathers of air, drinkers of water, and riders on the highways? How to meet the social and financial problems of the cities and stall the precipitous rise in federal grants to state and local governments? And since 1975—what else—how to resolve the energy problem?

Focusing on this series of volumes, Setting National Priorities, rather than the plaguing and persistent problems they discuss, reviewers have regularly lauded the care with which analyses have been made, the fairness and objectivity of assessments, and the simplicity with which complicated issues have been interpreted. The Wall Street Journal, while commenting favorably, has cautioned readers to recognize the “Brookings’ view of fiscal affairs.” But a reviewer from the American Enterprise Institute, proponent of a diametrically opposite view of fiscal affairs, has lauded the series for its effectiveness in bringing public policy issues before the public. That is high praise for Macy’s from Gimbel’s! Indeed, reviewers generally have described the series, at the least, as useful, at best, as invaluable. In this reviewer’s opinion, it is the kind of instrument that is required to enable a huge, complex democracy to function effectively.

Yet having had the revealing information this series provides for all of the 1970’s, the American democracy in 1980 is confronted with these sobering facts:

  • We have and will have less energy than is needed to run this country’s industry, heat our homes, and fuel our cars.
  • We are increasingly dependent on developing nations which demonstrate a growing tendency to make us “pay through the nose” or to jump through their political hoops if we are to obtain not only the oil but an assortment of other natural resources that we require.
  • Our technological leadership is challenged by the Japanese and the Germans.
  • Our productivity as a nation has increased less since 1974 than has the productivity of other major industrial nations.
  • Despite the investment during the 70’s of tens of billions of dollars in rehabilitating our cities, we have no agreement on what cities should be like, and the weakest— New York, Cleveland, and others—skirt the edge of social as well as financial bankruptcy.
  • Inflation has persisted and worsened; it has eroded the standard of living for many and has defied efforts to bring it under control.
  • We have bettered the environment we live in, and now have come face to face with the question: can we afford the cost in dollars and in lessened productivity of the pure water, fresh clean air, greater safety on the highways and in the workplace, and of other environmental protections?

Each of these harrowing facts is reflected in the annual federal budgets and the companion Brookings’ volumes. Each is reflected in new programs, increased expenditures, and by alternative proposals for coping. These several problems have persisted until in 1980 some add them up to mean that the United States, like our cousin across the Atlantic, has reached its apogee and faces a future of less wealth and international esteem.

The story of America’s decline during the 70’s is not told in this series of volumes in these depressing terms. But the story is there for historians to read in the clinical language of the economist and of the political scientist. And what will the historian of the 21st century conclude as to why this great nation was unable to cope with the problems that confronted us in the 70’s?

The surface answer to this question is that our leaders were unable to formulate and to implement the public policies that would reestablish our national prosperity, drive, and position of world leadership. Why? The historian of the next century, with the benefit of hindsight, will recognize two deep-seated faults in the foundations of the American democracy.

First, our leaders—successive presidents and the Congress—have been unable to formulate public policies that would ensure the conservation of energy, the curbing of inflation, the raising of productivity, the reestablishment of our technological leadership, the rejuvenation of our cities, and the betterment of relationships with the developing nations because those leaders, and our democratic processes, recurrently become muscle-bound in the face of the interplay between powerful, selfish, and competing interest groups.

Locate on a map of the city of Washington the offices of the powerful business groups (e. g., the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, National Manufacturers Association, the American Petroleum Institute), the large labor unions (e. g., the AF of L, the UAW, and the Teamsters), the professional groups (e. g., the AMA, the NEA, the AAUP), the ethnic groups, the women’s groups, consumer groups, environmentalists, and, of course, the lobbyist lawyers and “public relations” firms. The map you produce will indicate how densely these pressure groups surround our legislators, president, and cabinet members. Such a map suggests that the historical ideal that ours is a government in which the best interest of all the people is persistently sought by their elected representatives is in 1980 something less than reality—if it ever were reality.

One economist (Mancur Olson) has pointed out that the remarkable growth of the German and Japanese economies is attributable to the fact that the political power of many small interest groups was destroyed by World War II and its aftermath. Perhaps, as Robert Samuelson has written, the better a political system represents the interests of constituent groups, the worse it may be at managing its economy.

Spokesmen for these groups contend that they contribute importantly to the making of public policies. They do; they interpret the needs and interests of their respective social, economic and ethnic groups, each of which has a role in the functioning of a vast, complicated democracy. But how can the product of the bargaining among these interests be raised above the level of shabby, selfish compromise which disregards the national interest?

Second, this nation lacks and has lacked leadership. “Leaders”, Warren Bennis contends, “are an endangered species.” What seems to have happened, he explains, is that the relentless pressure on institutions (business firms, universities, as well as governmental agencies) by a multiplicity of interest groups, the fragmentation of constituencies, the increased use of the courts to advance special interests (e. g., the Bakke case, the Massachusetts veterans’ case), all of this and still more turbulence magnified by powerful and extensive means of communication “has led to a situation where our leaders are paralyzed, or at least as Lyndon Johnson put it, “are keeping their heads below the grass.”“

James MacGregor Burns’ magnificent work, Leadership, tells us what leadership is like and how leaders lead. It does not provide the “how to do it” instructions that would enable a Carter, Connally, a Kennedy, or a Reagan to weld destructive interest groups into majorities supporting public policies that will cope with national problems in the national interest.


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