Apologies for not having posted in three weeks. Work has been crazy, and while I’ve had some free time to do some reading as of late, I haven’t had as much time to write — or at least not as much time or mental energy to write anything other than what I do for the newspaper.
I’ve also resurrected one of my former hobbies: building maps for the game Counter Strike: Source with a client called Hammer. Needless to say, like all of my other hobbies, it’s a rather time consuming enterprise. But on to the review.
The 199 page count on “Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society” by John A. Andrew III is a touch deceptive. Most of the nonfiction works that I read are in the 300-500 page range, but given the content and presentation, they can usually be digested with relative ease. But this book, though fairly short, is anything but a quick read. What it is, is a tightly packed and illuminating look at the political issues surrounding Johnson’s policies in the late 1960s, the social problems and challenges at the time and the ramifications of the various Great Society programs.
Reading through parts of it, especially efforts to reform the ever-tangled and expensive health care system in this nation, I couldn’t help but be reminded of our own generation’s debate about health care. After reading the book, this fact becomes quite clear: criticism from the right regarding health care reform could have been transported straight to the lips of modern Republicans in 2010 and nothing would be different. This shows how predictable the conservative position has become and continues to be. Andrew notes that neither Medicare or Medicaid affected structural change of the health care system in America; they simply provided coverage for the elderly or disabled. Young families or single people without private health insurance suddenly stricken with illness were, and still are for the most part, on their own.
Andrew points to one study about the problem of Medicare:
“Medicare thus began with an apparent paradox. Private enterprise had failed, markedly, to provide adequate health insurance for the elderly: hence the passage of Medicare. Yet private insurance was chosen to administer the new governmental system.” Although its opponents tried to demonize Medicare as “socialism,” it was scarcely that. (My emphasis) It owned no hospitals, employed no physicians. Indeed, it failed to confront the questions of whether or not Americans had a basic right to health services.
Another similarity between criticism of health care in the late 1960s and today: the very people who are against the public programs are the people who stand to benefit the most from them. This is where conservatism breaks down. If you want government out of people’s lives, simply let the elderly and disabled fend for themselves. This is the only consistent position. Yet, old people think they are entitled to benefits because they have paid taxes for years, yet are against all others receiving free insurance, even if they are paying their share of taxes. That, they say, is socialism, even though it’s been proven time and again that privatized insurance doesn’t work because companies are out to make money, not serve as benevolent engines of reform or serve for the good of society in any way. The notion that health insurance companies actually care about the people who buy their policies is a myth, although that’s what they might want us to believe. These same people who stand to benefit from Medicare and other programs the most often feel the poor don’t deserve the same benefits as the elderly or disabled because of a long-entrenched ideology among Republicans and conservative Democrats — Andrew points this out — that the poor are poor because they aren’t hard workers or don’t deserve government assistance for one reason or another.
Another area in which the Great Society attempted to assuage was poverty in the late 1960s. This issue often became divisive along racial lines, and Johnson’s various efforts became associated with trying to help only black people. Meanwhile, as Andrew points out at least twice in the book, white people actually represented a larger percentage of the poor at the time. As he notes, under Great Society policies, poverty did decrease between 65-69:
We do know that between 1965 to 1969 the number of people officially in poverty declined, from about 17 percent of the population to approximately 12 percent. But was this the result of antipoverty legislation or economic growth? Certainly economic growth accounted for a portion of the shift, but only about 3 percent according to most estimates. Then, when the economy turned sour in the 1970s and 1980s, much of that growth was lost. The point is that government transfer programs, not economic growth, removed many individuals from poverty. Conservative arguments that free-market economics could cure poverty proved hallucinatory.
I think that final sentence is one of the central points of the entire book. Even though free-market economics had a demonstrative ability to solve very little, administrations immediately following Johnson took a more conservative approach to curing the nation’s ills, and in some cases, sought to scale back benefits.
In this concise, yet thorough and somewhat erudite analysis at the Great Society’s accomplishments and failures, Andrew outlines a simple structure, addressing the issues of the nation chapter by chapter and then analyzing how well, or not, the Great Society addressed these issues along with the residual effects of such attempted change in national and social policy. In his assessment in the final chapter, he makes some cogent remarks about how the American ethos at the time made the success of the Great Society a difficult endeavor indeed, if not an impossible one:
The Great Society did not solve the problems it identified and addressed, often for the reasons (Lloyd) Ohlin suggested. But also missing, despite the rhetoric of a “war” on poverty or the creation of “model” cities, was the national will to win the battles and solve the problems whatever the cost. Much of this failure seems rooted not in the Great Society or the personality of Lyndon Johnson but in the national character. Americans remain more concerned to separate the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor than to eliminate poverty. Americans are willing to sacrifice as individuals … but not as a community. The majority remain committed to a belief that all change should be moderate at best.
… If only we could find the correct policies for fine-tuning the economy, it would produce abundance for all. Assured of its future, the middle class would then allocate resources to the poor. We are a middle-class society, and this is both a strength and a weakness. One the one hand a broad middle class reflects the economic success of American capitalism. At the same time the mythic vision of that class leads it to credit itself for its success, and fear of failing prompts it to embrace miserly visions for those less fortunate when the economy slows. But the late 1970s this had led, in the words of civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, to a “new minimalism,” which meant “fewer rights and freedoms for those on the bottom half of our social ladder.”
… Once Americans saw the scope of the task, its complexity and costs overwhelmed them. The problems remained, the debates continued; but with the consensus frayed, the economy in decline, and the social fabric apparently unraveling, the national will atrophied. In the words of the advocate John Gargner, “I see a society learning new ways as a baby learns to walk. He stands up, falls, stand again, falls and bumps his nose, cries, tries again — and eventually walks. Some of the critics now sounding off about the Great Society would stop the baby after his first fall and say, ‘I’ll teach you. Stick to crawling.’”
This, I believe, sums up the entire program of conservatives now and in the late 1960s and provides a key answer to why America lags behind most modernized nations in nearly every category that matters. The conservative voice, often toeing the religious line, hostile to teaching evolution in the classroom, friendly to interests of corporations and investment bankers, hostile to the interests of minorities and the poor and hostile to change, is too strong in this nation, while the progressive voice, the only voice that demonstrably moves people toward ultimate utilitarianism, is too weak.
Thirteen years after Andrew released this book, we are barely out of the crawling stage, and I make that generous concession only because of the health care bill that passed during the current administration. If it is repealed by its critics after Obama leaves office, we will be on our hands and knees once again.