Last week’s efforts that led to the passage by one vote of a House Republican proposal to change health care illustrates the deeper questions now bubbling up about what Americans demand of their government. The Republican-controlled Senate will now take up their version of a health care plan that is likely to differ significantly from the House plan. Meanwhile the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – tagged by supporters and detractors alike as Obamacare – remains the law of the land.
The present donnybrook is likely to play out over several months. The health care debate is set against an even more volatile backdrop as questions about the federal government’s continuing commitment to Medicaid expansion swirl around the efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. These arguments raise even larger questions about how the government should treat other society-wide entitlements like Social Security.
Almost every American agrees that the government has basic responsibilities in defense, infrastructure, and in other areas that protect and regulate American society and how America relates to the world.
But should its citizens also expect that the government work to improve their quality of life from “cradle through career,” that is, from birth to death?
Whatever the mechanism, should government, coordinated at the local, county, state, and federal levels, determine what quality-of-life “markers” best meet the needs of American citizens? There is an old adage that Democrats must always be stopped from misguided efforts to create new entitlements. The argument goes that once citizens appreciate the new benefit, it is almost impossible to take the entitlement away. Americans must make sense of – and be willing to fund – entitlement programs that improve their quality of life.
Open Since the Great Depression, Entitlement “Door” Unlikely to Close
The plain fact is that the entitlement door swung wide open in the Great Depression and will likely never close. Policy debates over state’s rights, free market solutions, and cost have real meaning but are really more about tactics and philosophies rather than outcome. There are times, like the “guns and butter” policy debates of the Vietnam War years, that inform the partisan arguments over health care emerging from the quagmire of the Washington swamp today.
But voters’ support for entitlement programs has been a given for 80 years. The debate is over even if the skirmishes over tactics, philosophies and funding continue.
We should accept that entitlement programs are a cornerstone principle upon which the foundation of American society is built. Any efforts to end them or diminish their reach or value will meet sharp resistance from American voters. It’s something tangible – like Social Security or Medicare — that Americans feel that their government guarantees to work for them.
Debate About Role of Entitlement Programs is Bigger than Health Care
That having been said one of the most interesting historic policy debates of the 21st century will be the continuing role that entitlement programs play in American society. Central to this debate will be which entitlement programs must be supported and whether there is room for a deeper analysis of how current and potential entitlements contribute most to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
We should prepare for these challenges now.
Americans clearly want a safety net that includes Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The task will be to put these programs on a solid footing, looking at a variety of efficiencies, partnerships, their scalability, and new revenue streams, including tax adjustments to pay for these programs. But within these parameters, any new programs proposed must include progressive thinking about what we mean by entitlement.
Is Education a Privilege or a Right in American Society?
One example illustrates this point: Is education – from pre-kindergarten through college – a privilege or a right in American society?
If we focus on higher education, there’s a pragmatic side to this question. America now competes in a global marketplace, despite the rhetoric about “America first.” We know that a college degree is roughly akin to a high school diploma from a generation ago. Economists studying market and labor conditions estimate that as many as sixteen million jobs requiring at least a college degree may go unfulfilled in the next few years.
Higher Ed Leaders Must Claim College Education as Entitlement
Yet despite the considerable funding available, education is a politicized, chaotic mess that frustrates consumers and policy makers. Higher education leadership must lay out a crisp, common sense justification for why education – specifically, higher education – should move above prisons in the laundry list of fundable priorities.
To be fearless in claiming education as an entitlement right for American citizens, college and university leaders must ask – and answer – bold questions:
- Can Americans establish a better, broader definition of “entitlement” that provides a continuous pathway to a productive life from cradle through career?
- Is the current definition of “safety net” too narrow and simplistic to meet the global economic demands that America faces?
- Is the funding solution to each entitlement different based upon the history, existing revenue streams, and the value to society?
- What benefits are Americans entitled to receive from their taxes?
The answers to these questions will shape the quality of life in the United States for generations to come.
Thirty years ago, we all understood what the term “culture wars” meant. It was about Mapplethorpe vs. Helms and teaching old, dead, white men vs. revisionist and black history. There were lines. Whichever side you were on, you knew where you stood.
The battle lines changed and have morphed into something quite different today. As the first efforts by the Trump Administration to enact an immigration ban sputtered in chaos, confusion and a “must see TV” legal battle, the implications of the fight over how to provide national security have become clear. So, too, did the historical precedents that informed this newest battle.
It turns out that the new culture wars are also social, economic, and political in nature.
The new battle lines are between visions of American society that are industrial vs. post-industrial in outlook, design, and practice.
Historical Perspectives on Economic Battle Lines
What’s most interesting is that these new lines mirror the pitched battles over industrialization in the early 19th century, especially in England, as machinery replaced manpower in textile production, especially weaving. The warriors then were craftsmen, rooted in an agricultural society, who saw their traditions and way of life threatened by the mechanization of their livelihoods.
The protesters – the Luddites – were English textile workers and independent craftsmen who destroyed weaving machinery to protest the mechanization of textile production. They were fearful that years spent learning their craft were wasted and that unskilled workers would take their place. Eventually, the military suppressed the Luddite movement. England became the world’s leading industrial power throughout much of the 19th century.
Two hundred years later, the parallels persist as America moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Workers in the manufacturing sector have seen their jobs disappear and wages stagnate as income inequality has continued to rise for over twenty years, despite some recent upticks. The presumed culprit is cheaper overseas labor, principally identified as Mexican and Chinese. The Luddites of 19th century industrial England have become the “America first” nationalists of 21st century America.
Globalization and National Security Concerns Interwoven
Symbolized by the debate over renegotiating NAFTA and abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership, it has become a battle to stem the tide over “free trade” globalization cloaked in concerns about national security. Internally, the battle lines are also cultural, on issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and refugees, and Supreme Court picks. The philosophies behind these competing claims are decoded into a broader national debate about “American values.”
For the moment, the effect is to split the country almost uniformly, depending upon the crisis de jour. Practically, there is a political dimension with the red and blue states recast, within limits, as “nationalists” and “globalists,” respectively. The problem with the rhetoric today is that people will get hurt. It’s probably where the large crowds protesting immigration policies can do the most good, however, especially if they can humanize the negative impact of “America first” policies.
“Eds and Meds” are Economic Engines
There is another danger, already recognized in cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco. These are the “eds and meds” capitals of the country whose economies are in each case bigger than those of most countries with which America competes. They are the booming economic engines of the US economy. It’s why the Silicon Valley’s biggest technology players have joined together to speak against the immigration ban.
The stakes are high. How American higher education plays its hand could set the United States on a path that will shape its ability to compete.
To this end, it’s important to have clear strategic goals in mind. Here are some first thoughts:
Higher Education Must Choose Battles Wisely
Build a strategy out of the initial tactical responses that have occurred in response to the early policy initiatives of the Trump administration. Protests are fine – critical, in fact – but choose the battles wisely. America’s leading educators should speak out on policies that affect higher education, linking what they say to social, cultural, and political concerns about American values. Their campuses must be prepared to support them, particularly if they focus on the issues and stay out of the politics.
Higher Ed Must Be Broadly Inclusive
America’s colleges and universities must remove what can sometimes be seen as legitimate criticism and become more tolerant of ideas, including those with which they and their college communities disagree. They must practice what they preach on how best to be broadly inclusive.
Higher Ed Must be Leader in Post-Industrial Economy
“It’s the economy stupid.” American workers list job security as their principal worry. In a world in which “do no damage” should be a primary operating principle, it is dangerous for the American economy to power down, for example, because of knee-jerk immigration policies. We need the best and the brightest with us. But we also need a Manhattan Project version of a Tennessee Valley Authority initiative to move the Rust Belt mindset forward.
The goal is a growing economy to build a robust middle class across the country. America signaled that globalization would undergird the world economy when Bill Clinton signed on to NAFTA.
The trick now will be for leaders – including those who run American colleges and universities – to help America prepare to lead a post-industrial economy.
It will require sane, reasoned debate. Let us begin.