Dec 27, 2011 9:20 PM GMT
In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.
Second, the governmental challenge is very different today than it was in the progressive era. Back then, government was small and there were few worker safety regulations. The problem was a lack of institutions. Today, government is large, and there is a thicket of regulations, torts and legal encumbrances. The problem is not a lack of institutions; it’s a lack of institutional effectiveness.
The United States spends far more on education than any other nation, with paltry results. It spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results. It spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight. In the progressive era, the task was to build programs; today the task is to reform existing ones.
Third, the moral culture of the nation is very different. The progressive era still had a Victorian culture, with its rectitude and restrictions. Back then, there was a moral horror at the thought of debt. No matter how bad the economic problems became, progressive-era politicians did not impose huge debt burdens on their children. That ethos is clearly gone.
In the progressive era, there was an understanding that men who impregnated women should marry them. It didn’t always work in practice, but that was the strong social norm. Today, that norm has dissolved. Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock. This sentences the U.S. to another generation of widening inequality and slower human capital development.
One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.
In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant. The job was to impose economic order. Today, the country is middle-aged but self-indulgent. Bad habits have accumulated. Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo. The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.
The progressive era is not a model; it is a foil. It provides a contrast and shows us what we really need to do.