The Perils of High-Mindedness

Even before this campaign, he was a familiar figure in our public life—the high-minded politician, detached from partisan passions, divorced from interest groups, devoted to higher purposes for the good of all, disdainful of image-making, fundraising, and negative campaigns. To varying degrees, Adlai Stevenson, John Anderson, and Paul Tsongas played the part; now it is Bill Bradley's turn, and we will see whether he plays it to the same conclusion—political defeat.

High-mindedness is both a style of public self-representation and a way of dealing with the practical aspects of politics. As a style, it seems to appeal toaffluent liberals and independents who also feel uncomfortable with the practices of mass democracy. But the same detachment and aloofness may not go down nearly as well with Americans who are less well off and unashamed to ask, "What are you going to do for me?" They want to know whether a politician can deliver.

But that is not what high-minded public figures promise, if they make promises at all. The high-minded want you to know that they stand for the right things. They are as proud of their words as others are of their accomplishments. There is certainly something attractive about candidates who invoke great ideals and high aspirations: better the high-minded than the low-minded. What distinguishes high-mindedness from an effective liberalism, however, is a lack of seriousness about the political means necessary to realize public purposes. We want our political leaders to be principled; we also want them to be shrewd, tough-minded, and determined. The high-minded leave us with the sense that they may not be able to get things done.

That is partly what bedevils Bill Bradley. During his 18 years in the Senate, he had a rather thin record as a legislator. As his supporters point out, he gave some excellent speeches—for example, on race, although he never played a leadership role in civil rights legislation or worked with the black members of Congress. He has now spoken up on the issue of health care reform, although he was too shy to provide any leadership on the issue when he served in the Senate. He has recently given some good speeches on campaign finance reform, although he introduced a bill on campaign finance only after he had announced he was quitting the Senate in disgust with the partisanship of Democratic as well as Republican colleagues. That parting shot came after the Republicans had gained control of Congress in 1994 and Democrats were in deep trouble as they tried to resist Gingrich's Contract With America. It was a fine moment to be above partisanship.

The rejection of party loyalty is a hallmark of high-mindedness. No doubt college presidents and heads of foundations should be nonpartisan, but a presidential nominee has to take his party into an election and make the strongest possible case for it. If elected, he will need to count on the support of members of his party in Congress to pass his program. Moreover, there are real differences between the two major parties, and those differences should be made as clear as possible to the voters. The high-minded disdain for party seems out of touch with the practical and legitimate demands of politics.

High-mindedness is a setup for disappointment. Consider campaignfinance reform. Sanctimony about campaign finance is a dangerous posture for anyone in American politics. There is no way to wage a serious campaign fornational or statewide office in America today without raising enormous amounts of money. It would be nice if the money could be raised from disinterested citizens. Unfortunately, those who are disinterested about politics are usually uninterested in politics. Most political money, even for the best candidates, will inevitably come from people who have a stake in political decisions. Will candidates try to raise that money from people who disagree with their views? Obviously not. It is child's play, therefore, to go through a politician's record and find a correspondencebetween positions taken and contributions received. Unless they finance their campaigns out of their own pockets, the high-minded are no less vulnerable to exposure. Of course, we should try toreform campaign finance (though the reforms will never entirely eliminate the role of private money); we just shouldn't expect politicians to be able to behave as if the system already were reformed.

High-mindedness in a candidate may also bring back some old doubts about the Democrats' capacity for leadership. Beginning in the 1960s, liberalism seemed to reflect the concerns of both the minority poor and the educated middle class while leaving out the working-class whites in between. In two national elections, Bill Clinton was able to break this pattern and secure the support of many working-class voters who previously abandoned the Democrats for Reagan. He did that without losing minority support. For all of his personal failings, Clinton conveys a genuine interest in ordinary people as well as shrewdness and determination. No one thinks he's too high-minded for the hard decisions that a president needs to make. It remains to be seen whether Bill Bradley can convince the public that he has those qualities.

Anatomy of a Lie

There it was in The New York Times in early December, a striking statistic: "The poverty industry consists of 500,000 workers handling $130 billion in antipoverty money," according to estimates by Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation. If only that money wentdirectly to the poor, the Times's John Tierney continued, citing Butler, it would be enough "to raise every family on welfare above the poverty level." But instead, the money gets "filtered through the antipoverty programs run by the middle class."

When the Times reports a statistic, readers expect that the newspaper has made at least some minimal effort to check the source. But in this case, neither Tierney nor his editors sought to determine whether the numbers had any foundation. The original source was an op-ed piece Butler wrote in 1990 in a right-wing newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune. Although welfare caseloads have fallen dramatically in recent years, Tierney was untroubled using estimates that were, at best, nine years old.

In his original article, Butler referred to "poverty-industry bureaucrats" administering special-education programs for the disadvantaged, public housing, food assistance, day care, and "an army of doctors, hospitals, farmers, real estatedevelopments and other private interests" who "prosper" by performing services for the poor. But when The American Prospect contacted him to find out what people and programs he had counted to arrive at his estimate of 500,000 antipoverty workers and $130 billion, Butler was unable to explain how he had come up with the numbers. "It wasn't a state-of-the-art computer analysis," he conceded. In fact, he doesn't appear to have calculated the nice round number of 500,000 workers, nor is there any other source we could locate for this statistic. Not to put too fine a point on it, Butler simply seems to have made it up.

Butler's numbers, of course, have a transparent ideological purpose. Hisargument is that a particular species of parasite, the "poverty-industry bureaucrat," soaks up the resources that could otherwise be used to end poverty. But who are these people, and what do they do? In light of the references to doctors and hospitals in his original article, Butler apparently counts Medicaid as part of the poverty industry. Medicaid pays not only for acute health services for the poor, but also for long-term care for the elderly and disabled, many of whom were not poor while they were working. There is an obvious fallacy in solving the problem of poverty by taking the money now spent on Medicaid: What would we do with the people in nursing homes? Throw them out of their beds?

One of the cheap tricks in Butler'sparade of dubious numbers is to underestimate the population served byantipoverty programs. Supposedly, we could raise the poor out of poverty by cashing out antipoverty services. But many of the people who benefit from such programs as Medicaid or educational programs for the disadvantaged have family incomes that are low but not beneath the poverty line. Eliminating the programs would obviously hurtmany of these near-poor families—not just the middle-class "poverty-industry bureaucrats" that Tierney and Butler hold up to scorn.

Butler's trick involves not just deceptive numbers, but deceptive words. The phrase "poverty-industry bureaucrats" allows us to believe that liquidating antipoverty programs will merely take paper-pushers away from their desks, not doctors and nurses from bedsides and emergency rooms. Butler and Tierney play to the popular belief that all government social programs are vastly less efficient than comparable private-sector organizations. But actually, Social Security has lower administrative costs than private annuities, and Medicare is cheaper to run than private health insurance. Programs for the poor certainly should become more efficient. But the potential savings in getting rid of them would not be anywhere near the levels required to end poverty.

Tierney's and Butler's arguments about the poverty industry are deceptive in another sense. During the 1960s, there was a vigorous argument about whether antipoverty strategy should emphasize income transfers or services to the poor. Since that time, the growth in social spending, except for medical care, has been decisively in income transfers. The single biggest antipoverty initiative of the past decade has been the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit—no poverty-industry bureaucrats there. The charge that a self-interested povertyindustry stands in the way of policies that would put money directly into the pockets of the poor is an outdated canard.

The final irony is that it is conservatives who actually want to turn poverty into an industry by privatizing social welfare services. You see, the people who now work in services for the poor are merely self-interested. That is why we need to bring in profit-making companies to straighten things out.

More Evidence for Charter Schools

"Area charter school students scored lower on state standardized tests than their public school counterparts, a fact state officials said puts to rest arguments that charter schools are luring away the districts' brightest students."—Trenton Times, December 17, 1999.

You may also like