The New Public Era

Is government sounding the sirens of retreat? Not necessarily.

Is government sounding the sirens of retreat? Not necessarily.

With our politics so bitter, it may be counterintuitive to think that a new public era is in the offing-defined by a "public ethos" more devoted to the common good. But a plausible argument to that effect comes from one of the smartest thinkers in public administration-University of Kansas professor H. George Frederickson.

That's an optimistic way to begin this essay and to end it a bit later. In between, it seems worth examining developments that might trend in the other direction: the prospect of significant across-the-board budget cuts in many federal programs, for instance; the terrible troubles of government at the state and local levels; the tenor of the Republican presidential candidate debates.

Everywhere you look, government is under stress. As I write at the beginning of December, huge new crowds have taken to the streets in Athens, fearful of cutbacks in the Greek public sector. An estimated 2 million citizens of Britain turned out in a similar protest of government spending reductions there.

In our country, public sector cuts are playing out in state and local governments-offering a harbinger of what might come at the federal level.

Rhode Island, for example, is going broke, its treasurer, Gina M. Raimondo, has warned-largely because of retired government workers. Ten cents of the tax dollar pays for Rhode Island employee retirement costs, and the trends are bad: At least one city has filed for bankruptcy, and others are cutting services.

In California, state spending on employee pay and benefits ($32 billion) rose 65 percent during the past 10 years, while spending on higher education, health and human services, and parks and recreation is either flat or down. Higher taxes may or may not be the answer to such problems-as people, like those in geographically tiny Rhode Island, can vote with their feet.

In contrast to Europe, there hasn't yet been enough of a threat to U.S. citizens' benefits to occasion deep protests, although groups representing seniors are mounting anticipatory defenses of Social Security and Medicare. The sequester of agency budgets, which would trigger across-the-board cuts starting on Jan. 2, 2013, is aimed mainly at discretionary programs too small to stir much public reaction.

The sequester would cut deeply into federal ranks, especially at the Defense Department. Officials there are up in arms. Testifying on Nov. 14, Secretary Leon Panetta predicted sweeping layoffs and furloughs of civilian employees; it's said that up to 200,000 could be furloughed, some for more than a month. The State Department too has been targeted for substantial cuts.

Among civilian agencies, tens of thousands of workers would lose their jobs, House Democrats predict. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has advised federal managers to prepare for the sequester-in part by informing the public about what the cuts would entail in reduced services to needy populations.

The Republican presidential hopefuls have railed against big government-and they have a ready target in light of the huge bulge in federal spending caused by, and in reaction to, the ailing economy. They haven't been too precise in outlining the kinds of cuts they'd make, but their GOP compatriots in Congress have introduced legislation to downsize the federal workforce, roll back various regulatory programs, and slash agencies like the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. And there's a better-than-even chance that Republicans will control the Senate as well as the House after the 2012 elections.

Is government thus sounding the sirens of retreat as a force in our society? Not necessarily.

Frederickson takes the long view, as did the famous historian Arthur Schlesinger with his cycles of change theories. So, Frederickson notes, the private excesses of the late 19th century gave rise to the Progressive Era, which in turn produced bureaucratic excesses that spawned an age of individualism whose most notable apostle was Ronald Reagan. Private sector excesses during this 50-year run of deregulation and market dominance landed us in a deep recession and unemployment crisis, so now we have again turned to government-with the stimulus program; bailouts of giant banking, insurance and automobile companies; and a program of re-regulation. As well, after many years of trying, we have enacted a national health insurance program.

And while the GOP presidential contenders strike an anti-government theme in debates, their concerns for older illegal immigrants, children's educational attainment and the accumulating burden of federal debt all are acknowledgements that public problems demand public solutions.

In Europe, it's worth noting, every proposed solution to the euro crisis has entailed more transnational government, not less. There, and perhaps in this country too, we have arguably entered Frederickson's "public era" for the next generation.

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