The land of the glum and free

The State of the Nation

June 6, 1997

Being president of Harvard University is apparently its own reward. Even retirement brings benefits that outstrip the wildest dreams of your average academic. Imagine sitting in your office during the last year of your tenure and one day being called upon by "emissaries of three foundations" who, in effect, beg you to take their money. Such was the good luck of Derek Bok when he was visited by the Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Robert Wood Johnson foundations. The deal they offered Bok was this: go forth, take as long as you like, and write about "why the United States seemed to be encountering so much difficulty and provoking so much dissatisfaction". The result is The State of the Nation: Government and the Quest for a Better Society, a book that seeks to deliver the goods on governmental failure for which those three large private foundations coughed up the big bucks.

The State of the Nation is in fact the first of two books from Bok. This one examines government generally, its strengths and weaknesses. The next one will, he promises, confront the question of why policies and programmes so often fail to satisfy. His point of departure is an intriguing fact of life in the United States in the middle of the last decade of the 20th century: in the midst of apparent plenty, the American people have become broodingly pessimistic.

His quest was to find out why such a state of affairs has come to be - why nearly 70 per cent of the people feel things are going downhill, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. He seeks his answers by examining the US from five angles: economic prosperity, quality of life, opportunity, personal security, and social values. Under these primary rubrics, Bok examines particular issues that range from "Scientific research and technology" to "Race" to "The burdens of old age" to "Personal responsibility" and "Helping the poor". All told, this is a book that takes a broad view of the state of America.

The approach here is both historical and comparative, as Bok seeks to measure America against herself as well as against other industrialised nations. And he does so not simply at the level of opinion but on the sturdier ground of hard facts. The State of the Nation is loaded with statistical analyses that sharply sketch the lines of his argument. If you want to know "Total expenditure on health care, as per cent of gross domestic product, 1960-1992", there is a chart for you; similarly, if your interest runs to the "Per cent of population attending various arts exhibitions and performances within preceding year, 1980s", Bok has you covered. It seems there is no aspect of American life that has not been, indeed cannot be, reduced to a handy chart.

On the whole, America measured against itself shows "tangible progress" on nearly two-thirds of some 73 domestic policy goals and aspirations. When it comes to his comparative perspective - that is the US measured against the other industrialised nations -the US does not fare too well.

Of the 69 items assessed, Bok notes "the record of the US from 1960 to 1990 was below average in two-thirds of the cases (43) and at or near the bottom of the list in more than half (33)''. In the view put forward in this book, that comparative analysis is the most important in judging where the US now stands. In Bok's judgement, America's "claim to be exceptional in a positive sense has grown steadily more tenuous".

One of the most interesting points he makes is that things may or may not be bad and getting worse, depending upon one's perspective, but this much is without doubt: the way Americans see themselves and their problems has changed dramatically. In the old days, things were not necessarily better, just ignored. Social afflictions were not given the prominence they are today.

No small part of how Americans measure their progress or, more recently, chart their decline is the result of the advent of television - that great social leveller - and the rise of investigative reporting. The fact is that simply more is now known than was ever even guessed at before. We are daily confronted by strong images of every social ill imaginable. Seeing, it seems, is believing.

Throughout The State of the Nation Bok strives mightily to be even handed, arguing that neither "liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans seem to have fully come to grips with the problems America is facing". But at the end of the day, his true bearing is made clear. Bok comes across in the lines wedged between his facts as an old-fashioned, New Deal liberal who does not blush in proclaiming his faith in government to do good. In his view, government is simply "indispensable" to what he sees as the necessary "progress of America''.

He is blunt: "Experience holds forth little hope that we will ever achieve the important goals of our society without learning to create wiser policies and execute them more effectively than we have in the past". Bok is sure that the free market is no real solution to what ails America.

It is not at all clear to him that devolution of power from national government to the several states is any improvement. In a similar vein, he constantly praises the federal courts for their willingness to extend civil liberties beyond what anyone ever thought the Bill of Rights meant.

Whether Bok's approach to defining the problems of, and finding solutions to, what he deems the state of the nation is a sound one is, of course, more than slightly arguable. Indeed, the often bleak picture he paints of the US derives in part from past policies based on those very assumptions about the role of government in American life.

Ultimately, Bok's account of the problems facing America has much more in common with Jimmy Carter pessimism than Ronald Reagan optimism -the glass always seems half-empty for him rather than half-full. Indeed, the whole enterprise, it is worth remembering, began with the confident assumption that something is indeed wrong with the US, not only its politics but its people. From such a foundation it is doubtful that the second volume of this study will hold many surprises either.

Gary L. McDowell is director, Institute of United States Studies, University of London.

The State of the Nation: Government and the Quest for a Better Society

Author - Derek Bok
ISBN - 0 674 29210 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 483

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