Competition vs. Coddling

Posted: May 09, 2004 12:00 AM

   WASHINGTON -- Michael Barone, America's foremost political analyst, wonders why America produces so many incompetent 18-year-olds but remarkably competent 30-year-olds. The answer is in his new book, Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future. It illuminates the two sensibilities that sustain today's party rivalry.

     One answer to Barone's question is: schools. In 1900 only 10 percent of high school-age Americans went to high school. Subsequently, schooling became universal and then schools became emblematic of Soft America, suffused with ``progressive'' values -- banning dodge ball and other games deemed too competitive, attempting personality adjustment, promoting self-esteem and almost anyone with a pulse.

     In contrast, Barone says, ``Hard America plays for keeps: The private sector fires people when profits fall and the military trains under live fire.'' Soft America depends on the productivity, creativity and competence of Hard America, which protects the country and pays its bills.

     For a while, Soft America, consisting of those sectors where there is little competition and accountability, threatened to extinguish Hard America. By 1950, America had what Barone calls a Big Unit economy -- big business and big labor, with big government often mediating between them. This economy was, Barone says, ``inherently soft.'' Security, a concept not relevant to the Hard America of the novel Sister Carrie (1900), was central to the corporatist world of conformity -- the world of the novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955).

     With a novelist's eye for the telling detail, Barone notes that the Labor Department building, constructed in the 1960s, had two conference rooms adjacent to the secretary of labor's office, one for management, one for labor, so the secretary could shuttle between them. Together, the three big units would work out agreements, passing the costs of them along to consumers in an era much less competitive than today's deregulated and globalized era.

     Between 1947 and 1968, big business got bigger: the share of assets owned by the 200 largest industrial companies rose from 47 percent to 61 percent. Then came a hardening. Deregulation ended soft niches (e.g., airlines, trucking) protected by government-sponsored cartelization. The Interstate Commerce Commission, which encouraged cartelization, was abolished.

     New financial instruments (e.g., junk bonds) fueled hostile takeovers. Capital gains taxes were cut, stimulating entrepreneurship. Between 1970 and 1990, the rate at which companies fell from the Fortune 500 quadrupled. The portion of the gross national product accounted for by the 100 largest industrial corporations fell from 36 percent in 1974 to 17 percent in 1998.

     In 1957 the Soviet Sputnik provoked some hardening of America's schools --  with more science and advance placement courses, and consolidation of rural schools. President Kennedy's vow to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s was an inherently hard goal, with a hard deadline measuring success or failure.

     But the second half of the 1960s brought the Great Softening -- in schools and welfare policies, in an emphasis on redistribution rather than production of wealth and in the criminal justice system. The number of violent crimes per 100,000 people rose from 1,126 in 1960 to 2,747 in 1970 while the prison population declined from 212,000 in 1960 to 196,000 in 1970. In 2000, after the swing toward hardening, there were 1.3 million prisoners. 

     Barone says racial preferences, which were born in the 1960s and '70s, fence some blacks off from Hard America, insulating them in ``a Soft America where lack of achievement will nonetheless be rewarded.'' 

     The Detroit riot of 1967 lasted six nights before 2,700 federal troops restored order. In 1992, after the 1980s turn toward hardness, the Los Angeles riots lasted 18 hours, ending six hours after 25,000 federal troops were dispatched.

     In the Soft America of 1970, the tapestry of welfare benefits had a cash value greater than a minimum wage job. In the Harder America of 1996, welfare reform repealed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a lifetime entitlement to welfare. And in the 1990s, welfare dependency -- and crime -- were cut in half. A harder, self-disciplined America is a safer America.

     What institution is consistently rated most trustworthy by Americans? The institution that ended its reliance on conscription, that has no racial preferences and has rigorous life-and-death rules and standards: the military.

     Barone believes that promotion of competition and accountability -- hardness -- is the shared theme of President Bush's policies of educational standards, individual health accounts, Social Security investment accounts and lower tax rates to increase self-reliance in the marketplace. Barone's book is a guide to electoral map reading: the blue and red states have, respectively, softer and harder sensibilities.