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Buried by the small stuff

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 11, 2017 06:45 am

I've read a few things recently — a couple of them discouraging, one inspirational — that have made me rethink one of my most cherished, longest held beliefs. I highly recommend the exercise. When we get too invested in a tenet to periodically consider evidence to the contrary, we might miss understanding the world as it really is. (Reversal of the old bumper sticker — my dogma might get run over by your karma.)Longtime readers will not be surprised that the tenet in question is a belief in a smaller, less intrusive federal government that taxes less, spends less and is a lot less ambitious in what it tries to direct and control. I've had that belief since the first day I took over an editorial page, so roughly most of my adult life.

But that, argues David Goldman, is "small ball conservatism," which now dominates mainstream conservative thinking:

It finds expression in the writing of Ramesh Pommeru, Ross Douthat, and Yuval Levin, whose "conservative governing vision" sees a kind of:

… American life in which government does not use society as an instrument to advance progressive aims but rather sustains and strengthens the space in which society can thrive and enables all Americans to take part in what happens in that space.

 Such a government would no doubt be much smaller, more restrained, and less expensive than the one we have today. It would be fiscally sustainable, averting the catastrophe we face if our entitlement programs are not and reinforcing the private economy rather than draining it of resources.

Levin calls this a "modernized politics of subsidiarity — that is, of putting power, authority and significance as close to the level of interpersonal community as reasonably possible," that is, doing a lot of good, small things at the base of civil society.

If we don't give such "small ball" stuff up, Goldman writes,  "we will lose America’s technological and scientific pre-eminence, our dominant position as a military power, and a significant part of our living standard."  He believes America’s decline in productivity, competitiveness and skills is so advanced that nothing short of a focused national recovery plan will save us from a decline like that of the post-war United Kingdom.

It is a slippery slope. If we continue to lose ground, we may never have the chance to come back. Nothing short of a great national effort will give us the chance to come back. And the first thing that is required is for an American president to declare that a great national effort is underway, with the sense of purpose that informed the Eisenhower and Kennedy responses to Russian gains in space during the 1950s, or Reagan’s commitment to win the Cold War and defend America from missile attack. There are many individual things that must be done, but there is one big thing that must be done. That is to identify a national goal and commit the full resources of the United States to achieving it.

Goldman commands a certain amount of respect on the right (he wrote for a long time under the pseudonym Spengler and got quoted and linked to a lot), so it pains me to be lumped in with "mainstream conservative thinking" (that tiresome old thing) and told my core belief about the federal government is what will send the country down the crapper.

Or maybe that "small ball conservatism" isn't a mainstream as Goldman thinks it is. He wrote his "Small-Ball Conservatism or National Greatness?" essay before the presidential election. After the election of Donald Trump and the resounding victory of Republicans at the congressional level, somebody else wrote this: "Trump’s Presidency Is Already Making Republicans Love Big Government More"

A few weeks after the presidential election, Donald Trump’s economic advisor Stephen Moore told a group of top Republican lawmakers that they no longer belonged to the conservative party of Ronald Reagan but to Trump’s populist working-class party. Moore said Republicans, in this new era of Trump, should be "less ideologically pure" and instead try to help Trump give Americans what he promised them: trade protections, massive infrastructure spending, and a border wall.

This is the same Stephen Moore who up until November 8 had spent much of his career arguing for supply-side economic reforms, ample immigration, and free trade. Not anymore. Trump’s election has turned him into an economic populist. "Having spent the last three or four months on the campaign trail," he told The Hill, "it opens your eyes to the everyday anxieties and financial stress people are facing." For Moore, as for Trump, that means the government is here to help.

Moore’s transformation from free market economist to Trump populist is emblematic of a change sweeping the conservative political elite. With Republicans in control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time in more than a decade, skepticism about the federal government among conservative leaders is melting away. Those who have for years defined themselves politically as the only ones resisting the growth of a powerful and coercive administrative state are now, it seems, okay with it. To quote Boromir, this ring is a gift. Why not use it?

Of course, the populists' massive federal government vision isn't in service to the kind of transformative national goal Goldman has in mind. It's just the use of government power because the power is there and it's their turn to use it and using it will cement them to the people who voted them in.

So basically my choice is a giant federal government run by a "new boss same as the old boss" bunch of liars, or a giant federal government directed by one person who thinks we should undergo a "great national effort" to become what he defines as a great nation. Yeah, Donald Trump has always talked about "making America great again," but was his thinking really that focused and detailed? And is he the person who can, between tweets, inspire such an effort and see it through to completion?

Either way, it seems to me, I'm totally screwed when it comes to keeping the drumbeat going for a leaner, meaner federal government and a great rebirth of state and local politics and individual effort and responsibility. Hard to keep a good beat going with a dead horse. 

But now we come (finally) to the writing that inspired me. It is "Hidden Figures," Margot Lee Shetterly's wonderful book about the black female mathematicians at NASA "at the leading edge of the feminist and civil rights movement, whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space." 

The story of the women's determination and talent  is reason enough to read the book, but there is something else there, too. The book is deceptively small (about half of it is dedicated to prologue, epilogue, footnotes and bibliography), and Shetterly crams so much into it that I think some readers might miss it.

Where the women worked, NACA, which later became NASA, was in Virginia, in many ways the worst state of the Jim Crow South. When they were away from work, they had to put up with all the injustices and humiliation of segregated America. But at work, for the federal government, they found themselves increasingly accepted as part of a team, their work as valuable as anybody else's. A big reason was that the agency had a mission that everybody was passionately and equally dedicated to — first, to keep American air power superior during World War II, then to put  men into space. The mission was everything, and all that racial nonsense just got in the way.

(I don't want to make too much of this. The whites who worked for the agency, while more enlightened than those in its host community, still had some of the baggage of that time and place. And if they grew to accept their black co-workers, it was because the women earned respect by refusing to think of themselves as anything but equal. From the book: "As far as Katharine was concerned — as far as she had decided — once they got to the office, 'they were all the same.' She was going to assume that the smart fellas who sat across from the desk, with whom she shared a telephone line and the occasional lunchtime game of bridge, felt the same. She only needed to break through their blind spots and make her case.")

Granted, these missions were not the grandiose, all-encompassing grand crusade envisioned by Goldman. They were more limited and very focused: Stay ahead of the enemy in air power. Beat the Russians in the space race. In fact, many of the people involved thought the missions were too small (dare I say, "small ball"?). There were those within NASA, Shetterly writers, who believed, and would continue to believe for decades into the future, "that the government's decision to put all its chips on a short-term strategy to beat the Soviets came at the cost of the opportunity to turn humans into a truly spacefaring species."

But they were government missions, thousands of people brought together to achieve something big, and I can't say in those cases I object to "big government." In fact, watching the moon landing is still the greatest thrill I've ever had, and I don't think I've ever been prouder to be a part of this country. The fact that the missions achieved a social good in the process is a bonus. 

Could a big government project do that again, especially if it was one that caught the imagination of the American people? We are so fractured as a country right now, so embittered in our separate camps, that it seems nothing could ever bring us together again. Maybe we could use a common purpose, a shared mission.

I don't think it can or should be anything as all-encompassing as Goldman suggests. That's so big it's downright scary. It's so big that if we got it wrong — even just a little bit wrong — we'd be in far more trouble than some people think we are now.  But if something a little smaller comes along — something like put-a-man-on-the-moon scale — I won't reject it out of hand just because it's Big Government.

In the meantime, though, I probably won't give up my crusade for a leaner, meaner federal government. In fact, I think it's quite compatible with a willingess to consider a grand government initiative. I'm not sure the government is capable of anything big right now, of even meeting a national emergency, let alone pushing the boundaries of human potential. It is too bogged down by the millions of small things it shouldn't have been doing in the first place. Only if we start clearing away some of the dead weight can we even think about reacing for greatness. With conservatives apparently as willing as liberals to spend money once they have the chance, I'm not terribily optimistic, though.

We should have a colony on Mars by now, by the way. Just saying.


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