The Missing Election Issues
For pundits, and for too many politicians, it had almost become an iron-clad rule of modern politics: that substance doesn't win campaigns, advertising does. This was the reason for the meteoric rise of billionaire Steve Forbes. And this was why Senator Bob Dole, with his substantial war chest, was assumed to have a lock on the Republican presidential nomination. The issues -- economic dislocation, social decay, America's place in the world -- are simply not prominent features on the modern political battlefield. There was always something elitist about this mindset -- that Americans are not discerning enough to see past smoke and mirrors. The Buchanan insurgency made it clear that the cynical conventional wisdom was not just elitist, but wrong. By hammering away at basic problems -- the abandoned American worker, the splintering American family, the costs of free trade -- Buchanan earned a victory in New Hampshire, defeating his better-funded, but vapid, competition. Now, with the Republican establishment scrambling to meet his intellectual challenge, there is even the tantalizing possibility this presidential campaign will feature a real debate about real issues. Yes, it is perhaps a bit premature to thank Buchanan, a dangerous man who knows his Machiavelli, for a renaissance of American democracy. But we can at least hope that the candidates will draw a lesson from his surprising strength. Americans do want to hear about the issues. Glitz is good for a boost in the polls, but, as Forbes (or Ross Perot) will tell you, it does not give a candidate staying power. Here, then, are 10 issues that the candidates should be debating. May the best man win. -- Gareth CookWhat government can doby James FallowsThere are moments in history on which we look back and say, "What were those people thinking?" Year in and year out during World War I, generals ordered their troops to scramble up from their trenches and run across no-man's land toward enemy machine-gun nests, only to be mowed down. What could they have been thinking? During the first year of the Reagan Administration, many politicians and commentators acted as if there were a reasonable chance that cutting federal taxes, while increasing federal spending, might balance the federal budget. What were they thinking? A generation from now, people will look back on us, especially at today's Democrats, and wonder what we were thinking on one fundamental issue. The issue is the role and purpose of government. Following the example of President Clinton, Democrats have done very little to challenge the modern Republican proposition that government is simply evil, that it is wasteful, oppressive, misguided, and inefficient. Therefore the contest between the parties boils down to who can hack the most out of this evil presence in the shortest possible time. What can the Democrats be thinking? Not only are they doomed to lose any government-hating contest against the Republicans, they are also ignoring the history of their growth -- and the country's. When the Washington Monthly was founded more than 25 years ago, part of its purpose was to explain all the ways in which government could and did fail. Bureaucrats became wrapped up in self-protection. Administrators spent more time attending meetings and currying favor with the press than finding out whether their programs were doing what they should. Politicians were rewarded for striking poses rather than solving problems. The whole system often sang to the tune of special-interest money. Big organizations suffered from a "culture of bureaucracy" that got in the way of what citizens and taxpayers wanted done. These problems were serious 25 years ago, and they are at least as serious now. But the logical response to them is not to say, "Therefore, let's get rid of the government," any more than the logical response to complaints about lawyers' or doctors' greed is to say, "Let's abolish the court system, and while we're at it get rid of hospitals." A court system is part of civilized life; so are hospitals; and so even is the hated federal government. The real history of this country is of the intimate connection between government and private activity. Individuals settled the frontier. The government provided an army to map routes and (for better or worse) fight off the Indians. Farmers tilled the Midwestern soil. Federal, state, and local governments surveyed the land, set rules for homesteading and title registry, created great centers of agricultural research. Industrialists and laborers built America's great 20th-century industries. The government set rules that kept monopolists from squelching new competitors. Through the hand of government, child labor was outlawed and unions were empowered to bargain for a share of the nation's wealth that in turn helped create a middle-class society. Does anyone believe that Central Park would exist if the market had been left to determine the most efficient use of land in Manhattan? Or that Yellowstone or Yosemite would have come into being except for the federal government's "interference"? Or that men would have landed on the moon? Or that we can assume that the food we buy and pharmaceuticals we use meet basic safety standards? Air-quality has improved across the country over the last two decades; water pollution has been reduced. Theoretically, you could argue that the right market incentives would have produced the same result, faster. The reality is that around the world, pollution has been reduced when governments have set environmental-quality standards. Perhaps the most dramatic change wrought by the federal government in the last generation is breaking the connection between being old and being poor. In the early 1960s, before Medicare, retirement-aged Americans were much poorer on average than other Americans. Now they are, on average, richer. This change perfectly illustrates the way we should think and talk about the imperfect achievements of the federal government. Medicare and Social Security have been effective -- but now they have become too effective. Too much of the nation's income goes to non-needy retirees, with too little left for children and working parents. The solution to that problem, of course, is not to abolish either Social Security or Medicare; instead it is to reform and moderate them, so as to have more of their positive effect with less excess. In the real world, Social Security and Medicare illustrate how cynically and crudely we think about government now. Both parties have made the realistic calculation that they cannot discuss reductions in Social Security. When the Republicans discussed making cuts in Medicare, the Democrats pounced on them for this demonstration of "heartlessness." Both parties, that is, are willing to badmouth the government and act as if they wish it would disappear -- except for its role as a giant check-writer to groups whose votes the politicians think they need. What the politicians should instead be talking about -- and in the real world, this means the Democrats -- is the difference between jobs the government can do well and jobs the market can do well. The market can do most jobs better -- but not all. It can't provide goods or services that benefit broad groups of people but are too risky or expensive for any single private investor. Private investors could never have built a national highway system. Private firms could never have provided nearly universal telephone, electrical, water, and sewer services across the nation unless they enjoyed government-sheltered, regulated-monopoly status. The market has no way of preserving values that are clearly important to real human beings but have no easily measurable price tag, from the existence of national parks to the benefits of living in a society in which few people are desperately poor. Any of today's academic economists knows what Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations: the invisible hand does certain chores exceedingly well, such as matching buyers and sellers on a stock exchange, but "market imperfections" make it the wrong tool for many other activities. Our politicians seem to have forgotten this for the moment. The likes of Dick Armey and Phil Gramm may never have known any better. Bill Clinton and Al Gore should. These were, after all, the leaders who gave us the "reinventing government" initiative. Behind it lay the idea that the government should be no bigger than necessary -- but it should be that big. They launched that campaign only two years ago, but to judge from their rhetoric it seems like a relic from another geological era. To avoid the head-scratching puzzlement of their children's generation, the Democrats should stop aping the Republicans in pretending that the government is simply burdensome. They should talk about how it can better perform the tasks that only it can do.James Fallows is Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly.The evils of pollingby Suzannah LessardThe most serious problem in our political life today, in my view, is not the rise of the right, or the demonization of the poor, or the squeezing of the middle class, or the growing gap between rich and poor, or the inordinate influence of special interests, but the colonization of the minds of leaders -- actual and potential -- by opinion research. This is the most serious problem because, without leaders who act out of deep convictions arrived at by independent thinking, none of our problems will be solved. One might say that in democratic politics there is no power without popularity and the ability to compromise, and that the problem of politicians being enslaved to popular opinion is therefore endemic to democracy. I would say that's true, but that the scientific methodology of contemporary opinion research raises a form of enslavement that is restricting and soul-destroying to degrees hitherto unknown. Before, politicians had to guess what people wanted: in that process, they may have been as ready to switch horses as any contemporary politician poring over the results of focus groups, but still -- they would be guessing. There is a kind of thought in guessing. And there is uncertainty. That uncertainty creates an opening for taking a position closer to one's convictions; after all it might just be the right one politically as well. Under current conditions, however, there is almost no uncertainty. Or so it seems. Take this position, and the majority of people will favor you. Take that one, and you will slip. The power of contemporary methodology is such that to resist it is to enter a race of Ferraris with a Model T. Yet it is surely becoming clear that dependence upon this kind of research does not work in the long run because it erases the humanity of the decision maker in the eyes of the electorate. In the long run, people think there's nobody home. The point here doesn't have to do with issues in themselves, but with a person projecting the ability to have an independent opinion. Why was Colin Powell, who told us practically nothing of his positions on issues, so popular? Was it much more than that he appeared to have a strong sense of who he was and an ability to think for himself -- that he seemed mature, dignified, substantial. that he seemed unintimidated by the opinions of the electorate -- though perhaps intimidated by the election process -- and unswayed by the prospects of success or failure? That he seemed real? Here's a real person, whose bow does not take its shape from the water, and where you have a real person, there is hope. Hope is exactly the point. Without thought, courage, and independence of mind in our leaders, there is no hope; indeed, there is no leader. As a campaign issue, this is one that, by its very nature, can only be worn lightly. If it were felt with conviction, rather than presented as part of an image, it might actually contribute to a candidate's success. Or it might not. Certainly the predicament presented by opinion research would be a worthwhile and interesting topic to raise in the campaign as an issue of political culture. But the place where it should be raised with real urgency is in a candidate's inner circle. I know that if I were running for president, the dangers of this predicament, in which the iron vice of opinion research squeezes you until you are an ineffective ghost, would be uppermost in my mind. I would want to surround myself with people who viewed research of this kind as a far second to real thought and worked actively to help me keep its imperialistic tendencies at bay. I would want to make sure that I lived in an unprocessed world, so that I would stay real -- and therefore capable of wielding the power that I sought.Suzannah Lessard's The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family, will be published by Dial Press in September. She is currently working on a book about the conservative movement.ÔPoor': a four-letter wordby Walter ShapiroWhen I came into New York as a small boy in the 1950s, I used to stare transfixed out the grime-smeared windows of the New Haven Railroad at the streets of Harlem. My fascination was predicated less on race (black people were not a novelty to me) than on housing stock. I would stare into the bleak tenements and wonder: how could people live like that in a country as rich as America? I don't want to overplay the acute political sensitivity of my nine-year-old self. But I do want to stress that I came of age at a time when hope was alive in America, when there still was a naive liberal faith that the tangible manifestations of poverty could be eliminated by the right mix of government programs. This is not the place to recite the usual litany of abject failures, from public housing to Model Cities to the War on Poverty. The blame has been apportioned many times over. Yet I still face a gnawing sense that the defeat of idealism was not inevitable, and that poverty amid plenty remains as morally wrong now as it seemed during the innocent cocoon of my childhood. The poor have simply ceased to exist politically in America. (Phil Gramm was about the only candidate who referred to them -- and he wanted those slackers to get out of the wagon and help the rest of us pull.) The presidential race is really between two camps of selfish white people -- a bunch of Republicans who want to cut taxes for people like themselves and a rickety Democratic coalition that wants to preserve existing programs mostly because they employ Democrats. The Republicans scorn the poor, and the Democrats don't dare risk being politically associated with them. (In Clinton Administration strategy sessions on the budget, I'm told, when anyone is so hidebound as to mention "the poor," one of the younger political types corrects him by saying "the poor and the middle class.") Small wonder that the White House even defends Medicaid as solely an entitlement for the middle class in nursing homes. Faced with a presidential campaign that seems the death knell of hope, I will confess that, damn it, I miss Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller. I miss Urban Coalitions and all those earnest cries for a "Marshall Plan for the cities." I know the limitations of their bulldoze-it-build-it-and-bureaucratize-it remedies. But hand it to those Humphrey-era liberals (even those in Republican clothes): they had a broader vision of what might be possible than their burnt-out political heirs like Dick Gephardt and Mario Cuomo. Defending the tattered remnants of the social safety net against the coordinated attacks from the Gingrich Gang may be a decent excuse to re-elect Bill Clinton. But don't lose sight of the bipartisan agreement that in the next millennium, as in ages past, the poor will always be with us. A few weeks back, I had an emotional meltdown during a small welfare briefing by such War on Poverty visionaries as House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer and his Sancho Panza, Florida congressman Clay Shaw. Responding to criticism of the GOP end-the-entitlement welfare bill, Shaw said, "When you have a program like AFDC that pays people not to work, not to get married, and to have children, what can be worse than that?" The answer is simple: Begging in the street is worse than that -- and so is rooting through trash cans in search of food, and entire families living on cots in homeless shelters. What I would love to hear in 1996 (and know I won't) is a presidential candidate brave enough to talk about opening a second front in the struggle against permanent poverty. Maybe it's time to once again consider spending real money (try $50 to $100 billion a year) on new, well-designed programs that offer the hope of uplift rather than simple income maintenance. How would we possibly pay for such an extravagance in an America that already has the lowest -- yes, I said lowest -- budget deficit (in relation to size of the economy) of any major industrialized nation? Gosh, I'll have to put on my thinking cap for that one. Go after middle-class entitlements, of course, and throw in corporate welfare. George Bush got it wrong -- the problem is not our wallets but our will. If we must squander public money (and no modern democratic government will ever run with austere efficiency), why is it that the poor are always at the end of the line behind the corporate tax lobbyists, the agribusiness behemoths, the defense contractors, and the AARP? Just a thought.Walter Shapiro is a columnist for Esquire and USA Today.Revive health-care reformby Gregg EasterbrookWalter Shapiro has memorably summarized the collective amnesia of institutional Washington by noting that anyone who can recall what the White House was doing last year is considered a historian, and anyone who can remember all the way back to the Eisenhower Administration is "viewed as grasping the full sweep of human history." Just two years ago health-care reform seemed to be the dominant question of American domestic politics. Now it's forgotten. It ought to become a major campaign issue again. As the Clinton reform effort gathered steam in 1993, one worry among those of us who favor a national approach to health care was that the middle class would be well-served by badly needed insurance reforms, while the poor and the medically indigent would end up ignored. How I wish, today, that fear had come true! Nothing was passed, not even boons to the middle class. These reforms included "portability," which would guarantee that workers who change jobs can retain their insurance; a ban on refusing to insure those with pre-existing conditions; some form of across-the-board pricing in order to reduce the premium penalty on the self-employed and small entrepreneurs; and a rule that would require insurers to offer comparable packages and disclose statistics -- thereby enabling health-insurance buyers to make meaningful comparisons between plans. It was assumed that once the Hillary-Ira master plan collapsed, these secondary reforms (commonly labeled "the Bentsen plan," after the former senator) would be an automatic yea vote. Today, with Bill Kristol and others having done such a swell job of making health-insurance reform seem a near-Communist idea, there are no major initiatives in Congress to pass anything like a Bentsen plan. And none of the 1996 candidates is pushing such a plank. This is amazing, given that insurance loss in job changes, "pre-existing condition" clauses, and similar flaws in the health-coverage system impact millions of middle-class, voting, campaign-donating citizens -- exactly the sort of people whose concerns normally take political priority. How is it that removing the catch-22s from health insurance has become a non-issue in the 1996 campaign? Kristol and other snug Republican leaders who themselves hold gold-plated medical insurance may not care how many millions of the poor or working class are screwed by health-coverage problems, but middle-class Republican constituents are being screwed, too, if they change jobs, start a small business, or have the temerity to get sick. Even in a pure-market system, the case for general insurance reform is clear. For example, refusing to provide care to those with so-called pre-existing conditions makes perfect sense for individual insurers but is nonsensical for society as a whole, as it guarantees that lives will be ruined by medical bills. Yet any individual insurer that chooses to accept the already sick is played for a sucker under the current system, since competing insurers that won't take the sick will have higher returns. The equitable solution is for government to say that insurers who wish to be in the health business must offer a standard basic policy to all comers, regardless of condition. Virtually all health-care analysts, even those fiercely opposed to a national health system, agree that changes like these are needed. Yet they can't get off the dime, owing to the slough in which the negative-issue spinners (yes, the Democrats have negative agents, too) have mired American politics. That timid candidates of all stripes are now running from any mention of middle-class health-insurance reforms means that the situation for the poor and working poor must be even worse. It is. An estimated 16 percent of Americans lack health insurance -- by far the worst percentage of any Western nation. (Germany, France, and Switzerland supply advanced care to all their citizens; yet they spend considerably less on a per-capita basis than the United States does because they use sophisticated systems that blend the best of private medicine with the efficiencies of national health care.) Even if you don't care how much those without insurance suffer, consider this: most of the "medically indigent" are not the hard-core poor (generally they receive free care) but the working poor, poised on the boundary line between being productive members of society and slipping back into welfare dependency. If there's one thing that knocks a working-poor family out of the paycheck category and back onto the dole, it is medical expenses. Often the heads of working families, saddled by high medical bills, have no choice but to leave their jobs in order to qualify for free medical care. For any candidate who cares about making work more attractive than welfare, the 41 million Americans without health insurance ought to stand as one of the leading issues of the campaign. But instead of addressing the needs of the uninsured, some of the presidential candidates have instead shown a perverse devotion to increasing their numbers. Congress is perilously close to turning Medicaid, the program that supplies free care for the poor, into a block grant under full control of the states. Two things will happen if Medicaid becomes a block grant. First, many states will reduce eligibility, causing even more Americans to lose health-care insurance. Second, care quality will decline; many state-run Medicaid programs are already disasters. Given that reality, it's remarkable that Congress now proposes to shift more medical responsibilities to the states. Remarkable -- and yet par for the course in the current discombobulated health-care debate.Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, is author of the recent A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (Viking).The blue-color bluesby Richard ReevesOne November morning last fall, I turned on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. A sports commentator named Tim Green was talking about the game of musical stadiums being played by cities that want National Football League teams. Taxpayers, he said, were paying hundreds of millions of dollars for new stadiums to attract NFL teams from other cities. Green, a former NFL player who now does television analysis of games for the Fox network, said: "I know that a lot of blue-collar people who once could attend games can no longer do so. This is sad, but you can't fight it. Thankfully, the game itself is a great spectacle no matter where it's played, no matter who's sitting in the stands, and no matter how much players are being paid. Fortunately, the game still stands apart from the business." It does? You could have fooled me and the blue-collar fans who can no longer afford the spectacle. Good old capitalism! Even in Rome's declining days of bread and circuses, the blue-toga six-pack guys could go to see the circus. Our guys won't even get to see the corporate sky-boxes in the new stadiums. That bothered me a lot. My mood was not helped by glancing at a copy of USA Today from the day before. A graph in one corner under the heading USA SNAPSHOT reported that the pay ratio of chief executives and average workers in big American corporations had gone from 41 to 1 in the mid 1970s to 187 to 1 last year. The average annual pay of workers in companies with more than 25,000 employees went from $8000 to $20,000 in that time, which in real dollars is actually a decline in pay. And the average pay of the big bosses in those companies? That number went from $326,000 a year to $3.7 million a year. Those executives were being paid to "downsize" and improve "shareholder value." And since those bosses are often the shareholders, they are transferring enough wealth from their workers to themselves to make it impossible for working stiffs, blue-collar and white-collar, to afford football tickets. We have already had our class war, and the good guys lost. Work is the issue -- creating more of it. What do we do if there is not enough work, enough decent-paying work, to go around in a democracy built on the work ethic, where self-esteem is rooted in what you do and how much you make? I don't know the answer. But I do think our democracy is based on the prospering middle class. Would the democracy survive if there were millions and millions of unemployed or under-employed men and women pushed out of decent-paying white-collar and skilled blue-collar work? I happened to be in Tallahassee, Florida, that day, meeting with members of the state legislature. When I mentioned my concerns about a work-ethic country without work -- as our farmers were out of work and driven off the land after mechanization at the end of the 19th century -- a member of the House of Representatives, Bill Posey, responded: "The unemployed part of it has already happened in my district because of aerospace cutbacks. There is no economic hope here. Older engineers are laid off, and who needs them anymore? The young ones are in white-collar slave jobs, and when they burn out they'll be replaced by a new crop of college graduates." Then Posey, a Republican who represents the central Florida area from Kennedy Space Center to Disney World in Orlando, said: "Unless people are independently wealthy, they're going to go to work, they're going on welfare, or they're going to steal. There are no other alternatives." Trying to be optimistic and talking about technological advances and attitude changes that have greatly improved the overall quality of American life, I said: "Maybe we are talking about whether the glass is half full or half empty." "I want to believe it's half full," said Posey. "But if it is, I can see it's still leaking. We're not making anything the world wants." "Well, airliners," I said. "They're auctioning off the McDonnell-Douglas plant here this week," he said. "The jobs there are long gone."Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power (Simon & Schuster), is a member of the Washington Monthly's editorial advisory board.For everyone a roofby Jason DeParleThe candidates will spend the year giving poor people plenty of advice -- about staying off welfare, finding a job, and raising their kids. But someone should ask another question: where are these people supposed to live? Housing problems are far more central in the lives of the poor than many of the issues that have made headlines recently, such as immunizations or school lunches. And housing solutions could go far in solving other poverty-related problems, from crime to illegitimacy to educational failure. Poor people have two kinds of housing problems. The most obvious is financial; rents eat up increasingly large portions of poor families' budgets, squeezing out everything from Big Macs to winter coats, and leaving the most unfortunate homeless. But the second, related problem is even worse: location. Whether they're in public housing or cheap private apartments, poor people tend to get stuck living next to other poor people. The results are predictable and dismaying: jobs disappear; schools fail; guns, gangs, and drugs take over. The good news is that the government may finally have learned some lessons about how to make subsidized housing work -- or at least work better. Conventional public housing is a disaster. But the celebrated Gautreaux housing program in Chicago has pioneered a voucher approach that gets poor people out of the ghetto and into private middle-class housing. Henry Cisneros, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has worked creatively to imbue the same principle of income mixing into other HUD programs. Subsidized housing doesn't have to be slum housing. The bad news is that no one's interested, least of all Congress. The chairman of the Senate Housing Committee happens to be Alfonse D'Amato. He's held plenty of hearings recently about a housing development, but his interests are somewhat narrow -- a modest tract in the Ozarks called Whitewater Estates. Meanwhile, housing aid for the poor has been falling off for more than a decade. During the Carter years, the government helped an average of 290,000 new families each year find housing. Since then, the average has fallen to 74,000 a year -- meaning it would take 72 years to work through the backlog of 5.3 million families with what the government calls "worst case" housing needs. No, make it 73 years, since under the next year's budget the number of new families assisted essentially falls to zero, for the first time in modern history. As government assistance slows to a trickle, one group of Americans continues to get substantial help with housing: the affluent. The mortgage-interest deduction costs the Treasury about $100 billion a year, or four times the entire budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; three-quarters of that money goes to the richest fifth of American families. Housing subsidies in America now work best for those who need them least; let's hear the candidates propose some responsible ways to share the housing wealth.Jason DeParle is a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine.The measure of our successby Jonathan RoweAdam Smith said that the final measure of an economy is the well-being of the people. Yet this is the one thing that the policy establishment never addresses. The government studies the supposed means to that end in exacting detail. It can tell us how many televisions we buy, how much money the drug or record industry invests, practically down to the last penny. But nobody bothers to ask whether such means actually bring about the desired end. Economists simply assume it, and this assumption is the implicit baseline of just about every policy debate in Washington. More consumption or investment will bring about more well-being, regardless of what that consumption and investment consist and the actual impact on people's lives. The result has been a growing chasm between the way the policy establishment measures the economy and the way Americans actually experience it. The experts keep saying the economy is up; Americans experience it as down. Economist Robert Lucas, a Nobel laureate, says the economy is in "excellent shape." Ask your neighbors about that. Like the former Soviet rulers, America's policy establishment dismisses such skepticism of official economics as a sign of psychological disorder. You are spending more money, folks, they say; what possibly could be troubling you? Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board chairman, has scratched his head publicly over the "extraordinarily deep-rooted foreboding about the [economic] outlook." Yet just maybe the people are on to something. Until our politicians cast off their archaic assumptions about well-being and what helps bring it about, their efforts to make things better will continue to make them worse. A good place to start would be the official gauge of economic progress, the Gross Domestic Product. The GDP is accepted as the main measure of economic policy and performance. Yet it is built upon several stunning fallacies. The first is the assumption that everything produced and sold is a "good" by definition; more production and buying automatically equal more economic well-being. The result is a Mad Hatter's accounting system that adds but can't subtract. Car wrecks, divorces, disease, crime -- social and environmental breakdown of all kinds -- get tallied in Washington as economic growth, simply because they cost money. What Americans experience as bad, in other words, the experts count as good. Environmental breakdown gets counted as a double or triple gain. The factory pollutes the water: the GDP goes up. People buy bottled water to replace the questionable stuff from the tap: the GDP goes up some more. People contract cancers or other diseases from the toxic chemicals that are emitted: medical bills make the GDP go up again. And on and on. It is on this crazy basis that economists say environmental protection must come at the expense of "the economy." A second assumption is more insidious. The GDP includes only the part of the economy that is transacted through money. (The conventional economic mind can grasp only that which has a price.) This leaves out the vital economic functions of households, communities, and the natural habitat. So the more these fall apart, and monetized products and services take their places, the better -- the experts say -- the economy is doing. Child care takes the place of parents. McDonald's takes the place of the kitchen table. Air purifying devices take the place of the natural purifying functions of trees. More money changes hands, so the economists cheer -- even though the economy Americans actually experience is going to Hell. This kind of thinking governs the policy establishment in Washington. It is built into the cost-benefit analyses that increasingly determine the fate of proposals of all kinds (except certain ones that Republicans favor, such as curbs on abortion and the B-2 bomber). Yet it is a relic of another era, when pedal-to-the-floor production was the overriding national goal. Today, the economic problem is much more complex, and it goes much deeper than the two-tier economy and declining wages in the middle. Increasingly, Americans must contend with the new burdens that the economy (not just government) places on people in the name of economic growth. The nation desperately needs new ways to measure economic progress, ones that reflect the actual experience of Americans rather than the brain-dead assumptions of conventional economics. It needs to distinguish costs from benefits, progress from regress; and it must start to value the functions of households, communities, and the natural habitat that are inherently beyond price. America has to gauge the actual impact of the economy on human well-being, instead of just the amount of stuff produced and consumed. Such measures would be a truth serum to the economic debate. No longer could Bob Dole blast gangsta rap one day and call for increased GDP the next, when sales of gangsta rap are part of the GDP. Put another way, politicians and pundits would have to stop hiding behind abstractions like "investment" and "growth." They would have to name what they are actually talking about. Investment in what? Growth of what? Casinos or apple orchards? This, in turn, would diminish the role of the purveyors of these abstractions -- namely, economists -- in the national debate. To ask questions of quality instead of just quantity, values instead of just price, would open the door to a much larger range of disciplines and concerns. One particular issue that would change radically is work. Work occupies an exceedingly odd place in the nation's policy debates. Politicians extol it continually. Yet they listen to an economic establishment that regards work as a "disutility," a loathsome thing which people do only to gain the wherewithal to consume. They view the destruction of work -- called "productivity" -- as an unquestionable good. They rig the tax system to reward "investment," which can eliminate work, instead of rewarding work itself and the creation of it. (Today, the Republicans want to shift the entire tax burden onto work, through a misnamed "flat tax" that includes a gaping exemption for unearned income.) This view is obsolete. Work is much more than just a way to acquire money for consumption. It has value in itself. It provides a daily setting for social interaction, a sense of competence and achievement, and the opportunity to feel useful and needed. Some 70 percent of big lottery winners choose to keep working, as do most executives long after they have made enough to retire comfortably. In other words, work today is more a good than many of the things economists call "goods." Increasingly, people need it more than they need the stuff that work enables them to buy. Yet the policy establishment continues to applaud its destruction (in the name of efficiency); and the GDP counts the production of stuff rather than the production of work, which people need more. A new measure of progress would include work as a good and its destruction as a bad. This would alter the nation's policy debate, from taxes on down, in a radical and healthful way.Jonathan Rowe is policy director of Redefining Progress, an organization based in San Francisco.Unveiling the First Ladyby Matthew CooperIn March of 1992, I was interviewing Hillary Rodham Clinton for a US News & World Report cover story, the first of what would be many cover stories on the First Lady. As the car drove through the outer boroughs of New York City, wending the way from Queens to the Bronx, I asked her repeatedly about her views on specific policy issues and how she, as an attorney and a children's advocate, had viewed things like the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade and assorted civil-liberties cases. My goal was to write a story about her worldview. She was eager to "stay on message" as it were, and her answers to my questions grew terse, as if I was asking about Gennifer Flowers and the draft rather than the intellectual vineyards in which she had toiled. At a certain point, an aide, sensing Mrs. Clinton's irritability, signaled to me that the interview was over even though we still had a good 15 minutes left to our ride. We would all benefit from knowing more about our First Ladies before they take office. Each candidate should be pressured into saying exactly what the First Lady will do when in office. (I use the term First Lady to include the long overdue First Gentleman we are sure to see in the next century.) No more surprises. No vague generalities. No sudden discovery that the First Lady will be responsible for revamping health care. Full disclosure, nothing less. No campaign, of course, wants to get boxed in by saying what the spouse's role would be in the event of a victory. Better to keep it vague than to shift the focus away from the candidate himself. But though that sentiment is understandable, it's not sufficient to duck the question. The history of First Ladies suggests that we should get it all on the table before voters go to the polls. That's especially true this year. The next First Lady will probably be something of a powerhouse. If President Clinton is re-elected we'll have another four years of Hillary. Of the GOP candidates, a couple of the spouses are Hillary-esque in their accomplishments. Liddy Dole has headed two Cabinet agencies; The willingness of Liddy Dole to say that she might well take a paying job outside the White House while in office represents a good first step toward clarity. Let's hear more. Why is it so important to know what the First Lady will do? First, it forces the campaign to take this issue more seriously, which is good for the campaign and the country. Mrs. Clinton's role was still a matter of dispute right through the transition following her husband's election in the fall of 1992. Had there been more time to get a consensus from the country, the Clinton health-care plan might have had a happier ending. Instead, the idea of her running the health-care-reform effort was hatched in secret. Had the need for a task force come out during the campaign, it quickly would have become apparent that the administration would have been better off giving health care to, say, a bipartisan commission, and we might have avoided the health-care calamity of 1994. Of course, some First Ladies will naturally gravitate to the more ceremonial functions of the job. But it's important to know what they will pursue. Nancy Reagan, of course, was known for her interest in refurbishing the White House china, but she played a huge role in policy making, as several Reagan-era memoirs make clear. Only investigative reporting could have revealed her bizarre reliance on astrology. But if our campaigns focused more on the First Lady, we might have learned pre-1980 that Nancy was a social moderate and a good check on her husband's right-wing leanings. Because it is unlike any other position in the government, the First Lady's position demands special mechanisms of accountability. She is not on the government payroll; yet she influences the President. (This, by the way, should be changed. Post Kennedy-era, Congress barred the appointment of presidential family to Cabinet jobs. Why hinder a President's power that way? There's nothing wrong with a Bobby Kennedy or, if her husband hadn't faded from the scene, a Wendy Gramm serving in the Cabinet.) During the Clinton health-care debacle, there was a dispute over whether the First Lady is a federal employee. If she is, then the work of Mrs. Clinton's health-care task force would have been required to abide by various sunshine laws. Eventually it was ruled that the President's wife is not such an employee. But that does not mean that we should not scrutinize a First Lady as if she were. She is, after all, the President's first and most important colleague.Matthew Cooper is a senior editor at the New Republic, where he writes the "White House Watch" column.Diplomas for the deservingby Nicholas LemannThe bright line running through American society is higher education; generally speaking, those who have it are doing well, and those who don't, aren't. For 30-year-old men, the annual earnings gap between college graduates and high-school graduates is more than $13,000 -- nearly triple what it was 15 years ago. (Women with college degrees don't have as good a deal as men, and women without college degrees have been less hurt by de-industrialization -- so the female earnings gap is much smaller.) The dream of middling prosperity that animates American life has become substantially linked to access to higher education. It equals opportunity. Despite all the hype about how hard it is to get into college, most bachelor-degree-granting institutions are only minimally selective. The real filter between them and America's 18-year-olds is not academic ability; it's money. Anybody with well-off parents can go to college. For people without well-off parents, however, the shot at college is getting noticeably longer. Access to higher education expanded tremendously after 1945, to the point where, unlike any other country in the world, we began to send most high-school graduates on to more school. Remember, though, that the much-loved GI Bill was a package of veterans' benefits, not an educational-policy act. It implanted in the public's mind the idea that going to college was almost a basic right of citizenship. This was fine with the higher-education interests, because it gave them a rationale for growth; and as the universities began turning out exponentially more people, businesses began using them as managerial hiring halls, turning an undergraduate degree into a credential for a white-collar job. But we never did decide politically who was going to be given the right to higher education. The result is that widespread access is almost assumed -- yet quite fragile. Congress is preparing to cut back substantially on direct federal tuition grants to poor students, and also on funding for student loans. The cost of loans will go up when President Clinton's eliminate-the-middleman direct processing is abolished and banks get the job back. In private universities, "need-blind" admissions, never very widespread, have been quietly dropped in most places. Only a handful of universities practice true need-blind admissions today. Public-university tuition is still much lower than private-university tuition, but it has been rising in recent years. In 1980, tuition at all the best state universities was less than $1000, and in some cases (the University of Texas at Austin, for example) it was less than $500. Today, state-university tuitions are beginning to hit the $3000 mark; the University of Virginia costs more than $3500. This doesn't even count room and board. The effect is to take public universities out of the realm of being almost like public high schools, part of the package government provides to all citizens. Clinton only occasionally touches on the un-democratization of access to college in his speeches. The Republicans almost never mention it. What's odd about this is that access to college is not an abstract, faraway, dreamy issue for most Americans. It is the crucial point around which they orient their lives as they raise their children. Opportunity in the narrow self-interested sense as well as the larger social sense is involved. Why don't presidential candidates realize this? Let me make clear that I'm not calling on presidential candidates to propose a scheme to expand higher education to the point where there's a space for every high-school graduate. (What we ought to be giving every high-school graduate is a diploma that employers trust enough to use as a hiring credential.) The issue isn't universal higher education, it's universal access to higher education for those with the demonstrated ability and drive to get something out of it -- but without parents who have the money to pay for it. College is the main way to get ahead in this country. It profoundly contravenes the American ideal to make it unavailable to those who deserve it.Nicholas Lemann is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.Serving the nationby Scott ShugerNo presidential candidate can deny that America is overwhelmed by social troubles like crime, race, drugs, AIDS, unemployment, failing families, and failing schools. So it's amazing that, as the campaign unfolds, the most promising idea for tackling these troubles, domestic national service, is getting virtually no attention. Contrary to the shallow stereotypes served up by conservative critics, domestic national service needn't be glazed-eyed do-gooders sitting around a campfire singing "Kumbaya." It could be putting the vast unused talents and energies of our citizens, especially those between ages 15 and 30, to work on our country's most pressing social needs -- in schools, day-care centers, environmental projects, hospitals, drug clinics, nursing homes, the criminal-justice system, and so on. And having organized service programs in which mostly young people of all racial, ethnic, and economic groups work side by side for a clear, common purpose would help overcome the very un-American barriers that have sprung up between these groups in the past generation. Furthermore, unlike welfare or government grants, national service is not something done for young people; it's something done by young people. In national service, people who are now too often problems for the schools or the criminal-justice system would instead be solutions. The chief reason I voted for President Clinton in 1992 was that in his campaign he advocated setting up an ambitious national-service program. And once in office, he did lead the way to committing some $1.5 billion over three years to a new nationwide youth service organization, AmeriCorps. But thanks to narrow-minded opposition from a full array of lobbyists, ranging from those representing veterans to those representing black colleges, AmeriCorps was set up for failure. It was kept too small to accomplish very much in the field or to develop a protective constituency in Washington. Shortly after he became Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich branded national service as "gimmickry." Gingrich aide Tony Blankley elaborated: "Most Republicans oppose it. It is a program that spends a lot of money for few benefits. This is an employment program, not national service where work is voluntary." Apparently, Gingrich thinks that the whole idea of serving the country domestically is incompatible with being paid to do it in an organized way. Funny how that doesn't deter him and his fellow public "servants" from cashing their fat salary and pension checks. Thanks to the new Republican majority, AmeriCorps is on the verge of having its funding totally zeroed out. True, some AmeriCorps programs have turned out to be terrible -- both a disservice to their participants and to the communities they are supposed to serve -- but such quality-control problems are not inherent. And many AmeriCorps programs are good and could be better still if more government resources were made available. How is it that with national service, discovery of shoddy programs is grounds for zeroing out the whole department, but not, say, at the Pentagon or CIA? It's a shame that the increasingly rich and cynical members of the Washington- and New York-based political press can't be bothered with national service either. (There are some notable exceptions, like Jonathan Alter, Mickey Kaus, Joe Klein, and Anthony Lewis.) But it's true, which means that it's up to the candidates -- especially the President, who has previously identified himself with the issue and who has unrivaled power to keep it on the agenda -- to do so. This is not only the right thing for any presidential aspirant to do, it's also the politically smart thing. Making a big deal of national service would hit a home run with young voters and would highlight real flaws in Congress and the press, which is at least a double with the rest of us. Unfortunately, since Republican took over Congress, President Clinton hasn't really stood up for national service -- not for the little bit he got into law, not for the lot more he knows is necessary. The election season is a fine time for him and the other candidates to talk about the impact a large-scale, ambitious, well-run national-service program, putting hundreds of thousands of young people to socially constructive work could have on our welfare rolls, or on our current rate of nearly one million new teenage parents annually, or on our 20,000 homicides a year (a disproportionate number involving young people). How much worse does it have to get before President Clinton and his rivals finally focus on what the country really needs?Scott Shuger has worked as a consultant to the federal government on national service.