Richard Reeves

Government's Greatest Hits and Misses

WASHINGTON -- The principal issue between Democrats and Republicans for the past 50 years, emphasized once more by the rhetoric of the transefer of power from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, is the role of government: active (Democrat) or passive (Republican).

Democrats want to save the world whether it wants to be saved or not. Republicans figure if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- actually, many of them feel if it's broke, don't fix it either.

When Bill Clinton said, "The era of big government is over," he did not mean the era of activist government is over. When George Bush (can we call him that now?) talks of "compassionate conservatism," he means we should pray for people, not pay for them.

That difference, and some amazing statistics about the makeup of American university faculties, are dramatized in a report just published by the Brookings Institution under the title "Government's Greatest Achievements of the Past Half-Century."

It is a list any American can be proud of. There are 50 achievements listed, and the author of the report, Paul C. Light, has the wit to list the first group of 10 as "Government's Greatest Hits" and to list them in inverse order, Letterman-style:

"10. Promise financial security in retirement.

"9. Reduce the federal budget deficit.

"8. Increase access to health care for older Americans.

"7. Strengthen the nation's highway system.

"6. Ensure safe food and drinking water.

"5. Reduce workplace discrimination.

"4. Reduce disease.

"3. Promote equal access to public accommodations.

"2. Expand the right to vote.

"1. Rebuild Europe after World War II."

All of those are good things, though the ranking may be odd, which seems to be a function of the fact that each achievement is calculated not only by importance but also difficulty and success -- and the Marshall Plan and other help to Europe was incredibly effective.

That said, some of us might elevate the standing of others on the list, which includes: "Contain communism ... Expand home ownership ... Increase access to post-secondary education ... Expand foreign markets ... Expand job training ... Increase market competition ... Make government more transparent ... Promote scientific and technological research ... Promote space exploration ... Protect the wilderness ... Reform taxes ... Increase arms control and disarmament ... Stabilize agricultural prices."

The achievement that ranked 50th was "Devolving responsibility to states." Part of the reason for that was that Republicans see devolution as 10 times more important than do Democrats -- but very few Republicans were involved in the survey that produced these results. Why?

The list was compiled in a survey of 230 historians and 220 political scientists -- members of the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association -- on college and university faculties around the country. Of those 450 professors, chosen essentialy at random, 90 percent were white, 77 percent were male, 65 percent called themselves liberal, and 82 percent called themselves Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. And more than half have tenure.

"Much as one might have preferred a more balanced sample," writes Light, "these respondents mirror the current face of the American professorate. They also represent the dominant views of just what constitutes importance, difficulty and success in America's college and university classrooms. As such, this sample offers an important glimpse of how future generations will judge the greatest achievements of the 20th century, if only because most of those respondents will be doing the teaching."

Ironically, the Brookings survey showed the actions of government to be a great deal more bipartisan than the academy, or at least the professors who responded to this very complicated survey, which was sent to 1,403 historians and political scientists. Maybe liberals have more time to fill these things out. Or maybe conservatives are repelled by the low wages paid most professors. But, according to Light, most of the achievements were bipartisan in nature. He calculated that only nine could be attributed primarily to Democratic presidents and Congresses, while five were exclusively Republican.

Having said all that, if I were a conservative, I would try to do something about that striking imbalance in the college classrooms where new generations learn about history and politics.

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