Today, as in Truman's Time, Public Power Has Its Place


Some 30 years after I wrote my college thesis, I found myself again writing about the 33rd president. In my book "Time Present, Time Past," I referred to a conversation I had with a couple of "good ole boys" from North Carolina. They told me how they didn't like Jesse Jackson (a "rabble-rouser") or Jesse Helms ("a disgrace to the state.")

I asked them to name their favorite president. "Harry Truman," one said, "because he was one of the people, and when he spoke we could understand him. Just because someone is president, you know, doesn't make him better than me."

There it was. To be a leader that good old boys related to, you had to have a fierce egalitarian spirit, the spirit that made Harry Truman "the man of the people." Truman believed people should be judged without regard to material possessions or social position. Each individual has an inherent and independent worth, regardless of knowledge or wealth. Nobody has a monopoly on morality or wisdom. No one is expendable. All men and women in our democracy have a right to participate in charting our collective future.

Today, people have become so cynical about politics that they think all elected officials are controlled by special interests, by pollsters, by political parties, and by their own ambition, which rarely permits them to call things as they really see them. While most politicians would not knowingly say something false, they would emphasize the issue that the group to which they were speaking agreed with. That is commonly referred to as "good politics," but it is the exact opposite of the Truman way of "telling it like it is."

At the end of World War II, Harry Truman needed to find a way to ameliorate the effects of demobilization of the armed forces. War contracts were to be canceled, price controls were to end, wartime labor agreements were to expire, and servicemen and women were coming home looking for jobs. Some predicted a return of the Great Depression.

Truman's solution was a 21-point program offering economic security to every American citizen. This laid the groundwork for the emergence of the modern middle class. I believe America is at a similar economic crossroads today. We again need approaches of breadth and innovation to ensure the American dream for our people.

The use of public power still has a valid role to play in ensuring fairness and economic security for all Americans. That doesn't mean large government programs administered by a centralized bureaucracy, through regional and state bureaucracies. Rather it means we need to use our collective power to help individuals cope with changing economic times, to ensure competition among market participants, and to prevent harm to the general welfare. There is simply no other way to check the excesses of private power except through public power.

Such a willing use of public power disputes the Republican notion that the private sector has all the answers and will automatically relieve the fears of working Americans. It is also different from the belief that to every social problem in America there is an answer that has as its centerpiece a federal bureaucracy delivering services.

Yet worker retraining without available new jobs leads nowhere. There are, for example, 58 federal poverty programs and 154 federal job-training programs. Idealism without resources is impotent. Just ask anyone who thought that charitable giving could end poverty. Idealism without accountability wastes money. Just ask anyone who thought the department of Housing and Urban Development could stabilize the decline of urban America.

I start with the belief that the market is the most efficient allocator of resources and frequently the most powerful, undefined force in American life. It rewards those with the highest skills, best processes, and most-desired products. An ideal market would deliver the best quality at the lowest price in the shortest time.

But the market is impartial and can be cruel in its verdicts, with the result that many people get hurt. It is not easy to cushion the impact of the market and remain fair. The dilemma is how to benefit from the market's dynamism while protecting against the dislocation that it sometimes causes.

I have always believed that the message of America was that if you work hard, you can get ahead economically; if you want things changed, you can be heard politically; and if pushed, people will admit that equality should extend to all races and both genders.

Today, many Americans doubt these basic precepts. In the information economy, four computer workstations can replace 300 people in a credit department. In our political dialogue, money drowns out the voices of the people. In our social interactions, few risk candor to create racial harmony.

For nearly 20 years, the rhetoric of economic conservatives demonized government without making the distinction between federal programs and public power. They saw government programs as a waste and government rules as limitations on freedom. Millions of Americans concluded that government took their money in taxes but worked for someone other than them. The heavy footsteps of relocation, part-time jobs, temporary jobs, middle age without health care, and retirement without a pension made their way to families' doorsteps.

Public power isn't labor-intensive; it doesn't require massive, decentralized programs delivering services to millions. Though it won't guarantee full employment, applied in the right way at the right time in the right place, it can balance private power. Public power works only if individuals are better off when it is exercised; only if it enhances a person's prospects for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Public power often means preventing the ethos of the market from dominating other equally important ethics - democratic, environmental, human, spiritual.

Public power must always focus on the long term. It must always be accountable. It must never be exercised arrogantly. It must always be a balancing force so that life can be whole and market economic forces, while giving us low prices and high quality, don't control our beings or destroy our humanity.

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