Locked in the Cabinet
by Robert B. Reich
Knopf, 338 pp., $25.00
Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America
by Elizabeth Drew
Viking, 294 pp., $24.95
Trail Fever: Spin Doctors, Rented Strangers, Thumb Wrestlers, Toe Suckers, Grizzly Bears, and Other Creatures on the Road to the White House
by Michael Lewis
Knopf, 299 pp., $25.00
In a speech in San Francisco last month, President Clinton announced three new urban initiatives. First, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will offer a 50 percent discount to police officers who buy homes owned by the department in neighborhoods they patrol. The program is designed to reach one thousand police officers. It will last one year. The second is a reduction in the points on Federal Housing Administration mortgages, from 1.75 percent to 1.5 percent, for first-time home buyers in inner cities. This program is expected to save twenty thousand eligible buyers about $200 each in closing costs. The third initiative is a demonstration program that will allow up to two thousand families to use federal rent subsidy money to buy their own homes.
This is the style of governance that has been adopted by a country that has the strongest economy in the world, has enjoyed five years of sustained growth, confronts no immediate threat to its security, and has almost completely lost its faith in public works. This style is not neoliberalism or neoconservatism, whatever those terms mean. It is something different, a kind of Government Lite. We want to improve conditions in depressed urban areas, so we show our good intentions by sprinkling a handful of federal fairy dust over them.
It is a style that enjoys strong bipartisan support. We think people should feel patriotic, so we pass a constitutional amendment making it a crime to burn the flag. We want to encourage the arts, so we give $99 million to the National Endowment for the Arts as a token of our esteem. (It is often pointed out that, at $99 million per year, each American is contributing only the cost of a postage stamp annually to the arts. It is less often pointed out that each American is therefore receiving a postage stamp’s worth of arts programming in return.) Our children are our future! We award a $500 tax credit for each child. Slavery was wrong! We pass a resolution apologizing for it. The appointment of a presidential commission certifies our acknowledgment that racism continues to be a problem of serious concern. School uniforms, tobacco-free All-Star games, television ratings: the country is in love with gestures. The only person who can’t seem to get his sins washed clean by a public apology is Mike Tyson.
The demise of the idea that the federal government ought to exercise its formidable power to amass and direct large amounts of resources to improve the quality of American life has many causes. Some Americans have become persuaded, by Ronald Reagan and his political epigoni, that they are overtaxed, and that public programs are a wasteful and even a counterproductive means of addressing social problems. Some Americans feel that reducing the budget deficit—which, in the absence of a willingness to raise taxes, means cutting spending—must be an economic priority. Some of the anti-government sentiment may be fueled by an unstated belief on …