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An American melting pot.

Why whine about our increasing class segregation? Let's end it

What really bothers liberals about American society? Is it that William Gates, the 35-year-old founder of a computer software company, is worth $4 billion, and that some people drive Mercedeses and Acuras while others drive Hyundais and used K-cars? Is it that the wealthiest 40 percent of families receive 67.3 percent of the national income?

Or is it that the experience of confronting degraded beggars is now a daily occurrence for Americans who live or work in our major cities? Is it that a whole class of Americans--mainly poor, black Americans--has become largely isolated from the rest of society and is acquiring the status of a despised foreign presence? Is it that the wealthiest 20 or 30 percent of Americans are "seceding," as Harvard's Robert Reich puts it, into separate, often selfsufficient suburbs, where they rarely even meet members of non-wealthy classes, except in the latter's role as receptionists or repairmen? And is it the gnawing sense that, in their isolation, these richer Americans not only pass on their advantages to their children, but are coming to think that those advantages are deserved, that they and their children are essentially not just better off, but better?

If I'm fight, distaste for this second sort of inequality--social inequality--is at the core of liberal discontent. Yet the primacy of this value is only occasionally made explicit in our ordinary political conversations. It is "subliminal" in the sense that it forms the unacknowledged motive of liberal policies that are justified on more familiar rhetorical grounds. Specifically, liberals tell themselves they are for "more equality" of income and wealth, when if they asked themselves, I think, they would probably discover they're actually after social equality --equality of dignity, of the way we treat each other in everyday life.

The point is that money equality isn't the only factor that determines social equality, and it may not be the crucial one. More important, perhaps, are the social attitudes and institutions that determine how much weight the money variable has. But if that's true, why spend all our energies trying to twiddle the dial that produces greater or lesser money inequality? An equally promising approach would focus on changing those attitudes and institutions that translate money differences, however large or small, into invidious social differences.

This is the Civic Liberal alternative. Confronted with vast disparities of wealth, it attempts, not to redistribute wealth "progressively," but to circumscribe wealth's power--to prevent money inequality from translating into social inequality. The primary way it does this is through social institutions that create a second, noneconomic sphere of life--a public, community sphere--where money doesn't "talk," where the principles of the marketplace (i.e., rich beats poor) are replaced by the principle of equality of citizenship. As the pre1989 Eastern European champions of "civil society" tried to carve out a social space free of communist domination, so Civic Liberals would carve out a space free of capitalist domination, of domination by wealth.

The foundation of this community sphere in the United States is, of course, the political institution of democracy. There the marketplace stops, and the rule is not "one dollar, one vote" but "one citizen, one vote." The same principle applies to other important components of our community life, such as public schools, libraries, highways, parks, and the military draft. Each of these institutions attempts to treat all citizens, rich and poor, with equal dignity. They are especially valuable parts of the public sphere because, in contrast with the rather formal and abstract equality of voting, they require rich and poor to actually rub shoulders with each other as equals. So do many other, less obvious but important institutions such as museums and post offices, even parades and softball leagues.

Now, you can argue that money "talks" in our democracy, too, and that it talks even 1ouder these days as politicians depend more and more upon rich donors to fund their increasingly expensive campaigns. Meanwhile, the affluent and the poor no longer rub shoulders in the public schools of even small cities, as the middle class flees to its suburban enclaves or else abandons public education entirely. In bigger cities, the everyday experience of public life in streets, parks, subways, and libraries has been ruined by crime, incivility, and neglect. The draft has been replaced by a volunteer army that the rich can simply avoid.

But these are precisely the sort of things with which Civic Liberalism concerns itself. Instead of worrying about distributing and redistributing income, it worries about rebuilding, preserving, and strengthening community institutions in which income is irrelevant, about preventing their corruption by the forces of the market. It tries to reduce the influence of money in politics, to revive the public schools as a common experience, to restore the draft. And it searches for new institutions that could enlarge the sphere of egalitarian community life.

Not all components of the public sphere have deteriorated in the late twentieth century. The jury system, for example, still brings disparate members of the community together, if only occasionally, in a way that often convinces those who serve that common sense isn't a function of income or race. More generally, the courts still treat a Michael Milken or Leona Helmsley with an inspiring lack of deference. But other institutions have not been so hardy. Let's start with the institution that has deteriorated most dramatically: the military.

There are perfectly good military reasons for replacing the current all-volunteer force (AVF). Some of these reasons are related to social equality. The Gulf war proved that the egalitarian objections to an AVF become 1oudest at the worst time, just as the prospect of combat and death looms. At the very moment we were trying to intimidate Saddam Hussein in the winter of 1990-91, our country was split by a debate over whether the rich would bear their fair share of the fighting. The only reason the controversy wasn't crippling may have been that the battle turned out to be short, with few casualties on our side.

There are other, more technical problems with the AVF that have less to do with egalitarianism, such as the fact that the pool of young men from which we must buy our volunteers is shrinking (from 8.6 million men aged 18 to 21 in 1981 to an estimated 6.6 million in 1995). But the main justification for a draft remains moral. Volunteer-army advocates rely on the logic of the private sphere, in which everything, even soldiers' lives, is convertible into cash. If some young Americans are freely willing to go into battle for $25,000 a year--well, it's a deal. ("You took the money, now shut up and die," as former Navy Secretary James Webb caricatured the argument during the Iraq crisis.) But it is one thing for society to pay people to pick up its garbage and drive buses. It's another to pay them to risk their necks in battle. If dying in combat isn't outside the economic sphere, what is? The draft is the most natural and--again, because it involves the risk of death--most potent, arena of democratic experience. It doesn't only break down class barriers for a couple of years; it breaks them down for life, in part by giving all who serve a network of military acquaintances that crosses class lines. Even Henry Kissinger used to hang out with his old Army buddies.

A democratic draft is hardly a bold, idealistic step into the future. It's something America has done before. To reinstate it, we don't need new taxes or new leaders--simply a new law.

True, thanks to communism's collapse, the military will only need about 11 percent of America's draft-age men by 1995. But, however modest the manpower needs of the military, a draft is the most socially egalitarian way of meeting them. Even if only 11 percent of men in the upper, middle, and lower classes served--and all the others had to think about serving---it would do more to promote social equality than all the "transfer payments" liberals might conceivably legislate.

Genuine draft

Yet it would be even more effective to involve more than 11 percent, and more than just men--to make the military part of a broader scheme of national service, including civilian service. Here is an idea that separates Civic Liberals from those with other priorities.

"At the age of 18, you should be focusing on your dreams and ambitions, not picking up cans in Yellowstone," sniffs Republican Jack Kemp. For social egalitarians, however, national service is valuable precisely because it would force Americans to pause in their disparate career trajectories and immerse themselves in a common, public enterprise. It is the draft in a weaker dose, more widely dispensed.

The notion of national service was revived in the eighties--to no apparent effect. Universal service was endorsed by Gary Hart, who predicted it "might be the biggest issue" of the decade. Senator Sam Nunn and Rep. Dave McCurdy introduced legislation that would have made federal student aid contingent on one or two years of service. (The Nunn-McCurdy bill went nowhere when the education establishment realized it would supplant existing loan programs.) William E Buckley distinguished himself from most on the right by calling for a service scheme that would enroll 80 percent of America's youth by means of various "inducements" and "sanctions." Buckiey's proposal, too, went nowhere.

For Civic Liberals the overriding goal, of course, is class-mixing. This helps clarify the sort of national service program we're talking about. For example, it excludes Job Corps-type programs designed to help salvage underclass kids through elaborate vocational training. The more national service "targets" the poor, the less it will be seen as a duty for all classes. Nor is the Civic Liberal test of success whether national service participants become less selfish. It's simply whether a large cross section of the population winds up serving together under conditions of equality.

Purely voluntary programs fail to meet this test; the ambitious sons and daughters of upper-class families simply don't sign up. Some national service advocates (like Buckley) nevertheless hope that "incentives" of various sorts might subtly induce participation by the rich. But such financial inducements can still be easily ignored by the wealthy. The only way to guarantee class-mixing is to make national service mandatory. That requires the threat of a penalty harsh enough to be coercive. It could be jail. It could also be a heavy monetary penalty that judges could tailor to fit the financial circumstances of any refuseniks--though it would have to be a potential fine of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of dollars if it were going to guarantee the participation of the truly wealthy.

A mandatory service scheme would enlist a lot of people--3 to 4 million a year, assuming the plan targeted young men and women of draft age. What would they be doing? Here again, it matters that social equality is the main goal. If we see national service mainly as an antidote to the "culture of selfishness," then the grungier the work, the better. Cleaning up mud slides is just the thing to teach incipient yuppies a thing or two. But the Civic Liberal imperative is to mix the classes, not to beat the selfishness out of them. National service jobs could be enjoyable, even career-enhancing. What's important is that they have a heterogeneous, communal aspect.

There are plenty of worthy tasks that fit this bill. Care for the infirm elderly is probably the most pressing need. Buckley notes that between 125,000 and 300,000 older Americans now living in nursing homes could move back into the "normal community" if there were enough workers to assist them with their daily chores. Those who are incapable of leaving nursing homes often lead lives of brutal loneliness-but the cost of professional attendants is simply too great for the vast majority of American families to bear by themselves.

In strict economic terms, national service is almost surely an inefficient way to help these lonely, old and ill Americans. It would be cheaper (once you count the "opportunity costs" of forgoing all the other things the servers could be doing with their time) to raise taxes to pay for a lot of nurses and handholders. But national service lets us do something in addition to providing services. It allows us to carve out a part of life where the market is negated, where common, nonmarket values that even conservatives like Buckley invoke--fellowship, solidarity, and social equality--can flourish.

There are other needs almost as critical: tutoring the illiterate and semiliterate, helping maintain or patrol public spaces, sorting library books, perhaps assisting in the care of preschool children in day care. As long as the tasks are class-mixing and valuable, a national service would be free to do whatever work the market, for one reason or another, cannot do--whether that work is grungy or exhilarating, and whether or not the government could do it more cheaply some other way.

Unfortunately, an emphasis on the most useful work puts national service on a collision course with public employee unions, which see young draftees as threats to their jobs (the same reason they also fear a WPA-style guaranteed jobs program). The more useful the work, the greater the chance some union member is already doing it.

One solution is to restrict national service to a few concrete tasks of proven utility and practicality. "There are four or five jobs we clearly know how to train kids to do," says Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who runs a student service organization for the state of Maryland. Her list: teachers' aides, police aides, nurses' aides, a rural "conservation corps" to clean up the environment, plus a similar corps to repair and maintain urban public spaces. Put those together and you probably have enough jobs to keep several million young people usefully employed at a time.

The final question facing any mandatory national service scheme is how to integrate it with the military. That's trickier than you might think. The armed forces, as noted, need only a small fraction of those eligible to serve. What's more, they require stints of service lasting at least two years (otherwise training costs become too high). Requiting two years of civilian service seems a bit much. But one year of civilian service could hardly be treated as the equivalent of two years in the army.

Clearly, military service should count as the fulfillment of any service requirement. Beyond that, young Americans could be given a choice of military or civilian service--but the military's wages would have to be set much higher to compensate for the greater risks and longer tour of duty. Because the rich would be less tempted by such financial incentives than the nonrich, the result would probably be class division, with the military disproportionately poor and the affluent opting to avoid the perils of potential combat.

A better approach, for social egalitarians, would combine universal service with conscription. Teenagers would first be subject to a military draft, with no civilian alternative. If they escaped in the draft lottery, they'd have to do a year of civilian service. This hybrid draft/service setup might well be perceived as fairer than any attempt to allow more freedom of choice at the expense of universal exposure to military risks. Rich and poor teenagers would take their chances in the draft together. If chosen, they would serve together for two years. If they weren't chosen, they would still serve together as civilians for one year.

This sort of service scheme is the most intrusive Civic Liberal strategy; it would interrupt the lives of all Americans. But precisely because it is intrusive, it holds out the possibility of doing for everyone what Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, remembers the peacetime draft did for him: "[lit jerked me free, if only for a few years, from the social class in which I have otherwise spent nearly all my days. It jerked everyone free .... "

Doctored results

Given the continuing threats to social equality, Civic Liberals can hardly be satisfied with restoring the public sphere where it has deteriorated. They need to seize on new possibilities to expand it. Of all the potential new egalitanan institutions on the horizon, the biggest involves the provision of health care.

Health isn't a good like other goods. If somebody can't afford a car, we're willing to say, well, he doesn't have a car. But if a man who can't afford medical care is bleeding on the sidewalk, we are going to provide him with it one way or another, at public expense if necessary. As with the draft, the issue is life or death.

Of course, saying health care should be available to everyone doesn't necessarily mean it must be available in equal measure, or that the experience of getting it will necessarily be one that mixes classes. But the goal of universal coverage offers a solid base for building a potent democratic institution. We know it cements social equality to have Americans attend the same schools and serve in the same army. What effect would it have if they used the same doctors? The experience might not be as intense as school or service, but it would be repeated throughout a person's life.

Certainly universal health insurance seems to play a major socially equalizing role in Western Europe, where every country has some sort of universal national health plan. In most of them, the plan's egalitarianism is a source of fierce national pride. When everyone uses the same system, it not only reinforces "solidarity," it also ensures the quality of care. Upper-middle-class Americans will not tolerate bad treatment for very long (just as they wouldn't have tolerated the Vietnam war if their sons had been drafted).

In the United States, we have a patchwork system that, rather than putting everyone in the same boat, puts different groups in different boats and lets some fall in between. At the bottom, Medicaid covers only about 42 percent of the poor, mainly those on welfare or other mothers with young children. At the top, the revenue code heavily subsidizes generous employerpaid health plans by not counting them as income (a $40 billion tax break). Falling between boats are those who are unemployed, self-employed, or whose employers don't have a company plan. They are left to fend for themselves, to buy private insurance (with after-tax dollars), Between 31 and 37 million people in this group aren't insured at all, and that number has been growing. But if Americans reach the magic age of 65, they can relax. They qualify for Medicare, which will cover most of their bills.

It's not necessarily true that the more "socialized" a system is, the better it satisfies the demands of social equality. The British, German, and Canadian systems all currently meet the goal. The "socialized" British system allows those with money to purchase private insurance, but that doesn't undermine class-mixing because most of the private insurance merely supplements the national health system, where the most advanced, high-tech medicine is still practiced. Only about 10 percent of the population uses the private system (though that percentage is growing).

Germany also manages to include about 90 percent of its population in a single system. The Germans do this by the simple expedient of requiring 75 percent of the population to join one of several "statutory sickness funds." Those with incomes above a certain threshold can opt out, but once they've done so, they can never opt back in. Not surprisingly, most remain with their assigned funds. The system's motto might be, "We have ways of making you stay." An even simpler, more effective strategy can be found in Canada, where it is flat-out illegal to buy basic private health insurance. Canadian waiting rooms mix virtually 100 percent of the population.

But less sweeping plans are less likely to achieve this objective. Senator Edward Kennedy's patchwork employer-based insurance scheme, in particular, looks like a loser for social equality. Medicaid and Medicare would still exist, probably with differential standards of care, Some employers would still provide lavish, fee-for-service insurance; some would consign their employees to spartan HMOs. Taxpayers (most of whom would already be covered, one way or another) probably wouldn't want to pay for much in the way of gap-filling last-resort insurance. We'd still have a system in which different classes report to different waiting rooms.

Even under the most promising plans, the crunch for Civic Liberalism will come when attempts to control the overall cost of health care force some method of rationing ever-more expensive medical procedures. What happens when affluent Americans--/ncreasingIv affluent Americans--are faced with this rationing? They will not calmly take their place in the queue for CAT scanners or proton-beam accelerators or artificial hearts. They will go outside the "universal" system and pay more money to get the expensive technology they want.

The temptation will be to let them, with the result of producing a two-tier health system of elaborate care for the affluent and basic care for everyone else. A Civic Liberal strategy would require regulations, such as those in Germany, making it unappealing to opt out of the "universal" system. At the very least a heavy tax disincentive will be necessary. The goal would only be to make enough (say, 90 percent) of the populace use the public sphere's waiting rooms. It's one thing, Civic Liberals could argue, for the rich to be able to buy the nicest cars, or the houses with the nicest views. It's another thing to make it easy for money to buy life itself.

Kids or cash?

Health care isn't the only new public sphere possibility. Day care is another service with impressive potential for growth. The debate over day care has been between those (mainly Democrats) who want to encourage communal day care centers and those (like President Bush) who would simply give cash to parents with preschool kids and let the parents decide whether to use the money to buy day care. Civic Liberals would tend to favor communal centers. Indeed, day care is a public sphere institution offering a unique escape from the tyranny of suburban classsegregation. Unlike schools, day care centers can be conveniently located near places of work rather than near homes. And poor preschool children aren't nearly as threatening to upper-middle-class parents as, say, poor adolescents. Locate the day care centers near work, and let the toddlers of secretaries mix with the toddlers of bank presidents. Let their parents worry together and visit together.

A range of other government institutions--museums, post offices, libraries--at least potentially reinforce social equality by providing services to all citizens. There is an important distinction to be made here--one typically ignored by American admirers of European social democracies---between provision of such common services and the provision of cash. With "in-kind, universal" services, Robert Kuttner notes, people of all classes actually meet and interact with each other and with those doing the servicing. They wait together, flirt, swap sob stories and advice, save each other's place in line, keep an eye on each other's kids. The "middle class is ... reminded that poor people are human," Kuttner writes. This is the stuff of social equality.

But none of these virtues is evident when all the government does is send out checks--even if, as liberals typically recommend, benefits go to the middle class and rich as well as the poor. Recipients receive their benefit checks in isolation. The cash is spent, and is intended to be spent, in the private, money sphere. No communal experience is involved. On the contrary, the recipient's attention is focused more intensely on the importance of money and what it can buy. How much solidarity is there in cashing a check? Rich and poor don't even cash them in the same places.

Out at third

Civic Liberalism would also recognize and protect the social-egalitarian power of class-mixing institutions that are technically in the "private sector." Particularly important are casual gathering places like taverns, coffee houses, and drug stores. Ray Oldenburg calls these "third places" because they offer an alternative to the other two main sites of our lives-- home and work. One essential characteristic of a good third place is that it is accessible to people of all income levels; as Oldenburg puts it, "Worldly status claims must be checked at the door in order that all within remain equals." In the mid-seventeenth century, he points out, coffee houses were actually called "levelers" because they mixed the various classes in a way unheard of in the old feudal order.

It's easy to underestimate the significance of such unpretentious institutions. But they embody much of what Americans feel they've lost since the move from small towns--the general store, the pharmacy soda fountain of It's a Wonderful Life, the neighborhood bar romanticized on "Cheers."

The decline of those "private" democratic places is bound up in the process of suburbanization. Zoning changes that allow coffee shops, stores, and taverns to locate near residences, instead of in singlepurpose commercial strips, would help. Still, it would be hard for even a nearby neighborhood tavern to mix classes in a neighborhood that is itself segregated by class. Fully restoring third places as class-mixing institutions will have to await the success of longer-term strategies to integrate the suburbs by income, as well as by race.

But some privately operated enterprises that are part of our public life don't rely on class-mixing at the neighborhood level. Organized professional sports are an obvious example. Going to a major league baseball game remains one of the few enjoyable experiences shared at the same time, in the same place, by people of various classes--one reason it's considered so precious. But even the democratic aspects of spectator sports are threatened by a number of recent developments. Attending a ball game has become a distinctly less egalitanan experience, for example, with the unfortunate invention of the taxdeductible corporate "skybox." Team owners now routinely demand stadium renovations that enable them to maximize the square-footage devoted to the rich. Another inegalitarian development is cable television, which allows broadcasters to restrict spectatorship to those who can afford to subscribe. In 1987, most New York Yankee home games were available only on cable. The result was a tremendous protest and a threat of congressional action, in part because large sections of New York--the poorer sections-- weren't even wired for cable.

In general, the decline of network broadcasting (and the advent of demographically targeted "narrowcasting'' on cable) should disturb social egalitanans. Network TV is often awful, but it once had the virtue of giving all Americans a common, classless set of cultural experiences. As the network audience share declines (it's fallen from 92 percent to 64 percent), that is increasingly no longer true. Instead of everybody watching Milton Berle, young professionals watch the Arts & Entertainment Network while the less cultured tune in to "Married with Children."

But once the egalitarian importance of these private institutions is acknowledged, Civic Liberals will be able to take steps to halt their deterioration. The tax deduction for stadium skyboxes and season tickets could be completely eliminated, for example-- not on economic grounds, but on social-egalitarian grounds. Television coverage of sporting events could be regulated to keep it universal, preventing cable companies from buying the rights and then broadcasting only to the cable-ready affluent. If necessary, the sports franchises themselves could be regulated, purchased by municipalities, or even seized by eminent domain. If the TV networks collapse completely, the government could establish a BBCstyle network, less snooty than the current Public Broadcasting System, with a preferred spot on the broadcast spectrum nationwide. These may seem like relatively small things, compared with the draft or national health care. But they matter.

The point isn't that the Civic Liberal reforms suggested above would ensure social equality. That will require something more. The point is that once we set out to rebuild the public sphere, we can make fairly large improvements fairly expeditiously. It requires nothing we haven't done ourselves in the past--or that we can't copy, with appropriate modifications, from other democratic capitalist nations. We can frame our obligations so that rich and poor Americans serve the nation together. We did that in World War II. We did it in the firties. We can have a society in which the various classes use the same subways and drop off their kids at the same day care centers and run into each other at the post office. We don't have to equalize incomes or make incomes "more equal" or even stop incomes from getting more unequal to do these things. We just have to do them.
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Title Annotation:ending class segregation
Author:Kaus, Mickey
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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