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THE NEXT DEAL: The Future of Public Life In The Information Age.

THE NEXT DEAL: The Future of Public Life In The Information Age by Andrei Cherny Basic Books, $24.00

GENERALIZING ABOUT GENERAtions is risky business, At the very least, conventional wisdom tends not to last as long as the 25 years demographers assign to a cohort. Five or six years ago, America's twenty-somethings were said to be a generation of the amiably disenchanted, content to wallow in caffeine-fueled chatter about Saturday- morning cartoons. And then, all of a sudden--faster than Jennifer Anniston's "Friends" character could quit the coffee shop and move up to a pay scale commensurate with all that Pottery Barn furniture in her apartment--the slackers had disappeared. Their demographic had become the amazing IPO generation. News accounts marveled at the new generation's casual-Friday entrepreneurialism and Internet riches.

Unless the NASDAQ reverses its decline, you can bet those of us born after 1970 will soon get yet another media image, if not another sit-com plot twist. But lest the Internet wunderkind reputation get erased as completely as its slacker predecessor, historians will have at least one document with which to remember our heyday: The Next Deal, 25-year-old Andrei Cherny's self-proclaimed political manifesto for a new generation.

Cherny himself was just such an overachieving twenty-something, the youngest White House speechwriter in American history, feted in newspaper and magazine profiles. And his first book proclaims that the oldsters have failed to move the American agenda beyond simply balancing the budget. Cherny goes to speechwriterly excess in lamenting some of his former patron's squandered opportunities; but the book seems a perfect artifact of Bill Clinton's 1990s, with its boundless optimism about the bright young things of the Internet generation, preternatural ability to make small-bore proposals sound grandiose, and boom-time notion that no one really ever has to lose in America. Just weeks after Clinton left town, in fact, the book already feels like a time capsule. It says a lot more about the tiny dreams of contemporary Democrats than about the future.

Cherny's basic thesis is simple, and hard to argue with: Just as Theodore Roosevelt's Progressives remade government to meet the needs of an industrial society dominated by corporate behemoths, so too must contemporary Americans remake government to meet the needs of what Cherny calls "the Choice Generation" It's an interesting moniker. Young people who came of age with cable TV and the Internet, he argues, expect control of decisions that previous generations were content to leave to others. (He begins the section, amusingly, by describing the early-'80s rise of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series.) And like the authors of those books, progressives of the 21st century must move away from the "top-down" one-size-fits-all approach to government services and instead allow citizens to make their own choices about schools, health plans, job training, retirement savings, and so on. Meantime, a generation re-engaged in civic life will give rise to "the new responsibility," joining everything from bowling leagues to soup-kitchen-volunteer corps.

So far, so good. If modern technology offers the tools to tailor services more specifically to individual tastes, why shouldn't government take advantage of that in the same way that does? Tree, the specifics don't quite get hammered out: For instance, should school choice mean parents get to choose a school within their school district--which in many cases would mean a choice between equally dreary schools--or within their state, or within the entire country? And if what Cherny calls the "Choice Revolution" is so revolutionary, why allow people to invest only a small piece of their Social Security? That's not exactly the kind of talk that'll send anyone rushing to the barricades. But the general point--build a better mousetrap, and they will come--still stands.

On a broader level, though, the premises underlying Cherny's generational assumption are much more troubling. Just as figuring out a way that taxpayers can use modern technology to customize some services represents the positive side of '90s optimism, Cherny's conception of the politics behind such changes incorporates the most depressing aspects of our contemporary notions of things like freedom, choice, and power.

Cherny's notion of today's young as a generation of "choice" is particularly telling. Yes, contemporary Americans can choose from dozens of colors for their new VW Beetles and order the most obscure CDs at the click of a mouse. But in the year Roosevelt ran for president under the Progressive Party banner, Americans had a choice between a socialist, a right-wing Republican, and two very different flavors of progressive This year, Cherny's generation got a choice between two candidates who quibbled over small details of center-right economic plans. Likewise, members of nearly every other generation born this century had an easier time opting to join labor unions, go on strike, or read about their strikes in an independent newspaper. And most of them must have recognized that those choices--determining their economic future, and the nation's--were more significant, if not more immediately satisfying, than the consumer version of choice laid out in The Next Deal.

Likewise, scant attention is paid to how instituting the kinds of choices Cherny proposes may limit other, larger choices. For instance, opting to let people put some of their Social Security in the stock market, with its greater rewards, will have a huge impact on issues far from pension policy. The market typically doesn't like increased minimum wages. Next time someone proposes that we--Congress--choose such a hike, the idea that change will wreak havoc on people's Social Security savings will be used to combat the plan. One kind of choice trumps another.

But matters like wage laws, of course, are broad-scale democratic decisions, not individual preferences. They're what make us citizens of a county, not consumers of a government's services. They're the kind of choices where some interests win and some interests lose. Perhaps because of that, they're the kind of choice that appears to be not particularly interesting to this shiny new progressive future. In Cherny's world-view, the will of the people is only disrupted by "experts" and elites, seeking to impose "top-down" solutions. An easy target, those perfidious "experts," and a good mark for a speechwriter to hit. But what happened to the actual economic interests--you know, bosses, polluters, monopolists, and the like--that real progressives once inveighed against?

Reading a book by a speechwriter is a little like listening to a graduation speech that goes on for 251 pages. Cherny pads his book with flowery descriptions of the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Carnegie, and other Americans who reshaped their eras. But he doesn't really get around to his own suggestions until page 179. And despite the long wind-up, there's something oddly empty about the book. Letting people choose their own job-training scheme isn't V-chip small--and if it reduces their reflexive hostility to government programs k may even be a good thing. But proposals like that are nothing on which to build a political constituency outside of a pollster's office.

With Bush in the White House, Cherny and other veterans of Clinton's Washington will realize that a lot of what government does can't come down to splitting the difference. The guy who produces the sludge and the guy who lives down the river from his factory have different interests that can't be bridged by making services user-friendly. As those kinds of issues get forced onto their plates after the naptime that came with the economic boom, erstwhile progressives may find themselves falling back on a catch-phrase of the industrial era Cherny seems so eager to bury: Which side are you on?

MICHAEL SCHAFFER is an associate editor at U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Schaffer, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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