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Jewish World Review April 22, 2003 / 20 Nisan, 5763

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Changes for the better |
`The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." So wrote the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Our victory in Iraq and our current controversies over economic issues prompted me to think of two laws passed many years ago, largely unnoticed by those who chronicle our politics (including me). Both measures have changed important aspects of our culture in ways that shape the issues we face today.

The first is Section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code, passed as part of a major tax bill in 1978. Before that, most workers relied for retirement income on Social Security payments and defined benefit pensions, which tied them to one employer for at least 10 years and which obliged employers to set aside huge funds for future payments. To the surprise of experts, many employers started switching to 401(k)'s and other defined contribution plans. The number of people covered by defined benefit pensions fell from 30 million in 1980 to 23 million in 1998. The number covered by defined contribution plans rose from 19 million in 1980 to 50 million in 1998.

This change has affected our culture, and our habits of mind, far more than most of the headline issues of the time. The laws of the 1930s and 1940s--the Social Security Act, the high war and postwar tax rates, laws that encouraged unions and defined benefit pensions--fostered dependency on the government and large corporations. The laws of the 1970s and 1980s--Section 401(k) and later IRS regulations and tax laws--fostered independence. Employees had less incentive to remain for life with large corporations and more incentive to find new employers, as small businesses sprang up and changed the economy. Americans increasingly became independent, able to make their own decisions, responsible for their own fates. And increasingly they became investors, thanks in large part to 401(k)'s. In 1992, about 20 percent of voters were investors, owning stocks or bonds. As of last year, about 60 percent of voters were investors.

Independence. This helps explain why Democrats arguing against change in Social Security made no gains against Republicans last November. As pollster Scott Rasmussen reports, investors over 65 were 29 percent more likely to vote Republican in 2002 than noninvestors over 65, and most over-65s are investors. Increasingly, retirees rely more on 401(k)'s and other investments--their own money--than on the government's Social Security. The Founding Fathers thought it was important in a republic that most voters--white males then--be property holders, and in their republic they were. In the 1930s and 1940s, most voters were not property holders. Now most voters stand to accumulate significant wealth, in housing and investments, over their lifetime. We have changed from a culture of dependence to a culture of independence.

The other law that has changed an important part of our culture is the Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act, passed in 1986. This changed the military from a set of four different services to a unified structure: The chain of command in the Iraq war went straight from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld not to the Joint Chiefs of Staff but to Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of Central Command. The heads of the different commands have trained forces from all the services to work together, so that Army or Marine commanders on the ground could bring down fire immediately from Air Force or Navy pilots in the sky. This jointness was far more developed and effective this year than in the first Gulf War, fought only five years after Goldwater-Nichols. Since then, commanders and troops have become steeped in a culture of jointness, in which success in battle and promotions have depended not on advancing the favored weapons or practices of one service but on working effectively with other services.

The result has been an American military more flexible and adaptable, more open to individual initiative and more skillful at handling people and machines, than any ever seen before. As in the culture of the private sector, so in the culture of the military, we have become a people less massed in large units subject to centralized command and control and more arrayed in small units empowered to take advantage of high-skill individuals and high-tech machines. Politics, through two laws not much noticed by the political press, has changed the culture and, as Moynihan believed could happen, for the better.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone