18 June 2010

Big Institutions Fail

We live in a time in which our large institutions, corporate, governmental, political, and educational, are failing us.

It is time to get flexible, and embrace the little, the new, the young, the nimble.

Where to turn to embrace that politically? Good question.

All choices stink. Democrats are for Big Government (and Big Business) and the Republicans are for Big Business (and Big Government).

NY Times: Add Government to the List of ‘Fat Cats’

You do not have to be working for the minimum wage, after all, to seethe about the effects of the Wall Street meltdown on your retirement savings or the spilled oil creeping toward your shores. You simply have to fear that large institutions generally exercise too much power and too little responsibility in society.

This new American populism is why the federal deficit has emerged as a chief concern for voters, as it did in Mr. Perot’s era — not because it presents an imminent crisis of its own, necessarily, but because it signifies a kind of institutional recklessness, a disconnectedness from the reality of daily life.

The same dynamic explains the current spate of questions over the composition of the Supreme Court, which may soon consist entirely of lawyers trained at Harvard and Yale. It does not seem to matter that virtually all of those justices advanced from the middle class, rather than through inheritance. The pervasive reach of exclusive educational institutions is unnerving to some Americans now, and it helps inspire the caustic brand of populism that Sarah Palin and others have made central to their political identities.

What this means for Mr. Obama is that an anxious populace is now less likely to see his clash with BP as an instance of government’s standing up to a venal corporation, but rather as an instance of both sprawling institutions having once again failed to protect them. In a poll conducted last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 63 percent of respondents rated BP’s handling of the oil leak as fair or poor. But the government fared only modestly better, with 54 percent giving it the same dismal marks.

In other words, voters perceive both business and government as part of an interdependent system, and it is hard for them to separate out the culpability of either. Mr. Obama acknowledged as much in his speech Tuesday, when he asserted — in his lone criticism of government’s role in the crisis — that the bureau in charge of monitoring the oil companies had effectively been colluding with them instead.

All of which leaves the old kind of anticorporate populism — “the people versus the powerful,” as Al Gore put it — a beat behind the times, sort of like “flower power” or the Laffer Curve. Mr. Obama and his party are probably right to presume that voters don’t trust BP or any of the powerful companies the president has taken to castigating on a regular basis.

The problem is that they don’t trust Washington to stand up for them, either.

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