With Obama's latest overtures of the great Teddy Roosevelt, there is chatter among the chattering class about how much of our problems today are similar to those facing the nation in the early 20th century. Brooks provides some useful context:
In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.
Second, the governmental challenge is very different today than it was in the progressive era. Back then, government was small and there were few worker safety regulations. The problem was a lack of institutions. Today, government is large, and there is a thicket of regulations, torts and legal encumbrances. The problem is not a lack of institutions; it’s a lack of institutional effectiveness.
The United States spends far more on education than any other nation, with paltry results. It spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results. It spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight. In the progressive era, the task was to build programs; today the task is to reform existing ones.
Third, the moral culture of the nation is very different. The progressive era still had a Victorian culture, with its rectitude and restrictions. Back then, there was a moral horror at the thought of debt. No matter how bad the economic problems became, progressive-era politicians did not impose huge debt burdens on their children. That ethos is clearly gone.
I do think though that Brooks gives short shrift to some deeper parallels:
- Regardless of maturity, at both periods the economy is defined by transition -- from an agricultural to industrial society in TR's era and towards the knowledge economy today.
- Moneyed interests invested in the status quo have compounded the difficulty of both these transitions.
- A combination of 1. and 2. in both cases damaged the core narrative of the American experience: opportunity for all who are willing to work for it.