The news coming out of Washington, D.C., and reverberating around the nation increasingly sounds like a broken record: low or zero growth in employment, inadequate funds to pay future Social Security and Medicare obligations, declining rates of investment, cuts in funding for education and children’s programs, arbitrary sequesters or cutbacks in good and bad programs alike, underfunded pensions, bankrupt cities, threats not to pay our nation’s growing debts, rancorous partisanship, and political parties with no real vision for twenty-first-century government.
In Dead Men Ruling, C. Eugene Steuerle argues that these seemingly separable economic and political problems are actually symptoms of a common disease, one unique to our time. Unless that disease and the history of how it spread over time is understood, Steuerle says, it is easy for politicians and voters alike to fall prey to believing in simple but ineffective nostrums, hoping that a cure lies merely in switching political parties or reducing the deficit or protecting and expanding our favorite program.
Despite the despairing claims of many, Steuerle points out that we no more live in an age of austerity than did Americans at the turn into the twentieth century with the demise of the frontier. Conditions are ripe to advance opportunity in ways never before possible, including doing for children and the young in this century what the twentieth did for senior citizens, yet without abandoning those earlier gains. Recognizing this extraordinary but checked potential is also the secret to breaking the political logjam that—as Steuerle points out—was created largely by now dead (or retired) men.