Walter Russell Mead: The Shame of the Cities and the Shade of LBJ






Mr. Mead is a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest.

President Lyndon Johnson and the “best and the brightest” who staffed his administration led this country into three quagmires.  By far the most famous, but perhaps not the most expensive and dangerous resulted from LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War.  More than 50,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese died as a result of that policy; our country was bitterly divided in ways that still weaken us today, and the economic cost of the war was immense.  It contributed to the wave of inflation that shook the country in the 1970s and in addition to the interest on the debt from this ill-starred venture we are still paying (as we certainly should) pensions and medical costs for the vets and their spouses.

The Second Great Johnson Quagmire now destroying the nation is the Medicare/Medicaid complex.  These entitlement programs are the biggest single financial problem we face.  They dwarf all the Bush-Obama wars; they make TARP look like small change.  They not only cost money we don’t have — and are scheduled to cost inexorably more until they literally ruin the nation — they have distorted our entire health system into the world’s most bloated and expensive monstrosity.  Thanks to these programs, we have a health system that marries the greed of the private sector to the ineptitude of government, and unless we can somehow tame these beasts America and everything it stands for could be lost. (Note, please, that by comparison Social Security can be relatively easily reformed to be solvent for the next 75 years.  The New Deal, whatever its shortcomings, was almost infinitely more realistic and sustainable than the Great Society.)

But that is a subject for another day.  The third Johnson Quagmire is the War on Poverty, and specifically the attempt to treat inner city poverty primarily as a racial problem.  After the Medicare/Medicaid catastrophe the single greatest policy failure of modern America is urban policy.  Since the Great Society era of Lyndon Johnson, the country has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into poor urban neighborhoods.  The violence and crime generated in these neighborhoods costs hundreds of billions more.  And after all this time, all this money and all this energy, the inner city populations are worse off than before.  There is more drug addiction and more social and family breakdown among this population than when the Great Society was launched.  Incarceration rates have risen to levels that shock the world (though they make for safer streets); the inner city abortion rate has reached levels that must surely appall even the most resolute pro-choicers not on the Planned Parenthood payroll.  Forty percent of all pregnancies in New York end in abortion, with higher rates among Blacks; nationally, the rate among Blacks is three times the rate among white women.  Put it all together and you have a holocaust of youth and hope on a scale hard to match.

This is not a lot to show for almost fifty years of fighting poverty — not a lot of bang for the buck....



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