On President's Commission on the Future

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William McGill
Title: On President’s Commission on the Future
VTR: 3/24/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. At the very beginning of last year, I videotaped another Open Mind with William McGill, who was just then preparing to retire from the presidency of New York’s Columbia University, where he had done such a splendid job of putting my alma mater on its fiscal feet and taking it successfully through some very rough confrontational times. He had just accepted Jimmy Carter/s appointment to head the President’s Commission for a National Agenda for the 1980s, and I suspect that at the time he may not have imagined quite how controversial that task would become. But it has. One of the commission’s nine reports, the one on cities, was prematurely leaked to the press, was then angrily challenged as advocating giving up on America’s older cities and raising the nation’s Sun Belt to a position of particular privilege. Generally, that diminished by far what should have been a great deal of public attention paid to the commission’s work and to its other recommendations for America’s national agenda for the 1980s. Dr. McGill, the commission chairman, is again my guest today. And though I don’t want to avoid the controversy surrounding his commission’s report on our cities, I also hope that it will not overshadow the other eight reports and recommendations.

Dr. McGill, thanks for joining me again on The Open Mind.`

McGill: Richard, that’s by far the most generous introduction on the commission report I’ve had in many, many months.

Heffner: (Laughter) it has been kind of rough, hasn’t it?

McGill: Well, no, it’s been interesting. It seems to me that the thing that it exposes, both the leak to the press and the angry reaction about the urban sections to the report, is that there is a degree of regional rivalry in the country now that is perhaps more dangerous and more serious than at any time in my adult life and perhaps at any time since the Civil War.

Heffner: Well, you know, when you say, “Regional rivalry”, I was thinking about something you said on our program last time. You were talking about health, the health of the nation and the need for healing of the American morale, and seemingly what you’ve touched on here, or you’ve touched off, is something very different. A kind of schism-ridden America that I don’t think either one of us would have guessed about sometime back.

McGill: No. there’s a nerve that was touched. That’s quite right. But of course many things have happened since I undertook the task of the president’s commission. We supposed when we began that we might be writing a program for the president’s second term. He was scheduled not to be reelected. We didn’t know that at the time. And one would think that a presidential commission for an administration that had been discredited, I think, before the electorate, and that a commission that began in not totally auspicious circumstances. You remember that Jimmy carter went up to Camp David to commune with a variety of public relations activities that were supposed to restore the vitality of his presidency, came down and fired his cabinet. And among the things that he did that received almost no attention at the time was to create a commission was that it couldn’t even agree on the time of day. All of these things suggested that when the report was written it might have received minimum attention. Certainly, the new administration had its own agenda, and the nature of modern American politics makes it crucial that an administration succeed or fail in the first hundred days. We didn’t look at things that way. We don’t think that’s the right way to look at the nation’s problems. Indeed, we think that’s one of the basic difficulties that the country faces.

Heffner: You mean immediacy?

McGill: Immediacy. The short term, the quick buck, the immediate gain. We are caught – I think that’s the right word – or meshed, we’re in turmoil with some major historical problems that are affecting us over a period of many years, perhaps a generation. And we don’t look at things that way, and as a result we fail to see both the nature of the problems and the nature of the opportunities.

Heffner: And yet, in the new administration there seems to be some profound concern for the long range. You said every administration has its own agenda. How does your commission’s agenda for the 1980s differ from whatever long-range agenda there is in the Reagan Administration?

McGill: Well, we also, as the Reagan people have, were profoundly concerned about the functioning of the American economy, and made stern recommendations with respect to revitalizing it. Many of which do not differ in major substance from the president’s first initiatives. We have to restore productivity to the American workplace. We have to somehow overcome the burdens of the energy problem. We have to control inflation. And we need to do that by attacking some of the notions of entitlement to federal support that have grown up in the last 30 years with growth of the welfare state in the country. All of those things need to be done. I think we are skeptical about supply-side economics. There were no major supporters for what I think is a somewhat dubious philosophical position. You know, it’s called “psychological control of inflation”. But I’m a psychologist, and you deal with the laws of behavior there. And I tell you that supply-side economics had nothing to do with modern psychology. There is an untested philosophical position. It may be that we’re standing on the dawn of a new age, but I’m inclined to be profoundly skeptical of that, and so were most of the other members of the commission.

Heffner: But it’s interesting. You use the word, “entitlement.” And I remember the first time you appeared on The Open Mind several years ago when you were very actively president of Columbia University. And we were talking about the degree to which mutually antagonistic advocacies dominated American life. And you talked also about the sense of entitlement. And you thought that it was not the downfall of America, but you were very much concerned about it. Now the Reagan administration is concerned about it. Similar philosophy, similar psychology?

McGill: I think it indicates not so much a sympathy view on the part of the commission with president Reagan and his administration, as it is a broad-gauged national concern about the policies that were developed with the greatest good will and with, I think, a great deal of compassion to try to deal with the plethora of social problems that were clearly in evidence in the early ‘60s. I think those policies are characterized by the view that if you throw money at a problem or give public attention to a problem you can somehow solve it, irrespective of the substantial difficulties in the problem. I remember once when I was president of Columbia, I think it was 1972, I went down to a symposium at the University of Texas, and President Johnson was there. And I was saying then that American universities have become too dependent on federal resources. That it had become an anticipated annual infusion of budget support that was addicted and that, having become so dependent, we didn’t know how to withdraw. And I thought that this was a problem that pervaded the whole society, and that it was one of the things we had to worry about in the future. And when I finished that, Johnson stood up and he said, “President McGill, the American people can do anything that they have the will and the guts to do”. That was how he saw it. Few people today, I think, would view our capacities in that way. We have the capability o solve many problems, but we can’t solve them all at once. We cannot go to the moon, fight a war on poverty, and fight in Vietnam all at the same time. We tried to do that, and it doesn’t work. The central message of our commission’s report, thus far unrevealed in public discussion, is that this decade is going to be one of very hard choices. That is, we cannot do all that we wish to do, and we cannot by any means fill the full range of demands that are made upon government. We must somehow construct a more rational system in which some things are left to private initiative, in which the marketplace comes to dominate some of the areas of public activities that the government has sought to dominate by throwing money at social problems. That’s very hard to face. And if that’s done brutally or uncompassionate, it can be a very difficult period. I think the jury is out on the new administration here. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions that the economic problems are so threatening and so overwhelming that we ought to abandon all compassion. What has happened, it seems to me, is that a philoso9phical view that was seen to be of fundamental importance, that carried the country for quite a number of years, since Roosevelt’s time, is now seen to be less effective than our fondest hopes would have led us to believe 20 years ago.

Heffner: Do you mean that government was the instrument of first resort?

McGill: That somehow or other the government had a basic responsibility as a matter of public morality to raise up the weakest of its citizens and to care for them and to do on a very broad range, a wide range of services that were seen as necessary in that uplifting process.

Heffner: Do you believe that?

McGill: Well, I used to believe it. I don’t believe it anymore. Now, don’t misinterpret that, Richard. It doesn’t mean that I, or people who have been through what I’ve been through have lost our compassion for the poor. It’s not that at all. It is that there is a very curious linkage between what one seeks to do for oneself and what is done for one. That is that when the government does too much for you, it robs you of the incentive to get out and work for yourself. And that most subtle judgments, the most compassionate judgments, it seems to me, are those that lead to the capability to work. The essence of the report that got us into trouble was that we believe that welfare should be federalized, because we do not believe that people ought to migrate for welfare benefits. That’s of course what happened in that generation with such high hopes. Some parts of the country retracted on their responsibilities for supporting their people. Other parts of the country were overgenerous. And the net result was that we induced a migration for welfare benefits that turned out in the long run to concentrate the poor in the most generous areas of the country, in the northeastern segment. And that burden somehow or other ought to be equalized throughout the country. It ought not to be the matter of local initiative, as the present administration suggests, because that will induce further strengthening of those parts of the country which see themselves as desirous of dumping all of their social problems elsewhere.

Heffner: Of course, when that was written, it was written in a way, and more importantly, leaked in a way that made it seem as though talking about dumping, you were dumping on the cities.

McGill: No.

Heffner: …you were writing them off.

McGill: What we thought we tried to say was that we ought to, that the classical mechanism for correcting social problems in the United States – that’s a pejorative phrase; I don’t like it – the classical mechanism for providing people with hope in the united states was to allow them to move freely to places where opportunity existed. That’s what New York has always meant to people elsewhere in the world. To move to places where opportunity existed. The interesting problem is that opportunity exists in regions of the country that are different now from those that provided opportunity 50 years ago. And what we thought we were suggesting, and what we wanted to suggest was that people ought not to migrate for welfare benefits; they ought to migrate for work opportunity. It seems to me that that’s so profoundly logical that it’s really hard to fight.

Heffner: But it seemed to some that you were saying let’s take the funds that we are going to devote to the solution of social problems and let them follow people where they go. Indeed, many people thought it was a lure away from the city. “don’t provide money,” has been said again and again and again so that that leak to places but to people which sounds very generous, sounds very humane, but came to mean, “Write New York off, write the Northeast off,” etcetera.

McGill: Well, of course there is a great leap from the first premise to that conclusion. And we didn’t make that leap. And the fact that others have, that – my heavens, Major Koch write me from Israel he was so upset. Pat Moynihan, our senator, wrote me a very angry letter. And I tried calmly to say, as one does in these circumstances. That’s really not, we didn’t make that conclusion, you’re making that conclusion”. We think that the difficulty ought to be faced. That what we have at the present time are large concentrations of the poor in a number of older urban areas running down, and that everything that we see in prospect for the next ten years suggests that the problem is going to deepen. The costs of energy in the Northeast are far higher than the cost of energy elsewhere in the country. It seems to me that, despite one’s best hopes, that this means that industry is going to migrate where energy is least expensive, and that those areas will be developing areas, will provide opportunity and jobs. And what we sought was that there be no artificial government policy that stood as a barrier to that natural force. And to the northeastern mayors, this comes through as: For 25 years now, we have been dealing with an inequitable public policy that channeled resources to the Sun Belt. And we provided those resources. And now that we want to get some of those resources back to deal with our problems, you’re saying, “No, let’s change the rules of the game”. I’m afraid that’s true. That accusation is essentially correct. And the reason for making that recommendation, it seems to me, is obvious. It is that we do not have the resources to do everything that we would seek to do. And that while the use of federal resources on a broad scale to subsidize urban mass transit, to provide for urban redevelopment in center city, to provide for the differential costs of energy in different parts of the country, while all of those things are laudable if the resources existed, they don’t exist. And one has to face the fact that we cannot, I think, adopt a policy which will in the next decade deepen our problems, won’t solve them.

Heffner: It is interesting to me that when we first talked about your appointment to head the president’s commission. I had gone back and looked at the press conference, a transcript of the press conference that had been held at the White House. You and Hedley Donovan were there. And I’m amused as I go back because the accusation, there was a lot of cynicism there. You were going to be another establishment commission and there really wasn’t going to be anything controversial.

McGill: Betty Craig was there. And she said, “There are commissions and commissions. Who’s going to pay any attention to this commission?”

Heffner: Well, it seemed an awful lot of people paid attention and got angry. They got angry.

McGill: Well, perhaps that’s a bad way to have someone pay attention to it. We hadn’t intended that.

Heffner: Let me go back to something you said at the beginning of this discussion. You said it was an indication of the deep, regional, sectional rift in this country. Is that just a function of who gets the dollars, or a function, do you think, of other attitudes? Attitudes toward race, attitudes toward religion, attitudes toward social policy generally?

McGill: Well, I think probably most of all it reflects the original concepts of our founding fathers which have been really matters of fundamental contention in America since the very beginning. That is, they did not put up customers barriers at the states, and essentially keep them as separate entities. During the Civil War, we fought with one another in order to make certain that some parts of the country could not secede to the economic disadvantage of other parts. But we did, I think, build in these sectional rivalries. They were always there. And they thing that is so striking about the times in which we now live is that in a very short period of time, although the trends have been there for perhaps 30 years, in a very short period of time, the balance has tipped so that the economically advantaged sections of the country have become suddenly disadvantaged. And the weaker and less intellectually developed areas of the country have suddenly undergone inordinate growth. The south roams again, so to speak. It’s a very important thing to observe, because there are enormous concentrations of wealth now outside the urban Northeast.

Heffner: It’s interesting to me that you also characterize these areas outside the Northeast, not only as possessing great concentrations of economic growth, but as possessing perhaps a less intense intellectual development.

McGill: Yes.

Heffner: Now, what does that combination presage for us in this country?

McGill: Well, I think it has had a profound political impact, as the last election has shown. There is a great deal riding on President Reagan’s success. It seems to me almost too much.

Heffner: Deeply?

McGill: Well, people want him to eliminate poverty, reduce the cost of gasoline, wipe out inflation, and to do all of these things simultaneously. That is, people seek contradictory goals. And the depth of analysis on which our national goals are constructed seems to me to vary from one part of the country to another. We have always, I think we have a kind of arrogance in the Northeast that we were the ones who would do this, that the people who worked elsewhere in the country had a less fundamental approach to the problems of society. They tended to be caught up in simplistic ideas. The Moral Majority is a classical example, I think, of that kind of division of view. What we’re now finding, I think with some horror, is that not only is there economic power, but there is political power in those parts of the society. And suddenly there is a fear of, probably quite real, that is based on the realistic assumptions as to what the full set of consequences of this may be. It’s hard. The Roosevelt Coalition, you know, that held the country together, the working Democrats in the North and conservative Southern Democrats joined together for political advantage, held together probably until 1972. It has now broken apart. And a new structure is being built based on the economic and political wealth of the South and Southwest.

Heffner: Well, I’d like to get back – we have just a few minutes left – but I’d like to get back to this matter of a lesser intellectual intensity, greater economic resources, and what the consequences will be. A more fundamentalist nation in the nineteenth century? Our definition of that term, a kind of backwards-looking, creationism-oriented philosophies? Quite seriously. I mean, it’s a weird combination.

McGill: Dick, the word I would use is “restoration”. There is a view that right after World War II we were the strongest nation on earth, and that we frittered it away. And that we did it out of a combination of –now I’m giving you the view that I hear regularly in southern California – we frittered it away because of a conspiracy of radicals, and because of general weakness, a lack of political spine that failed to force the country to face up to and to maintain its leadership. I don’t think any of that is true. It seems to me that that is a very superficial view of the problems we face. And it seems to me that that view is verified by the extraordinarily belligerent foreign policy that seems to have emerged in the first days of this new administration. I would think that the better way is to keep your mouth shut and build up your strength; not to talk your way into a confrontation with the soviets over Cuba. Heaven knows we have major problems there. But I would think that the policy that is emerging is addressed to those simplistic views of our future.

Heffner: You know, I can’t help but think of E.L. Godkin and his crew back at the end of the nineteenth century who were concerned that they were a displaced aristocracy, that the country no longer had room for them. Henry Adams, writing his education, saying, “I was ill prepared because America has no room for Harvard education”.

McGill: It’s all happened before to Boston, hasn’t it?

Heffner: It’s happened before to Boston. And we all survived.

McGill: Yes.

Heffner: I have the feeling you’re not quite so sanguine this time around.

McGill: No, I wouldn’t put it that way at all. The jury is still out. What I’m saying is that we’re headed for a very difficult decade in the ‘80s in which the hardest choices need to be made. And the safest way in which to address those problems is in a spirit of utter realism. The political structure at the present time doesn’t’ tolerate much realism. It moves on philosophical premises that seem to me to be rather vague and weak and untested. And I’m a little worried about that. But, as I’ve said to you before, Richard, our characteristic as a nation is that we’re fearful of ordeals. We hate like the devil to get ourselves involved in problems that do not have a clear line of development. Yet the only way to solve big problems is to go through an ordeal. And I myself have never had any doubts about the mettle of this nation when we enter an ordeal.

Heffner: That’s a good note on which to end our look at the President’s Commission on a National Agenda for the 1980s. Thanks, Dr. McGill.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again too on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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