April 9, 2001
John Stuart Mill, in his essay on Coleridge, remarks that “a knowledge of the speculative opinions of men between twenty and thirty years of age is the great source of political prophecy.” This is especially true when the young opinionator comes with 25-year-old Andrei Cherny’s credentials – speechwriter for Vice-President Al Gore and author of the 2000 Democratic Party platform – and moreover claims, explicitly and insistently, to speak for his generation. As the Clinton Administration wound down, Cherny enrolled in law school, though he keeps a hand in politics as a contributing editor to The New Democrat and Senior Policy Advisor to the Speaker of the California State Assembly. In a New York Times profile last summer, he claimed to have set his sights on a career in criminal law. But it’s hard to believe that The Next Deal wasn’t conceived as a bid for a top domestic policy post in the Gore White House. By the luck of the chad, however, we are reading here about a future that is not to be, at least for another four years.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Cherny’s premise is that public life should be drastically reshaped in response to the “Choice Revolution”: “the growing expectation among consumers that the world be customized to fit their preferences and the growing effort among businesses to meet this expectation.” We currently have an Industrial Age government, he argues, for an Information Age society. We go online to order everything from individually tailored blue jeans to individually tailored stock portfolios. We work online: in America today, “a quarter of workers are wired workers (working with networked computers in a flexible, team-oriented environment) and nearly a third are free agents (working for themselves and from their homes)” – a new, knowledge-based workforce, “self-reliant and empowered to do their jobs as they think best.” We find community online, in chat rooms and email: communities “based on shared interests and not just shared geography.” Yet we still “stand in endless lines to pick up forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles.” The New Economy is a Pegasus: swift, flexible, responsive, efficient, and nonhierarchical. Government, by contrast, is a dinosaur: “wasteful, corrupt, distant, and laden with bureaucracy.”
Government must be reinvented before it can interest the “Choice Generation,” which has grown up with the Internet. This is a generation which “impatiently raps its fingers on the table when it takes more than a few seconds to download a web page from China, which expects packages sent from the other end of the continent to arrive by 10:00 AM the next morning, which finds it difficult to watch TV without a remote control in hand, which demands a piping hot pizza delivered to their front door in half an hour.” To an older critic, even a prematurely older one like Jedediah Purdy, these things might betoken a sadly limited attention span and a hankering for instant gratification. But Cherny understands that they are the outward signs of empowerment.
The Choice Generation has an anthem, Cherny writes. Its verses are the advertising slogans of dot.coms. “We’re betting on ourselves” – Suretrade.com. “Bureaucracy Beware” – Homeloan.com. “Believe in yourself” – Ameritrade.com. “Power to the People” – DiscoverBrokerage.com. A young fogey like Thomas Frank might take these phrases for mere marketing blather – the latest stage in the phony conquest of cool. To Cherny they compose a “haiku of choice, individualism, and self-reliance.”
We have struck camp and are on the open road. “The Choice Generation is clearly an evolving group – its values are continually reinforced as technology continues to provide more choices, more personalization, and more individualized power. The big three TV networks have been challenged in turn by cable, by more networks, by a thousand channels of satellite and digital cable programming. The movie theater competed first with the VCR, which lets viewers control what they watch and when they watch from the comfort of their couches. It has now to deal with DVDs that let viewers skip to their favorite scenes and soundtracks. With increasing frequency, young people have begun to eschew prepackaged music albums in favor of custom-created CDs made up of the songs they choose. Pagers appeared and were followed by cellular phones. Personal computers transformed America and were followed by Palm Pilots. Young people traded in record players for personal Walkmans and then for even more control with Discmans. Everywhere one looks the technologies that shape the lives of the Choice Generation are constantly and consistently trending toward giving the individual more personal power. More than half of the nation’s minors have a television and CD player in their bedroom. No one watches them over their shoulders; they have a previously unimagined amount of power to shape the environment they live in.
“More fundamentally, the Internet has put them in control. They read whatever they want to read, buy whatever they want to buy, download photos of the hottest star of the moment. Moreover, they don’t have to look at CNN’s web page, they can look at their MyCNN page, which shows them only the topics they are interested in. They don’t have to sift through the Web with the AltaVista search engine, they can search with MyAltaVista, which conforms itself to their ‘surfing’ habits. At mybytes.com (with the slogan, ‘It’s my web’), they can customize ‘my research tools,’ ‘my calendar,’ ‘my interests,’ ‘my life,’ and so on. At myway.com, where ‘you’ll get all the information you need, the way you want it,’ they are welcomed to ‘the Internet’s distinct new personality. Yours.’ At Barbie.com, they can design their own doll to fit the specifications they choose. At Nike.com, they can design their own sneakers and even have their own name put on the shoes. The notion of ‘one-size-fits-all’ is ever more obsolete in a world they are increasingly customizing to fit themselves.”
O brave new world, that has such choices in it!
How to bring government into the Information Age? The Next Deal is surprisingly short on program. You might think that a book which practically posits computer literacy as a prerequisite of effective citizenship would consider how to help the very considerable number of people – even young people – who are not computer-literate (or print-literate) to become so. Not a word. You might think that a book which celebrates interactivity would spend many pages detailing ways to bring every citizen adequate information about public issues – about, say, the fiscal impact of massively regressive tax cuts, or the environmental impact of hog farming and cattle raising, or the moral impact of unreformed campaign finance – and ways, in turn, to bring citizens’ opinions to bear on officials between elections. A few pages, not many details. The Next Deal would doubtless have made Cherny’s reputation if it had pointed out, before the media herd, that Industrial Age electoral technology was a disaster waiting to happen, not to mention a clear indicator of the political class’s contempt for the underclass. No such luck.
So what is the program? “As a general rule and whenever possible, government power and funds should go directly to citizens – and only rarely to institutions. Americans should have personal control over the money that government spends on their behalf, thereby putting decisions about the direction of government programs into their hands instead of those of bureaucrats.” In particular: “Parents should decide which public school their children attend and have the funds follow the children to the schools that deserve them; unemployed workers should decide how to spend their job training benefits and choose the services they feel would be most beneficial to them; young people should decide where to invest a portion of their Social Security retirement funds and accept a greater share of both the risk and reward.” Health insurance should be purchased individually rather than through one’s employer, and “a system of tax credits and grants should be put in place to help those who cannot afford to purchase coverage.”
To facilitate all this choice, Americans “will need access to even more information. That means tests in schools that allow parents to compares students, teachers, and schools against national and international benchmarks. It means rating health care plans, hospitals, and doctors. It means detailed, useful, and useable information on the history and results rendered by every provider of every service that Americans will be able to choose from.” There is already, of course, plenty of information available to online retirement investors (though it won’t do them much good in a meltdown or even a long recession).
It’s all rather sketchy, but there’s something here. Why shouldn’t government be more like e-business? If only Cherny hadn’t skimped on programmatic detail while larding the book with potted history, irrelevant anecdote, and speechwriterly platitude. But I suppose his publisher wanted it in time for the inauguration.
At the end of The Next Deal comes a curious and heartening reversal. Cherny proposes a universal national service scheme – a one-year Citizen Corps for 18-year-olds. All those hip young consumers, he recognizes, need to shoulder a “New Responsibility” as a “necessary counterbalance to the individual autonomy of the Choice Revolution.” Notwithstanding our (well, some people’s) unprecedented prosperity, there’s plenty of useful work begging to be done. “Millions of the old could stay out of nursing homes for years if someone could come visit them once a day, making sure that they are all right and that small household chores are performed. Millions of children need extra reading and math tutoring; thousands of homeless are looking for help in moving off the streets and back into society; parents need, but often cannot afford, child care for their young children; after-school care is needed to keep older kids off the streets, away from the television, and in a classroom; an overburdened and expensive health care system needs an infusion of nurses’ aides; the Peace Corps needs to expand its efforts in nations around the globe without reducing its quality; soil erosion needs to be battled; streams need to be cleaned; classrooms need more teacher aides; and the police need help in organizing neighborhoods against crime.”
This is a splendid idea. It is also, as Cherny acknowledges, not a new idea. It is, come to think of it, a pretty old idea – pre-Industrial Age, even. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is a only a recent restatement of it. Turning this ancient idea into a smart, up-to-the-minute Information Age manifesto – now that would be a proper task for a talented and ambitious young wordsmith like Andrei Cherny.