System Failure

So what do problems at NASA, FEMA, and the entire U.S. Intelligence Community all have in common?

Believe it or not, the free market.

That's right. One of the problems we have putting our finger on the cause of the mounting dysfunction in American life is understanding that what we call "the market" is a force at work well outside the boundaries of our business community. It even affects the quality of our government.

There used to be a time in America when you could actually find people in the Upper Class serving in the military, for example. Kennedys. Roosevelts. Those days are gone, and all manner of noblesse oblige with them. Today the majority of the forces fighting in Iraq are conscripted via an economic draft of the lower class.

In the 1950s the CIA was stocked with graduates from Harvard and Yale. No more. You can't even recruit on those campuses today without a protest breaking out -- from the faculty.

During the halcyon days of the U.S. space program, the challenge of putting a man on the moon attracted our top engineering talent, the kind of people who could bring back Apollo 13 with a few strands of bailing wire and some chewing gum. Today the top engineering talent goes to places like Google, where they offer stock options.

These little vignettes are all evidence for an enormous sea change in American life. As the free market has heated up, we have created a me vs. you, winner-takes-all society where money is the arbiter of all value. The Me Generation has become the Me Society, the ultimate product of free market overkill. In such an environment public service is naturally degraded, since it simply doesn't pay very well. The result is incompetent government. As any CEO will tell you, a successful company stems primarily from high-quality people, so if the government isn't getting the most talented people, the inexorable result is governmental failure, and the subsequent breakdown of public trust.

Now think about this a moment: we are a country that once led allied forces to victory in the largest conflict the planet has ever seen. We are a country that once put men on the moon. Now we are laid low by a handful of amateurs with box-cutters, we can hardly put a man in orbit safely anymore, and after years of so-called disaster preparedness in the wake of 9/11, we could not even save one of our own great cities. Instead, we discover that the man we put in charge of disaster management had virtually no experience at the task.

This is not something we can so easily lay off on the Bush Administration, as so many are wont to do -- it is one more example of a systemic failure brought upon by the rising power of the market in American life, a force that has altered our democratic values to such a degree that people don't even bother to vote anymore, never mind serve their country. Today we may naturally be fixated on the devastation wrought by Mother Nature, but we should not forget another natural force that is continuing to erode our social cohesion, and has been for decades.