When Journalism Slows Down and Takes a Calmer Look at Where We’re Going

The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson, who often takes a more thoughtful and sensible look at the nation’s problems than most newspaper columnists, suggests “Be bold, think small”:

In the midst of a presidential campaign, it’s not surprising that we’re bombarded with proposals for massive new government programs that promise to transform major segments of American life. We’re going to overhaul the health-care system with Medicare-for-all or something like it, or we’re going to make college “free” by eliminating tuition at state schools, or we’re going to help married couples balance work and family by expanding child-care subsidies.

You don’t have to be a cynic to doubt that many of these grand reforms will ever come to pass or to suspect that if they do, they will fail to match the extravagant expectations that they have created. In this sense, they will not only fall short in meeting their goals but will also contribute to another large social problem: the public’s disillusionment with government as a constructive agency for the common good.

Conspicuously missing are smaller proposals with more modest objectives that actually have a chance of succeeding—and that, if they don’t succeed, can be curtailed without becoming a permanent burden on government. . . .

Apprenticeship is one such smaller proposal. Although it is heavily used by some European countries (Germany, Switzerland and Austria), it is not common in the United States. . . .

It’s something we should try, because it might work. We ought to allow firms a lot of flexibility and freedom in running their programs, both because the needs of firms and industries vary and because some companies will do better than others. Government subsidies, if any, should be small.

The point is that this is the kind of quiet experimentation that we ought to encourage—and abandon if it doesn’t work. But these sorts of proposals don’t play much of a role in presidential campaigns, where candidates are peddling big-picture solutions to big-picture problems that are not easily corrected under the best of circumstances.

This is one reason the gap between government’s promise and performance is so large—and why Americans expect more from their government than it can possibly deliver.

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