Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sargent Shriver

The death of Sargent Shriver yesterday left me with mixed feelings.  Indeed, he had a life well lived.  But from my perspective much of his public life was in direct conflict with policies that I believe are pretty important.  Before WWII he was a supporter of the American First supporter.  He was young and he eventually served in the Navy so that youthful position might be one based on age and not thought.

He also took up the responsibility for President Kennedy to make the Peace Corps something integral to our foreign policy.  The Peace Corps is one of those noble notions that I think in the end has helped our foreign policy for several decades in a modest way.  At the same time it has given a couple of hundred thousand Americans a different picture of the world.

Where I have problems with his legacy came primarily in his work for LBJ on the projects called the War on Poverty.  I've always resisted the expanded notion that politicians have (most of who have no military experience) with conducting wars on issues where guns are not involved.  The War on Poverty was a huge failure.  It spent billions of dollars with little positive effect.

In an interview for Fresh Air, which aired again today, Shriver claimed that the best part of the War on Poverty was changing the political nature of local systems.  But from my perspective, while his initial argument (that local politicians tend to take federal largess and use it for their own purposes) is probably right - the conclusion it lead him to (that federal money will somehow not be tainted when it goes to community leaders) was wrong.   Community Action Councils moved from their initial purposes to become modern day ward healers. Many became centers for new kinds of negotiations.  Public employee unions pressed their demands to these groups and there was simply a substitution of one broker for another - but this time many of the employees were on the public payroll with fat pensions and lousy job descriptions who treated their employment as a sinecure.   The major areas of poverty in the 1960s are often still the same areas of major poverty today.   What the "war" on poverty forgot was the political calculus that Shriver and his comrades failed to recognize.  Had the efforts started from more market based principles the "war" might have had a few more successful battles and we probably would be stuck with a much smaller deficit and a few more really empowered people.

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