THE STATE OF THE NATION: Government and the Quest for a Better Society by Derek Bok

THE STATE OF THE NATION: Government and the Quest for a Better Society

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Incredibly, Bok, who is president emeritus of Harvard University, manages to come off here as a Milquetoast, even though he is addressing controversial questions and providing intelligent commentary. Do America's best days lie ahead or is the country in decline? Bok responds with a survey of five critical areas of social life--the economy, living conditions, opportunity, personal security, and values--to consider whether the optimists or pessimists should be believed. Evenhanded to a fault, he places issues in historical context, systematically compares conditions, trends, and government policies in the US to those of Western Europe and Japan, and presents the arguments of both sides. Two recurrent themes emerge: First, the comparatively high level of economic inequality in this country is exacerbated by public policy, and second, attempts by the federal government to achieve widely popular goals (such as economic growth and full employment) have been comparatively unsuccessful. The former drops from sight in the concluding chapters, but the latter provokes a potentially controversial assertion. Bok insists that many of the things Americans want cannot be achieved without government action; consequently, it must be part of the social equation, despite past lackluster performance. The real question, then, is why the US government is less able than its foreign counterparts to meet public expectations. This would seem to demand an answer, but Bok immediately returns to his self-assigned role as an observer above the fray. Throughout the book his analysis is a scholar's litany: ""A careful look at the record suggests that both the gloom and the euphoria have been greatly overdone."" To reinforce his balanced approach, both sides of every issue considered in the text are rehearsed once again in a chapter titled ""Summing Up""; the following chapter is actually titled ""Questioning the Verdict."" Is it better to scream or go to sleep in the face of pathological moderation?

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1997
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.