PRESIDENT'S ESSAY

A portrait of Robert L. Gallucci

MacArthur Foundation President, Robert L. Gallucci

Contributing to a Stronger American Democracy

Evidence-Driven Policy

Educational programs are held accountable and rigorously tested – as the debates over No Child Left Behind and the new Common Core curriculum bear witness. But this is not the norm in public policy. Sometimes, legislators fund social programs based on ideological sympathy, interest group lobbying, fashion, or simple precedent rather than evidence about what works.

To encourage more considered and effective public policy, we are investing in a joint initiative with the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew-MacArthur Results First initiative works with states to implement an innovative cost-benefit analysis approach. It identifies policies and programs that are proven to work in the most cost-effective way. We hope it will encourage political debate that begins from a platform of agreed-upon data, rather than opinion. And, of course, we would also wish to see more investment in what performs well – and the end of wasteful spending on failure.

Over the long term, Results First aims to change how states budget, taking into consideration both benefits and costs to individuals and society over the long term. The program is projected to be active in 20 states within the next three years.

 

Significant social change

All politics and policymaking occur in a social environment and, as I noted, American society is undergoing profound changes. To us, the most concerning of these are the uneven concentration of wealth and income and the growth of economic inequality.

While this is happening around the world, the phenomenon is particularly acute in America. Between 1983 and 2010, almost 75 percent of the increase in wealth went to the top 5 percent of Americans. But even that understates the imbalance – almost 40 percent went just to the top 1 percent, and 20 percent to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. To relate that to numbers of people, some 300,000 got 20 percent of the increase, while 180 million others had to share 13.5 percent.

Such extremes undermine the solidarity of a society, hollow out the middle class that fueled the nation’s prosperity in the middle of the last century, and raise fundamental questions of justice.
The consequences for American society may be far-reaching. If our richest citizens are isolated from the rest of the country, they become detached from its institutions (like public schools and state universities) and from its infrastructure (like highways and transportation). Worse, this situation will tend to undercut social mobility and limit opportunity.

The American Dream – that hard work, determination, and playing by the rules will lead to financial success – has become less and less a reality.

The American Dream – that hard work, determination, and playing by the rules will lead to financial success – has become less and less a reality. Already, among all OECD nations, the United States now has the least social mobility. That fundamentally alters America’s perception of itself.

There are many explanations for how this shift has happened. Many economists point to a globalized economy in which innovations reap world-class gains. Sociologists point to changes in family structure, significant returns on education, and the rewards of a meritocracy. And, in truth, there are probably theories from many disciplines that have merit.

One of the most disturbing notions is that given by some political scientists. They trace the growth of a political system that has become overly dependent on money for campaign contributions (and simple electoral survival). This creates a tendency in both parties to protect the interests of the most generous donors, put in place policies that further their agenda, and so fuel a vicious cycle that disadvantages ordinary citizens and privileges the already privileged.

MacArthur is only at the early stages of considering this issue. We know that the phenomenon is gaining attention and that more needs to be understood. But we expect, in due course, to make a contribution to bolstering a fairer social order.

 

Conclusion

Foundations do not have the resources to solve problems as significant as those I have discussed. But they have an important role in drawing attention to them, supporting the most creative people and organizations who seek to address them, and testing possible solutions.

MacArthur is an American foundation with an abiding commitment to the ideals and the well-being of the United States. As an organization that invests in more than 60 nations, we are also keenly aware of the importance of the United States internationally. Dysfunction at home compromises both our leadership in world affairs and national security. MacArthur hopes to make a contribution to a more responsive and effective government in this country and in doing so, to improve the life chances of Americans, strengthen U.S. global credibility, and build a future worthy of America’s promise.