When Amitai Etzioni was a very junior member of the Columbia University faculty, it came to his colleagues' attention that he had not been behaving in every respect like a scholar -- that he had been taking stands on vulgar questions of public policy, rubbing shoulders with politicians and journalists and writing books for the nonacademic masses.
After one of those books, called "Winning Without War," "I was taken aside by my elders," he recalls, "and told that if I wanted to have a career in social science I must stop that nonsense."
He didn't stop the nonsense. Instead, he founded a government-oriented think tank, the Center for Policy Research. He cosigned an "Open Letter to President Johnson" demanding an immediate cease-fire in Vietnam. (That was in 1964, an early year in the antiwar movement.) He wrote a book attacking the U.S. space program, with the decidedly lowbrow title "The Moon-Doggle." And after years of shuttling back and forth from New York to Washington, he moved here full time in 1978, first as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, then as a senior adviser in the Carter White House, and for the last three years as a professor at George Washington University.
In his latest book, the man once dubbed "The Everything Expert" by Time Magazine, has attempted nothing less than to carve out a new political philosophy which speaks -- argumentatively and seductively, by turns -- to the worries of liberal Democrats, anti-big-government conservatives, and Moral Majoritarians.
It is a book that thoroughly lives up to the first third of its title -- to wit, "An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century: Our Economic, Ethical, Personal and Political Options For the Next Two Decades." Among its recommendations: that schools adopt a quantum increase in the level of homework, that employers offer flexitime and three-quarter-time schedules for employes with young children, that divorcing couples go through a 30-day cooling-off period, and that, as a nation, we decide to emphasize basic investment at the expense of consumption for at least the next decade.
In person, this whirling dervish of a sociologist is a gentle advocate with a soft voice and a solicitous air. But he is rarely at a loss for words. Two weeks ago at his book-publication party, which had the misfortune to occur the same afternoon the Washington Monument was held hostage for the cause of world peace, Etzioni sipped his drink at the edge of a sparse crowd and expressed the gloomy professional opinion that more such protests would probably follow. "Unfortunately," he said, "there is data to show that these things happen in waves."
People are in the habit of assuming that the 53-year-old Etzioni hails comes from Italian stock, an impression not obviously contradicted by his dark complexion and curly gray hair, which goes white at the sideburns. But the man who would rebuild America by 2001 was born in Germany in 1929, and spent the better part of his youth in Palestine and Israel, where he took an intimate part in the wars of 1948-50 and then published a book about it, "Diary of a Commando Soldier."
He was born Werner Falk and changed his name from a German to an Israeli one. "My first name in Hebrew means truth, and my last name is just a part of Israel which is south of Jerusalem," he says, after arranging himself and his interviewer at a table just inside his office, six flights above GW's Gelman Library at 22nd and H streets. The door is part-way open so that, from time to time, Etzioni can call out to his secretary for a document from his past, like the White House memo in which he coined the word "reindustrialization," or the article from the Policy Studies Journal in which he was ranked among the most-often-cited 30 experts who made "major contributions to public policy analysis" during the '70s.
He begins by explaining how his book, having set out to be a critique of the assumptions behind the Reagan administration's get-the-government-off-our-backs policies, turned into a reply to the Moral Majority instead.
The Moral Majority "raised all the right issues," he says. "And we owe them a limited debt of gratitude . . . The liberals are embarrassed by family -- because they're so conflicted among one another -- and by character, by patriotism, by morality . . ." But the Moral Majority's solutions are "morally obnoxious because they are authoritarian," and "technically incompetent, by which I mean that if you would do to perfection what they asked for -- if there wouldn't be a single abortion, if pornography would be banned and burned and if they would hang criminals twice a month -- that would do nothing to make people into religious beings, law-abiding, moral people. We have plenty of data to show that."
So what would be a "technically competent" way of preserving the traditional family? Etzioni has an assortment of proposals, including looser work arrangements so husbands and wives can do more "basic parenting," and conflict-resolution training in the schools, so couples will know how to have disagreements without undermining the relationship.
He is paradoxically optimistic about the family, because "if we keep going the way we are," he writes, "if the nuclear family continues to be dismembered at the same accelerating rate, by the year 2008 there would not be a single American family left." And yet "there was never a society in human history -- and we've had 250 different kinds of societies, at least -- which survived without a traditional family. So that gives you some pause, and therefore on logical grounds I cannot believe but that some force will turn us about. Now where will it come from? You can see the beginning right now. In the last issue of 'Esquire,' the headline story is 'The End of Sex,' but if you read it, they're not talking about the end of sex, they're talking about reuniting sex with love, because people are sick and tired of relating to each other only as biological beings."
As for the schools, "the whole debate is on the wrong foot. We should not focus so much on the three R's -- though, of course, they need attention -- but on their psychic underpinning. "Only a person who has self-discipline -- not discipline but self-discipline -- can study appropriately," he says. Study means "turning off the TV set and the boyfriend and the candy machine and concentrating and committing yourself: the capacity to mobilize self . . . That's where the right wing gets it wrong. The right wing thinks that authoritarian schools with dress codes and 'Don't ask any questions of the teacher' and 'Salute' are the way to bring up upright human beings, and in my judgment, that gives you people who obey as long as the policeman hovers over them. Then the moment he turns away, they return to their impulses."
Etzioni also shares the Moral Majority's concern about the decline of respect for rules in this country. "Each football season," he writes, "millions watching TV regularly see football players, legally tackled, place the ball a foot or so forward from where it was grounded. The referee routinely disregards this infraction but acknowledges that he is aware it occurred by placing the ball back where it belongs."
"All sports in this country are slipping in the direction of 'To hell with the rules!' " Etzioni complains, his passion molded into a quotable phrase, as it often is. "It's even all right to pull the face mask, but you musn't get caught. You can make a bullet out of yourself and get hammered into the other guy's stomach. I won't allow my children to play football. When they were young, they were very unhappy about that, but now they thank me openly for it. I'm a very tolerant father but that's where I draw the line."
He has five sons. He had three of them when, in 1967, he began looking into the question of sex-selection and wrote several articles and ultimately a book ("The Genetic Fix") warning that if people ever gain easy control over the sex of their children, the result could be a dangerous oversupply of males.
He says he is frightened by the Moral Majority's proposals, but equally frightened by the exaltation of the individual he sees in "this laissez-faire conservatism . . . which says we should all be raring-to-go individuals, and which in the process does not maintain the ethical foundation which is the essential underpinning of any civil society."
"Civility" is a word Etzioni often uses. Another is "mutuality." "People need to be committed to one another," he says. "People need to balance self-interest with concern for community."
The football stadium is only one of the arenas where he sees a breakdown of that concern. "Nowhere is there a greater group of sinners than in Congress," he says. "They're supposedly role models for the nation. They are models of how not to behave. They don't pay Social Security. They exempt themselves from most laws which the rest of us have to abide by. They're not subject to the Equal Employment Act. They're not subject to OSHA. They vote themselves tax exemptions not available to the rest of us. And this is not to talk about campaign contributions and other illicit things . . ."
With such examples to inspire them, Etzioni says, private citizens increasingly regard the law as an adversary.
He came away from his stint as the Carter administration's "behavioral scientist down the corridor" with the conviction that "the economists are devastating the country." In the second half of his book, Etzioni spells out a formula for reindustrialization with a heavy emphasis on credit controls and tax incentives. Government manipulation of credit is a weapon that has been underused or used very badly, he believes. "In Japan," he says, "you cannot buy a car unless you put up at least 20 percent of its value. Nor appliances. And you have to pay back the balance within three years."
In this country, by contrast, middle-class college students, the buyers and builders of homes and the developers of sewer systems have been able to get advantageous credit in inflationary times, while "if you wanted venture capital, which is the cutting edge of the economy, you paid 25 percent interest . . . So the society told you -- in effect, signaled you -- that it wanted you to consume. It certainly did not want you to innovate. If you produced something you were a second-class citizen.
"Now we have to address that. We have to say: 'Cutting edge?' First priority, lowest terms of credit . . . Routine production? Second. Students? I have now two sons in college. I wouldn't give them a penny. I will give it to low-income students but not to the middle class.
"Above all we need to cut back on housing. Housing for me is a consumer good. That's not the way it's usually classified. I think its akin to an auto or an appliance. By crude estimates, in the previous century we invested only one-eighth of our investment resources into residential housing. In the last decade it was about a third. We invested much too much money into residential real estate. The reason it was pumped up like mad in the last two decades was because of tax laws. The tax laws were written in such a way that lots of people bought houses not because they wanted to live in them but because it was the best tax shelter around."
Although virtually every potential Democratic candidate for president has endorsed some variation of the "reindustrialization" idea, Etzioni concedes that the Democrats have not shown a willingness to tackle such middle-class entitlements as the mortgage-interest deduction. "The best I can say for my fellow Democrats is that we're struggling," he says. "We are talking about these things."
Yet he professes genuine optimism that the Democratic Party will emerge from its current confusion with a policy not unlike the one he has proposed, and that, put into effect, it will improve the national muscle tone. In short, he believes the decline and fall of these United States may yet be a reversible process. He even has a ready answer to the question of what other society has ever renewed itself at a comparably low moment.
"They are infrequent, I'll grant that," he says. "There are two. One is the Catholic Church, which after the breakaway of the Protestants did clean its own house in the counterreformation . . . Second, and even more interesting, the British monarchy. It's extremely well symbolized by The London Times editorializing on Queen Victoria when she was annointed and when she was buried. When she came to the throne, The London Times said that this was going to be the last monarch because the British monarchy had lost its legitimacy, its power, its reason, and the British had put up with so many incompetent kings they couldn't tolerate another one. And when she was laid to rest, The London Times said that the monarchy would live forever . . ."
As a social scientist, he admits the evidence for an American upswing remains murky at best. "But societies very rarely march in a straight line," he insists. "They do turn about, they zigzag, they don't just go to hell and destroy themselves."