Thursday, August 08, 2013

Republicans Can’t Beat Something with Nothing

Come senators, congressmen 
Please heed the call 
Don't stand in the doorway 
Don't block up the hall 
For he that gets hurt 
Will be he who has stalled 
There's a battle outside 
And it is ragin' 
It'll soon shake your windows 
And rattle your walls 
For the times they are a-changin'.

--Bob Dylan (1963)

We are just getting used to the idea that Democrats are America’s ruling class--again, as they were 50 years ago--yet it could be time to sing them out the door.

Democrats are on top, but vulnerable. The party of government--and every Democratic constituency is dependent on big government--is hurting because big government no longer delivers the goods. No jobs. No prosperity. No money for expensive new programs. You have to be blind to miss what’s taking place. And changing the subject to race won’t work, because we know it’s about class, not race. The ruling class holds its position because it delivers. It’s all about performance. And today, the ruling class isn’t delivering.

So change is in the air.   But just as you can’t beat somebody with nobody (see: Romney, 2012), you can’t beat something with nothing.  As New York Times conservative Ross Douthat says,
To overthrow a flawed ruling class, it isn’t enough to know what’s gone wrong at the top. You need more self-knowledge, substance and strategic thinking than conservatives have displayed to date.
Americans can agree with [dumping the ruling elite] but still reject the Republican alternative. . . First, while Republicans claim to oppose the ruling class on behalf of the country as a whole, they often seem to be representing an equally narrow set of interest groups — mostly elderly, rural (the G.O.P. is a “country party” in a far too literal sense) and well-off. . . Second, as much as Americans may distrust a cronyist liberalism, they prefer it to a conservatism that doesn’t seem interested in governing at all. . . The[y] sense that Obama was at least trying to solve problems, whereas the right offered only opposition.
Douthat believes, strongly, that Republicans aren’t reaching those who do need some of what government provides. His fellow Acela Corridor conservative Yuval Levin, however, writing in the National Review, seems more sanguine about life with less government:
the Democratic party has been moving away from economic populism and becoming truly the party of concentrated elite power. As our elites have grown more socially liberal and our economy has grown more concentrated and consolidated, it has become easier to pursue liberal goals through the system than against it and the Democratic party has become the party of the large, established players — the court party.
[Obama’s] agenda [is one] of consolidation — protecting larger players from competition in exchange for their willingness to serve as agents of government power and driving crucial sectors of our economy (finance and health insurance above all. . .) toward greater consolidation. . . As big labor gradually fades, the progressive economic vision has come down to big business and the state.
Capitalism is fundamentally democratic, after all — we today might say fundamentally populist. Adam Smith’s opponents were mercantilists. He argued against economic policies that pursued the benefit of the nation’s largest producers and traders, which were taken to be equivalent to the interests of the nation as a whole. They are no such thing, Smith insisted, nor does helping big business necessarily increase the wealth of the nation.
Clive Crook, a former Economist editor now with the Financial Times, Atlantic, and “Bloomberg,” cautions against blaming inequality--a favorite Democratic target--for the plight of the poor, even as he says helping the poor rise should be a priority:
it[’s] easy to believe that the recent surge in the incomes of the super-rich -- the main driver of U.S. inequality -- will make it easier for the very richest children to stay very rich, but . . . hard to believe it will help the poorest to stay poor. They’re separate issues with separate causes calling for different policy responses. . . Greater economic opportunities for the poor should be a priority for liberals and conservatives alike.
We recently noted how President Obama, in contrast to Douthat, Levin, and Crook, gives relatively little attention to the lower class, concentrating instead on middle class angst. It’s not that the ruling class, operating from its high perch, just can’t see past the middle class to the poor, or that it doesn’t care about lower class lack of opportunity. Rather, it’s that the party of big government, as the Atlantic’s Josh Freedman in an article entitled “How Not to Help the Poor: The Lesson of Soaring College Prices” reveals, understands retaining power is linked to middle class support:
While under a means tested program, funding shortfalls are often made up by raising the costs for the poor (after all, they are still getting a discount), universal programs share [i.e., spread] the brunt of price increases across the board. This creates more political leverage for people who are otherwise viewed as recipients of charity that can be taken away. "Universal programs generally have a greater and more stable effect upon life-course security than targeted programs because they have a larger political base of support," write health policy scholars Barbara Starfield and Anne-Emanuelle Birn.
Freedman is telling fellow big government supporters, including academia, that it’s wrong to increase college tuition sharply while simultaneously raising scholarship assistance for the poor. Means-tested programs hurt the poor in the long run, because it’s easy to cut benefits for the minority when, after all, they at least continue to receive some aid.

The right course to follow, Freedman explains, is the path pioneered by Democratic entitlement programs (“universal programs”). Social security and Medicare help the majority, so build majority political support for the programs. The masses become government program-dependent. So public universities should provide tuition relief to all students, not just the poor, and learning from Democratic experience with entitlement programs, build a universal constituency for subsidized college educations.

Conservatives understand Democrats are on the entitlement path to bankruptcy, and that the affordable, moral alternative is means-tested aid to the poor. The middle class will thereby receive proportionally less government support, but will benefit from a booming economy yielding more and better-paying jobs.

It seems, however, that conservatives have yet to work out how to pull the middle class off their entitlements addiction. Douthat would recommend a methadone program, while Levin leans toward “cold turkey.”

I think Douthat is right. Government should retain universal aid programs, while encouraging private sector growth. It’s the price of “Capitalism + Democracy.” The people rule. So the people will retain the entitlements they love, even as the people move toward greater use of means-tested aid to the poor, and help untether capitalism for the benefit of all.

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