Archive for the 'Republican Party' Category

Douthat: right policy, wrong politics

[by JSC5]

Ross Douthat’s column today presents a smart critique of the richboy subsidies and corporate welfare enshrined in current law, from the mortgage-interest tax deduction to agricultural subsidies and lack of means testing in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a broad, if not very definitive, endorsement of a more egalitarian state that doesn’t shovel quite so much money towards non-needy recipients each year. There’s a lot of good policy that could come out of Douthat’s vision, and it is heartwarming to have a voice of sanity on the right these days — even if he is (sadly) out of the mainstream of his own party and completely without influence over actual Republican decision-makers. So instead of offering the kind of backhanded compliment you just read in the previous sentence, I should probably be doing my bit to politely encourage engagement on the general principles Douthat lays down.

But I just can’t keep myself from pointing out a very weird moment in Douthat’s column:

“The trick is to channel those [pitchfork] impulses in a constructive direction. The left-wing instinct, when faced with high-rolling irresponsibility, is usually to call for tax increases on the rich. … [But] the class warfare we need is a conservative class warfare, which would force the million-dollar defaulters to pay their own way from here on out.”

So Douthat wants us to believe that leftwingers wake up every morning looking for a tax they can raise, while the conservatives are the adults in the room making sure the government doesn’t subsidize the rich? Pardon me while I scoff. Douthat’s error here is common, if not innocuous. All of us have the tendency to let tribalism infect rational political debate. But it’s still improper to identify a good set of policies and then assume that because (a) you like those policies, and (b) you usually see yourself on Team Red, then (c) those must be conservative policies. It seems to me that means-testing parts of the safety net, rolling back subsidies of McMansions and suburban sprawl, and cutting Big Agra’s welfare checks are all … not conservative policies. They’re broadly ‘liberal’ policies, with everyone from leftwingers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias to libertarians like Tyler Cowen* signing up for the same general principles. To my knowledge, no such broad swatch of leading conservative intellectuals (besides Douthat) are ready to heartily endorse these reforms.

Now, to be fair, you’d be hard pressed to find actual politicians of either political flavor ready to sign on to these reforms. But at least they are operable ideas within the liberal realm of thought!

That said, I now retract my backhanded compliments to Douthat, replace them with forehanded compliments, and politely encourage more people from all political walks of life to seriously engage with the issues Douthat raises in his otherwise excellent column today.

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* My apologies for not providing links here. I’m just extrapolating from past posts I’ve read of each of their work. If anyone finds information to the contrary, please let me know and I’ll update.

Say what, Tom Friedman?

I don’t know why Tom Friedman is still a prominent public ‘intellectual’. The man has a really tough time coming up with an argument that doesn’t assume, as the old yarn goes, that the plural of story is data – as anyone who struggled through The World Is Flat will tell you. If, like me, you had to put his book down after the third OMG! anecdote involving a random CEO, a first class airline lounge, and a developing country, and you’ve been living in fear for years that everyone else on the planet thinks the book is actually good and only you hated it, then you’ll really, really appreciate these three brilliant Friedman reviews by Matt Taibbi.

With that as background, let’s look at Mr. Friedman’s recent opinion column in which he pretends like he knows something about political science. The core of his argument:

I want a Tea Party of the radical center. Say what? I write often about innovation in energy and education. But I’ve come to realize that none of these innovations will emerge at scale until we get the most important innovation of all — political innovation that will empower independents and centrists, which describes a lot of the country.

He goes on to advocate non-partisan redistricting committees as well as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Bam, you’ve just been Friedmaned. But whereas a highly-paid, jet-setting columnist gets to disregard actual human knowledge in favor of pulling things out of his ass, we in the small-time blogging world of Joint Stock Company like to keep things a little classier. So here’s an evidence-based look at Friedman’s four key assumptions that make his argument work (or not):

  1. Independents and centrists make up “a lot of the country”
  2. Gerrymandering promotes partisanship
  3. STV reform would empower the center of the political spectrum and reduce partisanship.
  4. Moderates actually care about good governance, balanced budgets, debt reduction, and innovation.

Let’s go point by point.

First up, ‘Independents’. This one’s the easiest, since political scientists have been debunking the Myth of the Independent for over 20 years now. You can read up on some of the details on these posts from a great professional poly sci blog. The take-home lesson is that political independents aren’t actually very independent. Most are just partisans who prefer to call themselves ‘independent’ because it sounds a whole lot better. Who would you believe, the party hack, or the independent-minded bloke? Case closed. The fact is there are very few true Independents in our country. Most people are strong to mild Democrats or Republicans.

Next up, the much-maligned gerrymandering of districts. There’s actually been some academic research into the effects of gerrymandering on partisanship recently (pdf), and the researcher could not find a significant effect. This squares with arguments from policy wonk bloggers, who don’t think that gerrymandering is the source of partisanship in America.

On to voting reform. I’m actually a big fan of the Single Transferable Vote, but I don’t think it would do what Friedman seems to think it would do.  As Yglesias noted on his own Friedman response: ” The dynamics of a political system that features a President, along with a congress, creates incentives for politicians to try to fit themselves into one of the two major parties. That’s at least part of the reason why the Blue Dog group in the House has preferred to organize itself as a party faction rather than a free-floating centrist party. Moving to an STV system might push more moderate legislators in the direction of trying to run as third parties, or it might expose those legislators to third-party challenges from the left.” Or perhaps what STV would actually do would be to empower the extreme right and left (as happens often in multi-party parliaments in other countries, as DiA notes). In other words, if you’re looking for a slam-dunk path to reducing partisanship, STV ain’t it. [Though STV is great for many, many other reasons].

Finally, the actual politics of the center. Friedman wants the center to be the sober, responsible political group that will cut spending, raise taxes, and invest in education, energy, and business innovation. I sympathize, because I, too, yearn for many of Friedman’s goals. But I don’t see much reason to believe that the center of the political spectrum is where I’m likely to find like-minded individuals. Why? This one’s harder to argue on evidence than the previous 3 points (because there’s just not much data on it), but my strong hunch is that people in general love government spending when they and people like them are net recipients, and tend to dislike it when they aren’t. That’s how you get welfare state farmers complaining about spending health care reform, and Medicare recipients bashing food stamps. It’s the simple ethnocentric formula we’ve always had as a species: in-group = good, out-group = bad. For an interesting read on ethnocentrism and support for various types of government spending, see this interesting book and blog post. Are we to expect that somehow the people in the center are magically exempt from what look like general trends for the rest of the population?

In summary, Friedman is right in that he political process is hyperpartisan, but that’s because we as a people are hyperpartisan (contra Friedman). Creating a non-partisan redistricting process may be a good thing to do, but there’s no reason to think it will change the partisan nature of our politics. STV is great on its own merits, but there’s no reason to think it would increase or decrease partisanship either way. The smart way to handle modern partisanship is to realize that it’s here to stay. The idealized bipartisanship of the past was a result of political parties that were riven by race, and only after decades of ideological re-sorting following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act did we finally arrive at a modern, ideological party system in the 1990s. Putting Friedman’s ignorance of the evidence to one side for the moment, the bigger problem with his column is his quixotic quest to 1) pretend that magical people in ‘the center’ are not partisan, and 2) empower them. Why not take people as they are, and change our naive institutions so that they can function in our brave, new, partisan world? Ending the filibuster, anonymous holds, and unanimous consent in the Senate would be a good start, and eminently more practical than waiting for the Godot of a reasonable, policy-oriented, Independent movement.

Leviathan on hold

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is now law, and as much as this is a big victory for 30 million people without insurance and anyone else who will get sick in the future and need insurance, it’s also a victory for Executive power. “I believe this commission is the largest yielding of sovereignty from the Congress since the creation of the Federal Reserve,” says administration budget director Peter Orszag, via Ezra Klein. And given how ineffective Congress is these days, that may actually be good thing.

Orszag is specifically referring to the Independent Payment Advisory Board created under ACA. The Board’s job is to propose cost-saving measures for Medicare to keep cost inflation no higher than the average 5-year GDP growth rate plus 1%. And the Board has a great deal of power. Here’s Ezra explaining:

If Congress approves the board’s recommendations and the president signs them, they go into effect. If Congress does not vote on the board’s recommendations, they still go into effect. If Congress votes against the board’s recommendations but the president vetoes and Congress can’t find the two-thirds necessary to overturn the veto, the recommendations go into effect. It’s only if Congress votes them down and the president agrees that the recommendations die.

My guess is that the political equilibrium will be for the Board to make proposals and for the Congress and President to ignore them and thereby allow them to go into effect without being personally responsible. That gives the IPAB quite a bit of actual power to cut costs in what will soon become the largest item in the federal budget. And who decides who will be on the IPAB? The President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Board’s 15 members will all have 6-year terms, renewable once.

Another big win for executive power in the ACA is the role given to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, currently Kathleen Sebelius. The text of the Affordable Care Act says that the secretary shall define, determine, or create 1,697 things. New powers accruing to the Secretary include the ability to define specific benefits and regulate insurance options on the exchanges.

There are two lessons here. First, for Republicans: this is what happens when you adopt a complete rejectionist strategy instead of negotiating to improve the bill. Certainly many liberals were never interested in bipartisanship, but House Blue Dogs and Senate centrists like Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson were dying for some bipartisan cover. Left to negotiate amongst themselves, Democrats came up with a bill that expands the discretionary powers of the presidency over the congress and the states. Presumably some authentic conservatives may have liked to avoid this situation. So next time, Republicans, try playing the game instead of taking your ball and going home.

Second, this may just push the Democrats to reform Senate procedure. As Prof. Bernstein has been saying since ACA passed, Republicans are likely to start blaming every single problem in the health care system on the newly-passed law, much like they blamed Obama and the stimulus for every economic problem after January 2009. That gives the administration and its party a large incentive to make sure the law is implemented as professionally as possible. The problem is that all the key figures for implementation (the Health Secretary, dozens of other sub- and assistant-secretaries, and the IPAB) are administration appointees, and the appointment process is broken. At this point in his presidency, Obama has had far fewer of his nominees approved by the Senate than his predecessor. Because of arcane Senate rules like unanimous consent and the anonymous hold, staffing up a modern administration turns out to be very, very difficult in a climate of partisan obstruction. The administration and the party have clearly been annoyed by this for a while, but the need to implement the ACA should give them an extra push to do something about the problem at the beginning of the next congress.

Shifting definitions of ‘liberal’

Ross Douthat is the New York Times’ wunderkind conservative pundit. Like anyone with a forced, public writing schedule, he writes some very smart things, but then he goes and writes some not-so-smart things.

His column today mainly argues that only time will tell whether conservatives or liberals are right about the health care bill that just passed. He guesses that it’ll take 20 years before the data is in, but after that, someone is going to be able to say, “I told you so.” That’s true, and it’s useful to keep some perspective on these matters. Don’t believe anyone who says they know exactly how this bill is going to affect the US health care system, health outcomes, the budget, and the broader economy over the next quarter century.

Where I part from Ross is when he calls the bill itself ‘liberal’, designed by liberals, and resting on naive liberal assumptions. He says that liberals believe “a bill this costly, this complicated and this risky can be made to work, so long as the right people are in charge of implementing it.”  He concludes, “As a conservative, I suspect they’re wrong.”

First, a liberal bill is a single-payer bill, which would put the federal government in charge of insuring everyone in the country (kinda like how the federal government is in charge today of insuring all seniors, veterans, and lots of poor people in the country through Medicare, the VA, and Medicaid). It works for many current US programs (Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for poor people, and the VA for veterans), and it somehow magically works for a large number of wealthy, industrialized western nations — despite Ross’s pessimism to the contrary.

That’s what a liberal bill looks like. A slightly more moderate bill, but still on the liberal side, would have created a government insurance program with a large price advantage that would compete head on with private insurers (ie, the public option). Clearly that’s not in the bill that passed last night.

A truly moderate, evenconservative, bill would probably retain our private, employer-based insurance system while creating new and deeper markets for private insurance in the individual market. Funny enough, that’s exactly what this bill does. It is by far a more moderate, even conservative bill, than that offered by Republican President Richard Nixon. In fact, the bill that passed last night looks most like the compromise bills Republicans were offering to President Clinton in the early ’90s, or the proposals of Bob Dole and other aging Republican luminaries from 2009. And it particularly resembles Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts.

This cannot be repeated enough: the bill passed last night is a piece of moderate legislation, not a radical, liberal attempt at social engineering. Yes, it was backed by liberals and attacked by conservatives, but its a moderate, even conservative policy approach to start fixing the health care system. I don’t know when it became normal for conservative pundits to call increased competition, reliance on private enterprise, and creating new markets “liberal”.

My second point has little to do with the first, but it’s important nonetheless.

Ross’s pessimism about our ability to do anything, ever, with government is just plain weird. I wonder if Ross’s well-intentioned doubts about the ability of government to implement large, complicated bills apply equally to big things that Republicans like? What about the Bush tax cuts (much higher price tag than health care reform, with dire budgetary consequences)? Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize social security (certainly a much more radical, sweeping change to social policy than anything in the health care bill)? The attempt to engineer a vibrant democracy in Iraq? What about  Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which Ross seems to like (it envisions ending Medicare as we know it)?  Are any of these proposals just too big, costly, and complicated to actually work?

Or is Ross’s pessimism about government action less about philosophy and more about which party is making the proposal?

Bye-bye, NCLB. Hello … what?

The Obama administration has released its blueprint for education reform and revising Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I haven’t read through it yet myself, but I’m looking forward to it. The New York Times summarizes some groups’ reactions well:

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of the proposal, “From everything that we’ve seen, this blueprint places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent of the authority.”

That kind of hyperbole is clearly not meant literally, and I really doubt if the teachers’ unions are going to leave the negotiating table this early in the game. The bill isn’t even in committee yet! This seems like the kind of thing people say to vent and to signal members of Congress about their desire for some sweetener in the final mark-up. My guess is the unions stay on board for quite a while longer.

This next complaint, from civil rights lawyers and academics, seems much more serious:

Christopher Edley Jr., a former Clinton administration official who is dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on civil rights law, said a briefing document he read had left him concerned about the administration’s direction. “I worry about retreating from the notion of quality education as a civil right,” Mr. Edley said. “N.C.L.B. had some good sticks in it to compel equity. I’m alarmed by the frequent references to ‘incentives,’ and the apparent intention to reduce the federal role in forcing compliance.”

Lots of smart education policy experts really like the direction NCLB took in making educational equity a civil rights issue. I tend to agree with them. Incentivizing and nudging are all great, but maintaining the credible threat of nasty federal intervention can be a useful tool, too. Institutional inertia, especially in education, is such that we shouldn’t be restricting our approach to just budgetary carrots and sticks. Enterprising education rights lawyers and state and federal government lawyers need tools that can help in litigation, if it comes to that. I haven’t read the Administration’s proposals yet, so I can’t say whether Mr. Edley’s concerns are warranted or not, but I’m interested to find out.

Finally, this complaint from a Republican congressperson seems pretty vacuous:

Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House education committee, was also skeptical. “From 30,000 feet, the blueprint seems to set a lot of right goals,” Mr. Kline said. “Yet when we drill down to the details, we are looking at a heavier federal hand than many of us wish to see.”

Maybe that means that the administration focuses too much on federal power and authority in pursuing educational goal, when it would be better to take a more decentralized approach … or maybe it means that Rep. Kline has two very conflicting goals: improving educational quality and equity in America, and never doing anything with the power of the federal government. I guess it’s hard to decide the issue at first glance, but my hunch is that, taking the long view, it’s hard to conclude that too much federal control has created our underperforming education system. Exactly how would Rep. Kline like to meet the goals of the president’s proposal — which Kline says he supports — without using the ‘heavy hand’ of the federal government?


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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