Squeezed, Part III: Building Better Government

if you don't believe in government

(By NCrissie B)

This week’s series explored the causes and consequences as working Americans are increasingly squeezed by stagnant wages and rising costs of living. First, we saw how workers have largely stopped sharing the benefits of increased productivity. Yesterday we explored the social and political consequences if working Americans continue to be squeezed out. Today we conclude with some social and policy solutions to relieve the squeeze on workers.

Operationally liberal

Republicans say they want to cut government spending, but they won’t offer specific proposals. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists that President Obama must “step up to the plate and lead us in the direction of reducing our excessive spending.” As Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall put it:

In other words, big cuts to key social insurance programs are not only the price of avoiding what would likely be a catastrophic government shutdown (a real one, not like what we had back in the 90s). But Democrats must also shield Republicans from the political consequences of cutting these programs by cutting them on the Republicans behalf.

That’s a pretty big ask, no?

If that “pretty big ask” seems bold to the point of brassy, The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman offers a cogent reason:

Almost half a century ago, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril argued that Americans as a whole were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal, meaning that in broad terms they like “small government,” but when one gets specific it turns out they like almost everything government does, and want it to do even more of it.

Polling agrees. Consider this telling graphic from a January 2012 ASCI survey on satisfaction with government:

A September 2012 Pew Research survey found similar results: a majority of Americans wanted “smaller government providing fewer services” … and to increase or maintain current spending on every specific program polled. For all the talk of rugged individualism, Americans recognize that most of our challenges require collective action.

The debate is over …

The New York Times‘s Thomas Edsall met a similar response from Harvard economist Richard Freeman:

As long as we have big problems – climate change, terrorism and terror states with nukes, threats of pandemics, adjusting to China, India catching up with us, etc. – and have big banks that can destroy economies and big companies which can harm us per cigarettes and pollutants – I do not see what shield we have but government. The solutions to these problems are collective ones, which mean government.
[...]
I would rather be ruled by an elected government than the top 1000 billionaires on Forbes’ list — so I don’t think the issue is big government but the way government operates and hope that technology and information and media offer some chance for us to get a better handle over what big government does.

Ezra Klein agreed in an article for Bloomberg:

For all the bitterness in Washington these days, it’s easy to miss the broad consensus that undergirds our contentious politics. Republicans swear to protect Medicare and Social Security, and most recognize they can no longer hope to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Democrats voted to make the George W. Bush tax rates permanent for almost all Americans.

This is not a stable peace. The Democrats have mostly won the debate over what the government should do, while the Republicans have mostly won the debate over how much the government should tax.

… The debate begins

Yet as Klein notes, what we want government to do does not match up with how much we’re willing to pay. The solution, Klein argues, ultimately turns on whether our government can do what we want – and what many need – at a cost we can afford. He cites three papers from the New America Foundation that offer worthwhile insights:

  • In Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy, Johns Hopkins political science professor Steven Teles argues that our systems of government tend toward excessively complex, “kludgey” policy solutions. That complexity makes it more difficult for ordinary citizens to know who benefits and how. The result, Dr. Teles argues, is a “substantial amount of government action that redistributes resources upward to the wealthy and the organized, to the disadvantage of the poorer and less organized.”
  • In No Discount: Comparing the Public Option to the Coupon Welfare State, Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal explores the benefits and costs of government subsidized individual choices (e.g.: Obamacare vouchers to buy private health insurance) versus direct government programs (e.g.: Social Security, Medicare). Konczal concludes that while vouchers offer the advantages of individual choice and market competition, well-run public options reduce excessively complex choices and can also rectify market failures.
  • In Congress’ Wicked Problem: Seeking Knowledge Inside the Information Tsunami, Lorelei Kelly argues that Congress is less corrupt than simply ignorant about the complex problems they try to help solve. The result is that well-funded lobbyists provide information, but only the information that favors the lobbyists’ clients. Members of Congress are far less likely to know how a given policy will affect hardworking families, and that asymmetry skews policy to favor the wealthy and well-connected. Among Kelly’s solutions are better funding for the Congressional Research Office and other independent policy analysts, and better sharing of such research so that ordinary citizens can understand and advocate with their elected leaders.

“a more perfect Union”

Debates about how to make government work better for “We the People” are essential in our quest “to form a more perfect Union.” Progressives can no more bring back the golden years of the 1950s and 60s – which in truth were golden only for white males – than conservatives can return our nation to their rose-tinted vision of the late 19th century. We and our children face challenges that neither the Framers nor our grandparents foresaw. We cannot expect their solutions to fit our challenges, nor should we shut off debate by insisting that (conveniently) dead people held a monopoly on political and social wisdom.

As MIT economist David Autor told Edsall:

We’re going to have a social safety net. The question is whether we’re going to have a rigid set of institutions and incentives that have been ossifying since the 1950s, or whether we’re going to belly up to the bar and modernize these systems in light of how the world has changed and what we’ve learned from economics and social policy in the intervening half century.

Indeed Autor argues that the safety net is essential if we expect working families to support innovative solutions to long-term challenges:

[A safety net] makes the public more not less receptive to accepting disruptive changes in market conditions. If the safety net is effective and voters understand that, they can safely support policies that have long-run benefits and short-run costs without putting themselves at personal economic peril.

Endlessly squeezing working families will not make them more willing to work toward “a more perfect Union.” Workers reasonably ask “Better for whom?” and – if the answer is “Better for the wealthy and well-connected” – many will reasonably choose not to play along. Only better government can ensure that the answer to “Better for whom?” is … “All of us.”

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))

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