David Frum is taking on Yuval Levin and Paul Ryan in a multipart series of blog posts. Several scattered thoughts on what Frum has written:
1. Frum summary of Yuval Levin's ambitious article on reforming the welfare state, "compassionate conservatism is kaput." This is a problem only if you assume that a marketing device is preferable to constructing a sustainable welfare state under current demographic conditions. Taking care of the most vulnerable while not crushing the economy under taxation seems pretty compassionate to me.
2. Frum writes that there would be huge resistance to sharp cuts in spending joined to "tax cut[s] for high-bracket taxpayers." Well that depends. You could somewhat cut the marginal tax rate for high earners and still produce more federal revenue depending on what you did with tax expenditures (that was in the Simpson-Bowles Plan but there are multiple ways to structure the tax code changes.) This approach improves work and growth incentives while producing more revenue for the government. Some high earners who are happy with their current balance of disposable income and leisure might object to such a change, but I don't think that is what Frum has in mind. I should add that I'm talking about general principles and I don't entirely trust Ryan's instincts in this area.
3. Frum writes, "I come to feel that the libertarian ideal championed these days by so many conservatives has become at least as drained as the social democratic idea." If Frum were writing about Andrew Napolitano, then this comment would make sense. Ryan's Path to Prosperity would maintain a multitrillion dollar federal government with enormous transfers to various segments of the population and a large defense establishment. The federal government would still be spending 19% of GDP under Ryan's Plan. This might be a smaller government than Frum would like (it is somewhat smaller than I find prudent) but it isn't libertarianism any more than Obamacare is communism. Frum is being the Joe the Plumber of ex-conservatives.
4. Frum is grateful that "now-substantial government/education/health/military sectors of the economy continued to provide some source of stable demand" Well he needn't worry as the federal government will continue to have substantial military/health/etc. sectors under any conceivable legislative outcome of our current debates. He would be wiser to worry whether the cost of those sectors will grow in such a way that the costs will lead to crushing taxation or a debt crisis.
5. Frum writes of Yuval Levin's idea to means-test old age entitlement benefits "What is contemplated is the end of social insurance, at least as it applies to healthcare for retirees: a state to which all contribute on more or less equal terms and from which all draw benefits on more or less equal terms." What is amazing is that Levin really is suggesting social insurance in which government aids the poorest and most vulnerable of the elderly while not taxing current workers to death in order to give money to old people will not need it. Given current demographic conditions, we have certain choices. First, we could reorient our entitlements for future retirees so that those whose health holds up work a little longer and lifetime high earner retirees get somewhat less, or second, we could have some kind of huge tax increase and bureaucrat-directed health care cuts. Now those tax increases could take the form of enormous marginal tax rate increases on high earners (though that probably won't be enough) and/or tax increases on the middle and working-class in order to supplement the retirements of healthy lifetime high earners who are in their middle 60s + some kind of centralized health care rationing for all. Then we can really talk about austerity.