It is a good idea not to make to much of one jobs report, but I'm still going to upgrade my estimate of Republican chances in the 2012 presidential election from moderately pesssimistic to slightly pessimistic. I still think Republicans are well into "going to have to earn a victory by being better than merely competent" territory. We could use a better Republican presidential candidate. Come to think of it, we could also use a good President.
Run Bobby Run
Reihan Salam has some interesting takes on the politics of Paul Ryan's Path To Prosperity. It seems to Salam that center-right intra-coalitional dynamics influenced the PTP for the worse by requiring that any tax reform be revenue neutral. This meant that Ryan's PTP included less spending for Medicare (and therefore sharper cuts in Medicare) than did his earlier Roadmap.
Salam is probably right that Ryan expected his plan to be the "rightmost pole" in the entitlement debate. Ryan has succeeded in one very important sense. The broad center-right's conversation on health care and entitlement issues is the best it has been in a long time. There isn't as much John McCain mumbling a little boilerplate about health care before moving on to really important issues like earmarks. One danger is that the PTP will become a test of conservative identity that determines whether one is a "real conservative." The kind of shallow opportunism shown by Newt Gingrich should be stigmatized, but there needs to be room for different kinds of realistic right-leaning health care and entitlement reforms.
Salam wonders whether Ryan's PTP was overreaching both in how much it reduced Medicare spending and in presenting such an aggressive Medicare plan before having won what should be easier arguments like block granting Medicaid. That is a plausible fear, but I wonder if the Democrats aren't in at least equal danger of overreach. Salam writes, "Democrats see an opportunity to double down on a deus ex IPAB approach that hands over political responsibility for Medicare cuts to an appointed board with an ill-defined mandate to be formed in the future. They sense that this is a political winner, and that now is decidedly not the time for compromise."
This Democratic rigidity is actually a weakness if Republicans have the wit and skill to exploit it. The Republican message in 2012 shouldn't be Ryancare vs. bankruptcy or Ryancare vs. entitlement mentality or Ryancare vs. Obama-hasn't-proposed-anything-realistic-wah-wah-wah. It should be a post-Ryan plan (here are my thoughts - again) vs. enormous centralized denials of service and cuts to health care providers that will make it harder for seniors to see doctors.
The journalist Joel Mathis asked, in connection with a book I wrote, since conservatives accuse liberals of wanting a government that's always bigger than the one we have, what's the conservative reply to the accusation that we on the Right always want taxes that are smaller than those we currently pay? My answer is one way to describe the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals want government spending to be the independent variable that determines tax levels, and conservatives want government spending to be the dependent variable determined by taxes. I'm a conservative in this regard, not just because I think the government we get by letting our tolerance for taxes determine the size of our welfare state will be smaller than the one we get by telling the government to do all sorts of compassionate things, and then mentioning as an aside some years later that we'll need to raise taxes to pay for all our commitments. I'm a conservative because I think it's democratically healthy to confront the hard question about taxes first and directly, and then let our answer to that question determine the budget perimeter for our welfare state. It is democratically unhealthy to proceed the way liberals have habitually dealt with the problem, by promising generous programs that will "pay for themselves" or even "pay for themselves many times over," and only later, after people have come to expect and depend on the stream of government benefits, fess up about the taxes required to sustain them.
Mathis suggests a fiscal and moral symmetry: For liberals the answer to how much government should spend, especially on social welfare programs is always, "Just a little bit more," while for conservatives the answer about the right level of taxes is always, "Just a little bit less." But there are important asymmetries. Believing that we should have all the government, but only as much government, as we're willing to pay for--as opposed to all the government we need, or think we need, or just plain want--conservatives are happy to discuss the limits of a democratically bounded welfare state. Doing so is sound economics, because we'll never have a structural deficit resulting from a built-in mismatch between the government's spending commitments and its taxing capacities. It's also good politics because it insists that the citizens make their decisions about the scope of the welfare state on the basis of clear, honest assessments of what its programs will provide and cost. Both the politicians and the voters, in other words, are required to be adults.
Medicare's initial cost projections, for example, were based on the assumption that people receiving large government subsidies for hospital stays and doctor visits would avail themselves of those benefits at exactly the same rate as they did when they were paying for those services on their own. This same spirit of candor is reflected in the argument for Obamacare, which insulted our intelligence by claiming that a massive expansion of our entitlement programs was, above all, a way to control costs - although how it would control costs couldn't exactly be specified since the government boards that would come up with all sorts of ingenious solutions to the problem of delivering the same level of health care to all the people now getting it, and additional health care to millions of others, while dramatically reducing per-patient health care outlays, wouldn't issue their initial recommendations until after Barack Obama's presidential memoirs were published.
Moreover, when liberals feel that when we're closing in on alleviating the ancient causes of human misery--people being ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished, etc.--they react by getting to work on coming up with new problems for the welfare state to solve. In 1957 Arthur Schlesinger called for government to address the "problem" of "spiritual unemployment," and, sure enough, by 1965 President Johnson is promising us that the Great Society will banish "boredom and restlessness." This is the madhouse aspect of the political situation I was trying to describe in "Never Enough"--conservatives' feeling that as we put check marks by the items on the top of the list, whether from growing prosperity or the success of welfare state programs, liberals are busy adding new items to the bottom of the list.
There's another way in which the preferred liberal framework for considering the welfare state argues against an open, productive discussion about what the government should and shouldn't do. You point out that federal taxes account for a lower proportion of GDP than they have for 60 years. But not all GDP percentages are created equal. In 1950 the per capita Gross Domestic Product was $12,343, using the OMB's "chained price index" to adjust for inflation by expressing 1950's nominal dollars in terms of the dollar's buying power in 2005. In 2010 per capita GDP, deflated the same way, was $42,190. America was nearly three-and-a-half times more prosperous in 2010 than in 1950.
If liberals would participate in a discussion about what the welfare state should do, and the limits to what the welfare state should do, we could grapple with the question of how long-term economic growth would enable us to finance the welfare state's operations with a constant or even diminishing slice of a growing pie. This is certainly the approach we have taken to defense spending. In 1953, at the height of the Korean War, America devoted 14.2% of GDP to national defense. In 2010 we spent 4.4%. By this measure, our defense spending has declined by nearly two thirds. But America today is a much richer country than it was in 1953, even after taking into account the current slow recovery from a severe recession. Using the OMB's "total composite defense deflator," our defense outlays in 2010 were $617 billion, measured in 2005 dollars, while those expenditures in 1953 were $515 billion. Measured in real dollars rather than GDP points, we spent 20% more for defense in 2010 than we did in 1953.
Welfare state spending has grown in relative terms and really grown in absolute terms. In 1950, the last time federal taxes yielded less than 15% of GDP, federal outlays for "human resources" amounted to $44 billion, using OMB's "total composite non-defense deflator" to express every year's outlays in terms of the dollar's value in 2005. ("Human resources" here includes all federal outlays for Social Security; all other income maintenance programs; Medicare; all other health programs; and all programs for education, job training, and social services.) In 2010 human resources outlays, deflated the same way, were $2.06 trillion, 47 times as large. Even if we adjust for population growth, the increase is enormous, from $288 per American in 1950 to $6,547 per capita in 2010, a 23-fold increase. This increase is the result of devoting a much larger slice of a much bigger pie to human resources in 2010, when human resources outlays equaled 15.7% of GDP, than we did in 1950, when they were only 2% of GDP.
So, Mathis asks, how high should do conservatives want our taxes to be? High enough to pay for the things the government needs to do. Which are those? In a democracy, all the things the people feel the government really ought to do. I'm happy to abide by the outcome of the democratic debate over that question, but I think it should be conducted honestly. Honesty requires stipulating that the amount of government we get is no larger than the amount we're willing to pay for, as opposed to the dream-world welfare state we would build if wealth were limitless.
It also means that as our nation becomes more prosperous we should expect the welfare state's budget to require a diminishing portion of our national income rather than, as it has since the New Deal, a growing portion. We should expect this for two reasons. First, a welfare state with a clearly defined mission, as opposed to one where the goal posts are constantly receding as we move down the field toward them, should be one we can finance the way we have financed defense spending over the past half-century--by spending a smaller portion of our growing national economic output. Secondly, a growing economy should mean that more and more Americans can pay for more and more of their own needs and wants through their own economic efforts, rather than through the political efforts it takes to secure more and more generous welfare state benefits for more and more recipients. In other words, one of the reasons to like a growing economy should be that it makes a smaller welfare state possible, rather than because it makes a bigger one possible.
Stop the presses! Hope and
change same at the New York Times: Jill Abramson has been announced as the replacement for executive editor Bill Keller. Even if she weren't a lefty, this comment tells you about all you need to know: "[I]n my house growing up, The Timessubstituted for religion."
Couldn't have stated the problem better myself.
Ramesh Ponnuru is giving House Republicans who voted for the Ryan Budget good advice on withstanding the barrage of negative attacks that are sure to come next year. Some key points,
1. Republicans need to do their homework and master the arguments on the Ryan Budget's Medicare reforms. They need to watch tapes of Paul Ryan at town hall meetings or hold long talks (in groups if necessary) with Yuval Levin and James Capretta. They need to anticipate the left's attacks and have pithy responses. They should not be like Senator Mitch McConnell. When McConnell was asked how Ryan's premium support plan was different from a voucher, McConnell responded "He [Paul Ryan] says it is different." McConnell isn't up for reelection until 2014 and he managed to be comfortably reelected in the horrible (for Republicans) year of 2008. He can afford to give vague, lazy, responses. If you are a House Republican and you think you can get away with such responses, then don't bother campaigning. Stay home and watch cartoons (I recommend Warner Bros. from the 1930s and 1940s.) The result will be the same.
2. They need to make the Medicare fight a choice rather than a referendum on the Republican plan. As Ponnuru writes, "If your reform plan is weighed against an impossible dream of keeping Medicare exactly as it is regardless of affordability, voters are going to prefer the impossible dream. If it's compared to the real alternative, you just might make it." The good news is that the Democrats have already cut Medicare for current seniors by hundreds of billions and the President has proposed a further trillion dollars of cuts for current seniors. And these are only the beginning. These cuts will take the form of making it harder to see providers (because providers will drop Medicare patients due to lower reimbursement rates) and denials of service. IPAB should be the four favorite letters of every House Republican.
3. There is no substitute for sweat. House Republicans need to crisscross their districts at town hall meetings and every other venue explaining their Medicare proposals. Starting today. Every senior should have heard, (face-to-face from their congressman hopefully) that a) Obama and the Democrats had already cut their Medicare and were planning to cut it even more and b) the Republican Medicare plan leaves Medicare unchanged for the currently elderly and near elderly. There is no hiding from this issue and it will be high salience. Any House Republican who gets caught flat footed or lets their constituents first learn about the Republican Medicare plan from liberal attacks is too lazy and/or stupid and/or shallow to be in Congress. You have a year to get ahead of this. That doesn't guarantee survival, but it gives you a chance.
I would add,
4. The Republicans need a better Medicare policy. House Republicans should pray that the eventual Republican presidential nominee comes up with a more defensible plan and does a good job explaining it. They should then affiliate themselves with that plan.
Refine & Enlarge
"The 'litmus test' for judicial appointments established by the Reagan Administration concentrated on a potential appointee's willingness to overrule Roe." (Morton Horowitz, Harvard Law Review, 1993)
Really? Of the five justices sent to the Supreme Court by Reagan and George H.W. Bush, three voted to sustain Roe. Would any of the people put on the Court by Clinton or Obama vote to overturn it? I have my doubts. Who has a litmus test?