Inequality and the Political Choice We Have

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Photo: Julie Denesha/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I’ve had a bit of a back-and-forth with Ross Douthat about populism, which is my way of warning you that if you’re not the kind of reader who enjoys long debates between columnists, you should probably stop reading right now. Douthat made a pretty sensible critique of President Obama’s signature Osawatomie speech. I noted this, and pointed out that Douthat was essentially saying that Obama would leave in place runaway inequality, while tinkering around the edges a bit, but that Douthat was omitting the crucial context that the other party plans to dramatically worsen inequality through its policies. Douthat has a reply that, I think, evades all the issues I tried to nudge him toward confronting.

Douthat defends the Republican tax agenda as looking out for the interests of the middle class:

If you’re concerned about broadly shared prosperity rather than just inequality per se, it doesn’t just matter whether the government taxes and spends but whether the spending delivers real returns for working Americans, who after all pay taxes as well as benefiting from them. (Remember that “locking in the Bush tax cuts” locks in lower rates for the middle class as well as for the rich, and the long-term defense of the welfare state’s existing programs will inevitably require unprecedented tax increases in middle-income earners.)

The Bush tax cuts did include cuts for the middle class, but it was regressive overall. And all the leading Republican tax proposals, from Paul Ryan’s Roadmap to Newt Gingrich’s plan to the Republican supercommittee offer to Mitt Romney’s relatively small plan (which eliminates the estate tax), would make the tax code more regressive still.

Douthat then begins to argue, somewhat obliquely, that many programs don’t actually help increase opportunity:

Head Start, for instance, doesn’t “provide a bit of relief to the unfortunate” because by almost every measure it doesn’t work.

Douthat has picked a really bad example here. There are decades of research on Head Start, with notoriously mixed results. The general consensus is that the program does help young children, with large variations between the most and least effective programs, and that the benefits tend to fade over time. I don’t see how this in any way suggests the best way to spread opportunity is to starve the public sector of resources. The intuitive conclusion would be to reform Head Start so that it funds only the programs that deliver results. Obama is actually doing exactly that.

Douthat detours into a lengthy discussion of various federal programs and whether they could be run more effectively. It’s entirely irrelevant to the question at hand. Obviously, the more efficiently designed a program is, the better. But at any given level of efficiency, a higher level of funding will do more for its beneficiaries. The question here is the Republican agenda of holding taxes for the rich as low as possible and thus starving the public sector. Maybe you can minimize the damage if you undertake a bunch of really great program reforms, but it remains the case that huge tax cuts for the rich are going to increase inequality.

Douthat turns to that by focusing on the tiny flecks of non-plutocratic policy in the Republican program:

Republican proposals to make the tax code more regressive and to repeal Obamacare without replacing it with any kind of insurance are foolish, counterproductive, or worse. (I guess this is where that “moderation” comes in.) But I would note that the most likely Republican nominee in 2012 — Mitt Romney, even now — has deliberately avoided embracing regressive tax plans and talked insistently (if a bit robotically) about focusing on the middle class. And I would also note that Paul Ryan, the intellectual leader of the Congressional Republicans, has consistentlychampioned the most plausible right-of-center replacement for Obamacare

But Romney is swearing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, like House GOP, has no health care proposal. His health care proposal to is throw 30 million people off insurance. Ryan has consistently proposed deep, regressive tax cuts, and the budget he pushed through – the definitive statement of his priorities and goals – simply repeals coverage for the uninsured and leaves them on their own. The sole point of moderation Douthat clings to is Romney proposing only to lock the Bush tax cuts in and deepen them just a little. But of course keeping the Bush tax cuts in place is to dramatically constrain the scope of government in order to ratify an utterly failed experiment in supply-side economics.

Douthat oddly pays homage to the cause of more government aid to the poor:

By redistributing ever-larger amounts from the working-age population to (often affluent) retirees, they’re making our welfare state not only more expensive but also less redistributive than it used to be. 

This is a common meme, but it makes zero sense. First, the government is “less redistributive” because conservatives have successfully targeted means-tested programs for the poor, primarily under the Reagan budget. Second, it would be even less redistributive if we passed the Republican budget, which draws an incredible two-thirds of its savings over the next decade from the small pool of programs that aid the poor. And third, Douthat describes entitlement programs as distributing money from workers to “often affluent” retirees. Well, yes, but far more often retirees are not affluent. And “often” workers are affluent. And the workers will eventually become the retirees. Medicare and Social Security are not making the country less equal.

And sure, Ryan co-sponsored a far less radical Medicare plan that helps Romney’s campaign. Douthat snarks, “Chait considers Ryan a Randian fanatic in wonk’s clothing, so I’m sure he has a theory about the House Budget chairman’s secret plutocratic motives.” I should note that I’m not the one who considers Rand to be Ryan’s intellectual inspiration. That would be Paul Ryan who says so, repeatedly. And it really doesn’t require a complicated conspiracy theory to understand Ryan’s interest in getting Wyden to support a less radical plan to privatize Medicare. Ted Kennedy was constantly sponsoring incremental health care reforms with Republicans. It didn’t mean he was abandoning his larger goals.

Douthat keeps trying to steer the conversation back toward the imaginary choices he wishes the political system was offering America. But Obama’s speech can’t be understood except in the context of the actual choices we have: One party that accepts skyrocketing inequality, and wants to sand off the rough edges a bit by covering the uninsured and increasing a few other public goods, and another that wants to starve the government’s ability to provide public goods while holding the tax rate for the rich as low as possible.