Friday, January 27, 2012

A New Morning in America

Remember when Ronald Reagan parted the clouds of Jimmy Carter’s national malaise and told us it was morning in America? Reagan was something of a snake-oil salesman (Dr. Laffer’s supply side elixir), but he tapped into the national psyche of self-reliance. He made us believe we could strike gold again. He made us feel hopeful. If you can’t have what you need, hope is the next best thing.

After four years of the worst recession since the Great Depression, many of us today aren’t feeling so hopeful. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future when you can’t see the path forward. Politically, we’re dug in. Half of us want the government to get the hell out of the way, and the other half want it to step up and do its job of helping those who can’t help themselves.

Tough times make us fearful, and no one is at his best when he is afraid; anyone who looks like he might be in the way of survival is the enemy. But economic and social policy are not war. They are not zero-sum games. Someone doesn’t have to lose for another to win. Hunkering down in the trenches of our own self-interest is not going to help us. If we are ever to accomplish anything more than waging better war, we need to find a narrative other than “us or them.” We are all us. There is no them.

This country was founded on rugged individualism. We are all libertarians at heart. But we all need help sometimes. Family helps us. Friends sometimes. The government frequently. We ride on roads of government help, use the electric power of government help, peacefully go about our business under the protective care of police, firefighters and our military. If we lose our jobs, we collect unemployment assistance until we get back on our feet. If we need medical care, no emergency room will turn us away. We all rely on the infrastructure of a civilized society.

The tricky part is how to pay for that infrastructure and how to get the help where it is needed in the most efficient and humane way. In a large, diverse society, there are no practical alternatives to taxes as the method of payment and government as the means of assistance. The only real questions are who should pay how much in taxes, and who should receive how much in aid. The answer to the first question is self-evident: those who can best afford to pay are the ones who should. The answer to the second is equally unambiguous: those who need help are the ones who should receive it.

Not so fast, you say. Why should everyone get help? What if they’re malingering? Why should I support someone who is too lazy to work? It’s a fair question. To even the most charitable, it doesn’t seem right for some folks to sit back and do nothing while others work hard to support them. We spend a lot of time in the bureaucracy trying to sort that out who is trying to find work and who is free-loading, and we don’t do a very good job. What if we could conclude that that kind of inquiry is neither necessary nor desirable? What if we could convince ourselves we would all be better off if we let no one go hungry, even the lazy, that we should feed our neighbor not because it is the moral thing to do, but because it is in our own economic self-interest to do so.

In a recent New York Times an op-ed piece titled “The True Cost of High School Dropouts,” Henry Levin and Cecelia Rouse pointed out that for every dollar spent to keep kids from dropping out of high school, the gain to society is $1.45 to $3.55, depending on the educational intervention strategy (earlier preschool, smaller class sizes through high school, higher teacher salaries). “Studies show that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.”

I cite this one example because the facts are handy and compelling. There are similar examples across the width and breadth of the social safety net. Better wellness care leads to fewer long-term health issues; better health insurance leads to fewer costly emergency room visits; better prenatal care leads to healthier infants; better childhood nutrition leads to better students and healthier adults. And so on, and so on.
John Kenneth Galbraith

Over a half-century ago, the respected economist John Kenneth Galbraith made the case for guaranteeing to all at least the minimum income needed to live. He acknowledged that some would choose to live off the dole rather than work, but he believed that most would not want to accept a subsistence lifestyle and would strive for more. He made the argument not on moral grounds, but on the same kind of practical grounds that Levin and Rouse use to make the case for spending more to reduce dropouts: over the long term, society gets back more than it spends to help people have enough to eat, stay healthy and gain an education.

We all understand that if we neglect to maintain our homes or our cars, we will pay more to repair them in the long run. The same is true for our collective selves. Sooner or later we will bear the costs of neglect of our neighbors. There is no way to opt out of those costs. If we are wise, we will do the maintenance now that will keep the costs reasonable over the long term. If we are wise, we will pay a little more now so we can pay far less later.

The trouble is, now is now and later always seems like much later. It’s a normal human response. It’s the way every child thinks. For a five-year old, immediate gratification trumps deferred gains. We’re not children though, and we don’t need anyone to show us the way. Each of us has the power within us to plan for a better future.

Take a look at the candidates in the next election. Ask yourself who among them will look to those who can afford to pay taxes to do so. Ask yourself who among them will invest in our human capital by offering adequate nutrition, health care and education to even the least fortunate among us. These are the women and men who will usher in a new morning in America.


  1. There's a difference between getting a high school education and getting a high school degree. In our zeal to boost graduation rates, we have watered down the curriculum,and deemed those unqualified as "high school graduates".... turned them over to State Universities to complete their high school education. (remedial studies) That, in my opinion, is the biggest reason we are seeing tuition rates go through the roof.

  2. The answer to your question in your last paragraph is "none of the above" How much more evidence do you need to realize this is not a problem that has a political solution.

  3. Mr. Douthat has a point. I've recently watched our beloved State Government quash a merger between St. Mary and Elizabeth Hospitals and University Hospital because of St. Mary's stance on birth control..... they didn't want to dipense it. It was a generous offer, and probably would have kept University Hosp. humming not to be.
    So now St. Mary's is going to merge with Jewish Hospital.
    Too bad. It was a generous offer that got the back of the state's ungrateful hand. There will be important services unnecessarily curtailed, and the poor may indeed suffer, thanks to the vanity of the "progressive" agenda.....pathetic.

  4. If the answers to the questions in the final paragraph are "none of the above," then I posit the question, "What is the solution?" In fact, the political solutions are the only ones that are feasible. Who is going to provide even a minimal level of health care? Not charitable giving, which according to the American Association of Fund Raising Counsel, totaled only $26.49 billion for human services in 2010. The budget for Medicare alone was $453 billion. That does not include other human services such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Head Start or any state spending on human services. The total charitable giving for education in 2010 was $41.67 billion. The 2010 budget for the Department of Education was $45.7 billion, which includes all education spending, not just K-12. That is federal spending alone, not state spending which accounts for the great bulk of education spending. California alone, for example spent $64.13 billion on K-12 education in 2011, more than the entire federal budget for education. If "none of the above," then whom? If not political, then how?

  5. You say The Department of Ed. had a 41.67 billion budget in 2010? Do you think children are better educated now than they were before 1980? I don't. We were educated before there ever was a "Department of Education". So let's at least admit government's inefficiency.
    You shouldn't declare as "heartless" those of us interested in seeing Government improve. Nancy Pelosi didn't need Air Force Two, and a fully stocked bar everytime she jetted back to San Fransisco while Speaker of the House. She is a perfect example of governmental arrogance.
    Be honest, how much empathy do you think that horrid little woman has? I at least have the decency to acknowledge that yours and Mac's hearts are in the right place, whether you agree with me or not. I would appreciate the same consideration.

  6. One final thought about government's role.
    I think our biggest disagreement lies in the way we think those receiving government help will respond to that help.
    I believe that over time, that help will be taken for granted, expected, even demanded. The more it's freely given, the LESS grateful its recipients will be. And most important, they will be less and less inclined to trust their own self suffiency. It fosters a lack of self confidence. After all, the implication is that they cannot make it without government help. Don't be surprised when they believe it, and then feel cheated when the money stops. It really isn't heartless to tell someone they have the ability to make it on their own. It IS heartless to imply otherwise.

  7. I will not respond to many of your points because they are either false or misleading. For example, the focus on the Department of Education is a red herring because most K-12 education spending takes place at the state and local levels and between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, California funding for K-12 education dropped 23%, nearly one quarter. Rather, I will ask again the two key questions which your original post raised but which you ignore in your response: If not the government, then whom? If not political, then how?

  8. Another excellent piece. If Reagan hadn't begun the dismantling of the middle class, we wouldn't be seeing the desperation we are seeing now.