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Is There Really a ‘Conservative Reform’ Movement In Policy?



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Mike Konczal, who is a very smart and informed progressive policy blogger, has written a post in which he argues that the conservative reform movement is basically a bunch of new marketing without any real policy substance. As someone often identified with this movement, this didn’t seem right to me.

Konczal listed six elements of the conservative policy consensus that he argues the reformers in fact support. I don’t agree with five of these six elements of a conservative consensus. This isn’t revisionism: I went back over things I’ve published in the last several years to find evidence. 

I’ve listed below Konczal’s six elements of policy on which he argues conservative reformers agree. Under each, I’ve put sourced quotes from things I’ve written.

Konczal’s view of the conservative consensus:

1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word privatization is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

Manzi: 

The Right argues that we should privatize Social Security accounts. But like public schools, we would surely regulate what investment vehicles to allow — otherwise I could simply “invest”‘ in a retirement cache of Cheetos, beer and big-screen TVs. And like schools, we would have to have a set of regulations, adjudication, and enforcement. How is this different than simply having a wide variety of independently operated retirement funds among which Social Security recipient can allocate their funds? If we want to replace Medicare with so-called health savings accounts, we would face the same dilemma.

(Uncontrolled, page 260.)

Konczal:

2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

Manzi:

I believe that block-granting, even if achieved at one moment in time, is unlikely to be sustainable.

(Uncontrolled, page 243 [Note: this is in the middle of a two-page argument for why policy waivers are a superior strategy for flexible reform than block-granting])

Konczal:

3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

Manzi:

The federal income tax rate is highly progressive, but the total tax rate (including all federal, state and local taxes) is much less so. . . . What can be so eye-opening about this is how flat the rate distribution is from the second-lowest income quintile all the way up to the highest income quintile. . . . You can see why somebody sitting in the middle might not be so sympathetic to the argument that America’s key tax priority is to lower the taxes on the guy making $150,000 per year. . . . Being for lower taxes ought to be a core part of what it means to be a conservative for the conceivable future. As food-for-thought, it might be more useful to do this by (i) going after the total tax burden, for example through a child tax credit against payroll taxes, (ii) placing more relative emphasis on reducing marginal rates for capital gains than income, and (iii) tax simplification.

(Some Observations About Middle-Class Taxes, National Review Online, May 22, 2008)

Konczal:

4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

Manzi:

I don’t know how to reform American health care.

(How Not to Cherry-Pick the Results of the Oregon Study (Ultrawonkish), the Daily Beast, May 13, 2013)

Konczal:

5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

Manzi:

Perhaps the best illustration of these pressures — to innovate and deregulate without coming apart at the seams — is found in widening economic inequalities. . . . The Reagan economic revolution exacerbated the problem. . . . Rising inequality would have been easier to swallow had it been merely a statistical artifact of rapid growth in prosperity that substantially benefited the middle class and maintained social mobility. But this was not the case. Over the same period in which inequality has grown, wages have been stagnating for large swaths of the middle class, and income mobility has been declining. . . . We are between a rock and a hard place. If we reverse the market-based reforms that have allowed us to prosper, we will cede global economic share; but if we let inequality and its underlying causes grow unchecked, we will hollow out the middle class — threatening social cohesion, and eventually surrendering our international position anyway. This, and not some world-is-flat happy talk, is what the challenge of globalization means for America.

(Keeping America’s Edge, National Interest, Winter 2010)

Konczal:

6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

Guilty as charged. But this sure seems like moving the goalposts to me. It felt pretty lonely six years ago when I argued on the cover of National Review that man-made global warming is real, and when I then proposed exactly the policy approaches that Konczal rules out as what he would mean by “real” conservative policy reform. In effect, all the qualifiers Konczal has to put on this point reflect, in my opinion, actual conservative policy-reform success. I believe that the fact that conservatives haven’t adopted the preferred progressive policy of a carbon tax and/or carbon rationing isn’t a result of ideological blinkers, but rather that the progressive policy seems like an incredibly bad deal for American taxpayers.



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