Politics & Policy

Obama: Try Something New

(Pool Image/Getty)
If failure is a reason to end a policy, here are a number of candidates for the axe.

During his State of the Union address last week, President Obama defended his Cuba policy by pointing out, “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

As it happens, I agree with the president on Cuba. But it seems to me that his advice should be applied to a number of other issues as well. For example:

The War on Poverty: Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in January 1964, just three years after the start of the Cuban embargo. Since then we’ve spent more than $20 trillion fighting poverty. Last year alone, federal and state governments spent just under $1 trillion to fund 126 separate anti-poverty programs. Yet, using the conventional Census Bureau poverty measure, we’ve done nothing to reduce the poverty rate. More -ccurate alternative poverty measures do show some gains during the War on Poverty’s first few years, but little change over the last several decades, despite steadily rising expenditures. And, whatever success we’ve achieved in making material poverty less uncomfortable, we’ve done little to help the poor become independent and self-supporting.

The War on Drugs: The War on Drugs has been going on even longer than the War on Poverty, with a similar lack of success. In fact, while the term “War on Drugs” dates only from around 1971 and the Nixon administration, the policy itself can be traced back to at least the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Comprehensive numbers are hard to come by, but in the last ten years alone we have spent some $500 billion fighting this “war,” and arrested more than 16 million Americans for drug offenses. The vast majority of arrests have been for simple possession, not sale or other drug crimes. While filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders, destabilizing countries like Mexico and Colombia, wrecking our own inner cities, and making the cartels rich, the drug war has failed to reduce either violence or drug use.

Government-Run Health Care: Some might suggest that we’ve suffered from government-run health care in this country for more than 50 years as well. Medicare and Medicaid started in 1965. Others would point out that we are still suffering the consequences of the IRS decision in 1953 to make employer-provided insurance tax-free, while individually purchased insurance has to be paid for with after-tax dollars. No matter how you want to measure the starting point, the government now pays for roughly 52 percent of U.S. health-care spending, and indirectly subsidizes another 37 percent. The result has been steadily rising health-care costs, a dysfunctional insurance market, and a growing shortage of physicians. Patients on Medicaid are often unable to find a physician who will accept the program’s fee structure, driving them to the emergency room for treatment. Indeed, a study out of Oregon suggests that being on Medicaid provides no better health outcomes than being uninsured. Meanwhile, Medicare is running up more than $47.6 trillion in unfunded liabilities. And let us not forget the VA system and its problems.

The Department of Education: The establishment of the Department of Education in 1979 marked the beginning of an era of increasing federal control over education, culminating in No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Since 1980, federal spending on education is up roughly 170 percent in real terms. Yet, just as in the War on Poverty, more government involvement has not meant better results. Does anyone seriously want to argue that American schools are 170 percent better than they were before the Department of Education?

One could go on and on. Fannie and Freddie? Social Security and its almost $25 trillion in unfunded liabilities? Stimulus spending? Green energy? We won’t even mention the National Weather Service’s apparent inability to accurately predict snowstorms.

If we are looking for lessons to learn from the last 50 years, here is one: Bigger government has not brought us more security, more freedom, or more prosperity. Yet, President Obama still sees the answer to every problem, no matter how small, as more government, no matter how big.

We are often told that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. President Obama not only seems unable to learn from history, but apparently doesn’t even listen to his own speeches.

If big government hasn’t worked for 50 years, 100 years, or for that matter pretty much the whole of human history, maybe it’s time to try something else.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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