The Agenda

Against the Culture Warriors

This week, Frank Rich made an effort to use a cultural lens to explain disagreements over questions concerning economic policy. Rich suggests that opposition to health reform derives from deep-seated racism on the part of those of us who believe, or rather who claim to believe, that ACA is likely to prove too expensive. Throughout the column, Rich advances a number of problematic claims that betray a failure to understand some of the basics of the proposed legislation.

The historic Obama-Pelosi health care victory is a big deal, all right, so much so it doesn’t need Joe Biden’s adjective to hype it. But the bill does not erect a huge New Deal-Great Society-style government program. In lieu of a public option, it delivers 32 million newly insured Americans to private insurers. As no less a conservative authority than The Wall Street Journal editorial page observed last week, the bill’s prototype is the health care legislation Mitt Romney signed into law in Massachusetts. It contains what used to be considered Republican ideas.

It’s worth noting that when Social Security was passed, the age structure of the population was very different. The same applies to various Great Society programs. Baumol’s cost disease was not widely understood at the time because, well, Baumol was born in 1922, so he was in no position to explain the idea in great detail. Moreover, it stands to reason that expanding from a small base is in some sense “easier” than expanding from a larger base. The American economy will not grow as fast as the Chinese economy because the Chinese economy can apply insights from the American and other advanced economies, whereas we have to engage in an expensive trial-and-error process to achieve productivity gans. In a similar vein, expanding a large existing welfare state is pretty tough.

So while the premium subsidies embedded in the bill involve very big numbers, it’s true that they don’t represent an expansion of the federal welfare state as ambitious relative to the size of the existing federal welfare state as Social Security and Medicare. Such an expansion would require, by way of example, the centralization of all child-rearing in hatcheries modeled on the facilities described in Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World. (That’s a CBO score I’d like to see.)  

As for the Republican ideas trope, Rich understands that federal civil rights legislation was also a Republican idea, and I have to assume that he is not about to give the contemporary GOP credit. 

“Delivering” 32 million Americans to private insurers is not, as I understand it, a conservative goal. Giving Americans the option of purchasing private insurance coverage might be, but of course that’s a different matter. 

But all this is prelude to what Rich does most enthusiastically, namely offer cultural analysis. And this is not a coincidence. We all emphasize our strengths rather than our weaknesses. (My strength, for example, lies in making mixtapes.) It is hardly surprising that a cultural critic would see everything, including a weighty policy debate, through a cultural lens. What’s unfortunate is that Rich, widely regarded as the most gifted theater critic of his generation, doesn’t seem to be aware of his limitations. Moreover, his popularity means that he has fans cheering him on rather than true friends urging him to return to the work that he does best. 

That a tsunami of anger is gathering today is illogical, given that what the right calls “Obamacare” is less provocative than either the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Medicare, an epic entitlement that actually did precipitate a government takeover of a sizable chunk of American health care. But the explanation is plain: the health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964.

Rich then notes that the demographic composition of the American population is changing, and suggests this fills white people with an unspeakable, irrational, and uncontrollable dread. 

Though I’m not an expert on these matters, my broad sense is that the prospect of paying much higher taxes is a more likely source of consternation among cash-strapped voters, including a not inconsiderable number of non-whites. In his essay on the U.S. budget crisis in the most recent issue of National Affairs, Donald Marron, a former acting CBO director, writes the following:

Consider just one (plausible) scenario sketched out by CBO: Assuming that tax revenues over the next 25 years average about 20% of GDP, closing the fiscal gap in that same time period would require cuts in spending amounting to more than 5% of GDP. Closing the gap without any spending adjustment, and relying on taxes alone, would thus require tax revenues to exceed 25% of GDP. This amount is significantly higher — 40% higher, to be exact — than the roughly 18% average of recent decades. Such a dramatic increase would surely infuriate the taxpaying — and voting — public, and therefore seems highly improbable.

Improbable turns to impossible if policymakers seek to address our fiscal imbalance solely through tax hikes on individuals and families with high incomes. President Obama has backed himself into an unsustainable position with his campaign pledge not to raise taxes on Americans who earn less than $250,000 a year.

Granted, it could be that Marron is terrified by the prospect of a deluge of non-white children running amok. But my sense is that he is more concerned about the baleful consequences of a heavy public debt burden on the economic prospects of the next generation of American children, which will most likely won’t have a non-Hispanic white majority.

If today’s taxpayers were paying the full cost of today’s spending, I’m guessing that our political debate would look very different. That’s yet another reason I’m convinced that the Bush tax cuts were a mistake. 

To paraphrase a gifted politician,

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We don’t like paying really high taxes in the Blue States, and we don’t like diverting funds from existing unsustainable entitlements towards new unsustainable entitlements in the Red States. There are people who aren’t racist scoundrels who are skeptical of the preliminary CBO score of the new health legislation and there are people who sincerely believe that expanding insurance coverage is a moral imperative so profoundly important that it’s worth passing an unworkable law that all but guarantees a spending explosion. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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