Under-30s and the Politics of Public Sector Reform

The latest edition of The Transom, Ben Domenech’s excellent policy and politics newsletter, includes a reference to Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s report on under-30 voters in Montana. And Stolberg draws heavily on a national Pew survey of under-30 voters that ought to be encouraging reading for conservative reformers:

Under-30 voters are “the only age group in which a majority said the government should do more to fix problems,” the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported in November. In a Pew survey a year earlier, more than 8 in 10 said they believed that Social Security and Medicare had been good for the country, and they were especially supportive of seeing the programs overhauled so they would be intact when they retire. (Young people were also more open than their elders to privatizing the programs.)

And while Washington fights about how to cut the federal deficit, young voters believe that it is more important to create jobs, have affordable access to health care and develop “a world-class education system,” according to the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

So here’s a straightforward agenda that speaks to the landscape Stolberg describes:

1. Overhauling Social Security and Medicare to make them fiscally sustainable.  

2. “Privatizing”: introducing Swedish-style notional defined contributions (NDCs) and universal 401(k)s, revamping the Medicare Advantage system to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to choose the most cost-effective providers. 

3. Recognizing that long-term deficit reduction will flow from growth and innovation.

4. Encouraging business model innovation in medical care to encourage cost savings.

5. Facilitating organizational innovation in education by empowering charter networks (K-12) and specialized instructional providers (K-12 and higher education).

Which party is potentially more open to the agenda items listed above? I’d say the GOP wins on (1), (2), and (5). Both parties are terrible on (4) due to the pincer-like influence of organized labor and large hospitals (which constrain the left) and the doctors’ cartel (which constrains the right). Democrats believe that they’re the party of (3), and so do Republicans. But Republicans have tended to overemphasize fiscal consolidation as a default position in a visionless moment. Democrats, in contrast, associate growth and innovation primarily with public investment, which makes sense in some relatively narrow domains (biogerontological research! ARPA-E!), much less so in others. 

The problem for Republicans is that they can only be credible on (1), (2), and (5) if they appear willing to make an affirmative case for a safety net as a crucial part of a free enterprise system. This safety net ought to be limited and flexible, but until Republicans demonstrate that they aren’t just reconciled to the safety net as an inescapable reality but see its potential virtues in the right measure, they won’t be trusted to pursue the kind of modernization people like James Capretta and Yuval Levin have been advocating. 

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

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