I thought that column was muddled rather than excellent. Samuelson writes:
Vast budget deficits reflect both parties’ unwillingness to make unpopular choices of whose benefits to cut or whose taxes to boost.
Given this evasion, the public agenda gravitates toward issues framed as moral matters. Global warming is about “saving the planet.” Abortion and gay marriage evoke deep values, each side believing it commands the high ground.
I don’t believe that the claim he is making–that we talk about global warming and abortion so much, or the way we do, because we aren’t serious about balancing the budget–is true or even plausible.
Samuelson also writes:
People backed [the health-care bill] because they thought it “the right thing”; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are what I call “psychic benefits.” Economic benefits aim to make people richer. Psychic benefits strive to make them feel morally upright and superior. But this emphasis often obscures practical realities and qualifications. For example: The uninsured already receive substantial medical care, and it’s unclear how much insurance will improve their health.
The problem here is that Samuelson has reduced the motives for political action to two: a desire for benefits for oneself or a desire to “feel good about” oneself. Yet one might sincerely think that justice compels a course of action, with any effect of that course of action on his self-esteem a secondary issue (and any such effect would entirely depend on his believing it to be the right course of action in the first place).
Finally, Samuelson misses one important feature of the health-care debate. He thinks it was so polarizing because Obama and his allies framed it as a moral issue. They certainly did so on some occasions. But on many occasions they downplayed the moral argument for their legislation and instead insisted that their reforms would cut costs, help the economy, etc., when none of this stuff was what primarily motivated them. A debate more explicitly about the moral issues might have been a better one.