Welcome to The Agenda, our new blog on politics and policy. My name is Reihan Salam. Among other things, I am the co-author, with Ross Douthat, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, which has just been released in paperback. Right now I’m a fellow at the New America Foundation, a post-partisan think tank that includes hawks and doves, conservatives and centrists, and liberals, policy wonks, and big thinkers. I’ve been blogging on and off since 2002, and I’ve worked as an editorial researcher, an editor, and a news producer. But my main interest throughout this period has been reviving the American social model.
When conservatives fret about the Europeanization of the American economy under President Obama, they’re getting at something very important. Though generalizations about Europe’s diverse economies can be misleading, there is a real sense in which inflexible labor markets have excluded large numbers of people from the economic mainstream.
So-called automatic stabilizers protect immigrants and the poor from the worst ravages of poverty, yet worklessness, like homelessness, has contributed to intense social isolation and poor health and, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, a pervasive sense of despair across the continent. The high-employment American model, in contrast, has much to recommend it.
Yet you have to wonder: Is the American welfare state as it exists the best imaginable expression of the underlying American social model?
Consider the onerous payroll tax, the most punishing burden facing the vast majority of American workers. Or take our unreformed, unreconstructed Social Security system, which sends millions of retirees to their graves by discouraging productive work. Opponents of single-payer and socialized medicine rightly note the flaws in those approaches. At the same time, we have to recognize that our current healthcare system is statist to the core, only it is built on an overlapping series of collusive arrangements between supposedly “private” insurers and the IRS, not to mention Medicare and Medicaid.
And while those of us on the right have tended to prefer tax subsidies to direct spending, we need to start recognizing that there is little difference: When the feds parcel out money like a child’s allowance, provided you buy this or that good, it’s spending through the backdoor.
The enduring popularity of the big middle-class entitlement programs merits a serious policy response from conservatives. The good news is that a number of elected officials, like governors Mitch Daniels and Bobby Jindal, Sen. Tom Coburn, and Rep. Paul Ryan, seem to get it. Conservative fiscal policy can’t begin and end with fighting earmarks, or trimming the slice of the budget that goes to discretionary domestic spending. If we’re going to make government cheaper and more effective at a few core functions, we need to look at the whole pie. That’s what I intend to do at The Agenda. I hope you’ll keep reading.