TCS Daily

The Nostalgia Party

By Patrick Hynes - May 19, 2005 12:00 AM

There are the occasional Aha! moments in American politics, moments of mass clarity that require no spin, no explanation, they simply are. One such moment was Democrat National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's endorsement (since clumsily retracted) of Socialist Congressman Bernie Sanders for U.S. Senate.

Another Aha! moment comes to us in the pages of the May issue of the liberal monthly the American Prospect. Advertised as "Tax and Spend! The Case for Big Government," the Prospect's symposium is a full-throated defense of liberalism in a hurry. In this era of dishonest triangulation, cosmetic government expansion, and creeping incrementalism, the voices in this symposium provide an honest and refreshing reminder of what the pro-government party genuinely believes and why their philosophy never caught on in America.

In a piece titled "Bigger and Better," Jacob S. Hacker argues that "when it comes to providing broad-based social-insurance programs, it's the government that's rational and the market that's dumb."

To dissect Hacker's point, we first need to address the bizarre formulation that Social Security and other entitlement programs are "insurance" plans. What, exactly, are compulsory contributors to America's Social Security system insuring against? Getting old? If that's the case, the federal government is the single dumbest insurance company of all time. 100% of its customers -- except those altruistic enough to die before reaching retirement age -- will file a claim under this "insurance" plan on a date certain. The result is the financial mess the federal government finds itself in with this too-generous insurance plan. Without an injection of market reforms, the system will be forced to reduce benefits or increase premiums (in the form of taxes, of course) or perhaps a little of both. Yes, the market is cold and sometimes even cruel, but it doesn't offer false promises of infinite bounty so absurd they are embarrassing to entertain, as the present "social insurance" programs do. In the open market the dumb government-as-insurance-provider wouldn't stay afloat a week.

Geoffrey Nunberg's amour with big government, as expressed in his contribution "Thinking About the Government," is so deep he even dismisses the idea of streamlining the behemoth by giving it new tools and technologies to deliver the same services with greater efficiency:

        "In the name of modernity, Democrats have been abandoning not just the 
        principles but the language that has historically defined the party, instead 
        using a defensively anti-government rhetoric that they can never really 
        own ..."

It's all smokestacks and breadlines for Nunberg who actually cites The Grapes of Wrath in his euphoric defense of government run programs. The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1940.

But Merrill Goozner outperforms Nunberg in the hysteria department. Goozner references another fictional work, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, to stake the claim that only government can guarantee us "safe products, a clean environment, and honest markets." The Jungle was published in 1906.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich rails against the Bush administration for participating in the global economy, a trend that began under Reich's former boss, President Bill Clinton:

        "Thus does the United States find itself in ever more intense competition 
        with every other nation to attract and hold capital. But this strategy for 
        meeting the competition gives the United States no means of maintaining 
        high living standards for its citizens. If nothing is done to reverse this strategy, 
        the public sector will eventually shrink to the point that it can do almost 
        nothing other than defend the nation."

Reich goes on to predict the usual cataclysms:

        "The wages and benefits of ordinary workers will continue to drop. Economic 
        security will vanish as individual incomes will depend on continuous 
        spot auction bids for each individual's services. At some point, as capital and 
        labor move ever more freely across the nation's boarders the spectrum of 
        exceedingly rich to exceedingly poor in the United States and other nations) 
        will exactly reflect the widest spectrum of wealth and poverty in the world. 
        American society will be sharply sorted and pulled apart."

The alternative, Reich informs us, is "not protectionism." Rather, Reich prescribes a chimera so fuzzy headed it could only emerge from the humanities department of an Ivy League University:

        "In this 'Great Common Market' as we might call it, global companies 
        would no longer be able to play one jurisdiction against another because 
        access to virtually all the advanced economies of the world would require that 
        they play by the common rules that balanced property rights against social 
        rights. As a result, tax revenues collected from corporations and wealthy 
        investors would increase substantially ..."

Huh? Reich leaves it to the reader's imagination how forcing fair labor laws on China would increase tax revenue in the United States. But it doesn't matter. Reich's remedies for putative global economic ills are absurd enough to create a de facto trade war with almost every country in Asia and the southern hemisphere.

It goes on like this. Jack P. Shonkoff insists an expansive federal government is necessary to raising healthy kids. Robert Kuttner proposes a bizarro "Ownership Society" in which the government owns almost everything. And Paul Starr opines that government rationed freedom is the only means by which to obtain true liberty.

The modern liberal movement, as characterized by the American Prospect's big government symposium, has devolved into a reactionary and unimaginative faction pining for the glory days of the early and mid 20th Century when government expansion was all the rage and "the future" was happening now in the old Soviet Union.

But on top of recommending pessimistic ideas, there is considerable evidence the dreamy left is also just plain wrong. Consider America's forty-year-and-counting war on poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans below 125% of the poverty line was 21.3% when Lyndon Johnson's Great Society war began in 1966. It remained nearly that high until 1983, when Ronal Reagan's tax cuts kicked in. From then through 1989, poverty fell to 17.3%. It actually spiked again during the Bush (41) and Clinton presidencies, but it is once again receding during the Bush (43) presidency, where it currently stands at 16.9%. In these data, we hear echoes of Ronald Reagan asking "why would we ever want to go back?"

Patrick Hynes is a Republican consultant and the proprietor of the blog


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