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'Illions of Dollars

One of my little slogans that I've always wanted to pound into the heads of Democratic politicians is this: "All numbers that end in 'illion' sound the same." When a Republican says "Senator S0-and-so voted to increase taxes by fourteen million dollars," or "Social Security is $4 billion in debt," the fact that back on Capitol Hill, they would call those numbers "asterisks" really doesn't matter.

So I enjoyed this sentence from the Republican battle book on Social Security:

"Your audience doesn't know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large but not how many billions make a trillion."

(This is probably not because they are confused by the British system, in which one trillion is a million billion, which I didn't really understand until I tried to understand why the Financial Times always writes large numbers as "$4,000 billion.")

On the whole, though, if I were a Republican member of Congress, I don't think I'd feel too comfortable that this book would serve as the magical shield of virtue and sword of truth that would protect me from the political wrath of my constituents. I would be particularly worried by this paragraph:

"Your audience is skeptical of things that sound too perfect or too pat. They will dismiss the notion that the government can help them accumulate a million dollars in a personal account. They do not find it credible that the accounts will be easy to manage."

The playbook, as well packaged as it is, doesn't give that member of Congress much of anything to rebut these rather reasonable skepticisms. (Even under the Cato Institute's Social Security calculator, even a 35-year-old earning $70,000 would only accumulate about $600,000, so I don't know who's going to accumulate millions.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

DNC chair

Am I really expected to have an opinion about who should be the chair of the Democratic National Committee?

It is a mark of the opening up of the party in so many ways that so many people actually do have an opinion, and that even though it is a decision to be made by 400-some people in a smoke-free room, those 400-some people are conscious that people are paying attention to the choice. I was about to write that I have never known anyone who paid the slightest attention to a contest for DNC chair, except that I vaguely recall a friend of mine worked on the "Anybody but Ron Brown" campaign in the late 80s, as part of a faction that believed that Brown was either a stalking horse for Reverend Jackson or, more bluntly, that the fact that he would put an African-American face on the party would destroy it. Brown won, though, and those fears proved, shall we say, unfounded.

The majority of bloggers in my general center-left circle have endorsed Simon Rosenberg. And I'm also very comfortable with and enthusiastic about Rosenberg. I think the New Democrat Network is brilliant in many ways. Recasting the insights of the New Democrats without divisiveness was a great achievement, and NDN's outreach to Latino voters last year was one of those things that is painfully obvious, but no one else bothered to do it. I've never met Rosenberg, but I know lots of people who know and like him, from high school friends to people who work with him now or serve on the board of the New Democrat Network. I've been getting talking points and other pitches from the Rosenberg campaign for months, and they are persuasive.

But some caution or modesty is in order here. Bloggers should at least acknowledge that just "getting it" when it comes to new technology and new forms of participation isn't the only thing that makes someone the best person to run the DNC. There are a lot of things that the chair of the Democratic National Committee has to do, and some of them are relatively mundane things that matter a lot, but that us bloggers and pundits probably know less about. Particularly important is the health of state parties. I think it's fair to say that if Ohio had a better-functioning state party apparatus that had been working statewide for several years before the election, the odds of Kerry winning the state would have been a lot better. But I don't have a full diagnosis of what's wrong with many state parties or how to fix them. Do any of the candidates? I don't know: Wellingon Webb comes from one of the few states, Colorado, where the state party seems to be doing things right and has some serious victories to show for their efforts. How much he's a part of that, I don't know, but if I were voting, I would be intrigued. Likewise, David Leland is a former chair of the Ohio party in its healthier days, and I know he's been very involved with Project Vote, one of the best non-party voter mobilization groups. But he seems to have faded from the race. Apparently Donnie Fowler has won the endorsement of the state chairs, which seems odd but perhaps he had the most persuasive plan to them.

I don't think the chair of the DNC has to be or should be the main public face of the party, even out of power. I have no problem if the chair is as little known as Brown was at the time, or Paul Kirk or Charles Manatt were in earlier decades. In fact, I think a less public figure can be healthier for the party, if the chair understands that the party must have different faces in different situations and can skillfully deploy people like Senator Obama, Governors Granholm or Schweitzer, or Mayor Hickenlooper of Denver as appropriate. (All randomly chosen, and as I've admitted before, I just like writing Hickenlooper.) That's why I'm not particularly enthusiastic about Howard Dean chairing the party, even if it keeps him out of the presidential race. It's not his ideology, which I think is as malleable as they come, it's that he's a candidate at heart. I know, I know, he says it's about the people, but I would paraphrase former Senator Dale Bumpers in his great defense of Bill Clinton: When a candidate says, it's not about me, it's about the people, it's about me.

So that counts in Rosenberg's favor, and also the other lesser-knowns. The factor that I'd be most interested in if I had a vote would be that the chair not be completely immersed in the system and structure of the Democratic Party. By that I mean that he or she must appreciate the role that organizations and individuals outside of the party play in strengthening the party itself. Most people don't interact with politics through the Democratic Party establishment, but often the party doesn't seem to understand that. The role of local organizing groups, advocacy groups on all sorts of issues, candidate training and recruitment projects outside of the parties, state-level policy think tanks, and various other intermediaries between the people, the media and politics are all every bit as important as "the party" itself. Yes, the blogosphere is part of that large external world, but a very small part of it.

I do think Rosenberg understands this, and he's already built a record of working inside and outside of the party itself to make it stronger. I don't know whether the other DNC candidates get this. Dean probably does, but in a different way.

So, if I'm expected to have an opinion on this, it's two cheers for Simon Rosenberg. And the only reason it's not three is that I have some doubt that I'm qualified to have an opinion on this.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

"Earning" Health Care

The second comment on my post about the new term "welfare health care," used to denigrate a subsidized health program for working people, asked, "What name would you adopt for giving people a service they don't earn?"

I was a little glib in my late-night response: "Justice." So let me put it another way: In what sense can a person who works 40 hours a week at Costco and gets health insurance be said to have "earned" it, while a person who works 40 hours a week at Wal-Mart and does not get health insurance has not "earned" it??

I'm hardly radical on these issues. I'm not a an advocate of explicit redistribution of wealth, or a socialist. I'm steeped enough in the tradition of negative liberty that I don't speak of health care as a "right." (Rather, it is a positive benefit that, by democratic processes, a society can choose to allocate or guarantee -- and as a citizen in that process, I would argue for broad allocation.) I've come to appreciate the revolution in social policy in the last two decades under which the benefits of the social safety net, including health care, are tied to work, rather than need need.

Providing health care for everyone is a difficult problem to solve. Subsidized programs like Minnesota's are a stopgap to deal with the tremendous uneven-ness in employer-provided health care. I accept that there will be gaps and unfairnesses in just about any system that is politically viable and/or that accepts a continued employer role in health care.

But what I cannot understand, and never will, is an ideology such as the commentor's, or Governor Pawlenty's and much of what prevails in what is still known as "conservatism," that holds that these inequities and gaps are somehow right and proper, part of some cosmic justice under which those who get health care have "earned" it and those who don't have not.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

"Welfare Health Care"

The game of how-to-do-things-with-words continues: Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has apparently started referring to the state's health care program, MinnesotaCare, as "welfare health care." With this ugly tag, he hopes to win support for cutting the program. Less than 1% of the program's participants are actually welfare recipients, however. This is a program for working people.

A former legislator who designed the program put it well: "To the extent that there is welfare at play, it is the government bailing out employers who fail to provide this essential health insurance benefit to their employees."

This is truly disgraceful. If you want to know why welfare reform was not a total disaster, it is in fact because of programs like MinnesotaCare. In the past, government health care (that is, Medicaid) was largely limited to people on public assistance. The expansion of that and other programs to cover working people made it far easier to enter the workforce without losing health coverage.

I don't see how anyone could denigrate these programs unless they had a truly pathological hatred of anything that is public, governmental, or collective. And I suppose that's the answer.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

A New Career in a New Town

Well, not really a new career, and DC is an old town for me, but I have changed the place where I do whatever it is I do. After eight years at the Open Society Institute -- spanning a period from just about about exactly the second Clinton inauguration to the second Bush inaugural (or peak-to-trough as the economists would say), I've become a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where I join such stars of the blog- and book- osphere, respectively, as Steve Clemons and Mike Lind, as well as several other creative thinkers and activists. In fact, many of the ideas that I think represent the liberal alternative to the "ownership society" are housed at New America. It's an organization I've followed since its founding five years ago, and I'm very excited to join it. I'll be trying to develop some new approaches to the issues of reform of the political process, as well as working on other domestic issues I'm interested in, and writing, writing, writing. I'll say more about this as it develops.

But before I do, I should say something about the Open Society Institute, which is George Soros's foundation, and its programs in the U.S., a part of which I helped develop and run. Most of the press coverage of Soros's involvement in the election last year (which, for very sound legal reasons, I had less than nothing to do with), treated it as if this was his first entry into the United States. The basic framework of every story seemed to be that after investing billions to build democracy and other good things in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, now Soros was turning his eyes to the U.S., to unseat the president. Whether the story thought this was a good thing or a terrible thing, rarely was it mentioned that OSI was already one of the largest U.S. domestic philanthropies, averaging about $40 million a year, I think, since 1997.

(The exception to this pattern was in stories that called it an "irony" that before becoming a major political contributor last year, Soros had been a supporter of efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics, putting about $18 million into campaign finance reform since 1997, which I'm responsible for. Some stories even suggested that Soros had deliberately promoted the McCain-Feingold reform in order to create a loophole that increased his own influence. All this ignored, inter alia the fact that most of OSI's support went to encourage public financing such as the Arizona and New York City systems, rather than passing the McCain-Feingold limits on soft money (though we supported them); that the 527 committees that Soros and other donors large and small supported last year existed well before McCain-Feingold; or that the foundation is independent and continued to support efforts to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics and reduce dependence on large donors.)

OSI has been a terrific place to work because, unlike other large foundations, it has been daring and my colleagues understood that the underlying mission was to reshape the public debate. There are a lot of charitable foundations that play it pretty safe, shying away from controversy or any issue that might seem vaguely political. The guiding spirit of OSI, which comes directly from Soros to a greater extent than anything else about the foundation, has been that the privilege -- perhaps even the duty -- of having money is to take chances. That daring takes many forms -- a massive investment in after-school programs in New York City in the ultimately successful hope that state and local government would want to fund them fully; a willingness to take on issues that are either out of favor, such as reconsidering drug policy, or neglected, such as the treatment of death and dying by the medical profession; or a willingness to support good organizations just to do their work, not only for specific projects. If these sound like fairly disparate activities, that's true -- and that has been one of the historical weaknesses of the foundation -- a difficulty in establishing a sense of coherent purpose across all these initiatives.

The characteristic Soros/OSI approach to an issue has been to look for some point of leverage, almost a trick, where an intensive investment will open up new possibilities. This does come out of OSI's longstanding experience in Eastern Europe, where buying photocopiers for political dissidents and, later, basic Internet connectivity for civil society groups certainly helped broaden the scope of democratic society. In the U.S., the foundation's opening move, in response to Congress's denial of most social benefits to legal immigrants was to put up $50 million to help legal residents become citizens and remain eligible for benefits. That had all the marks of the classic Soros move: the small and apparently neutral act that would fix a bigger problem, without confronting the politics directly. But it was too elegant a solution: There are only so many new citizens the INS could process every year, so our efforts were building up the backlog, and many of the neediest legal residents really couldn't expect to naturalize. (Try learning English at 90.) A relatively small investment in advocacy on behalf of reversing the changes, however, succeeded, and Congress did restore most of the benefits for permanent legal residents. That was an important lesson for OSI in the value of advocacy and ideas over delivery of services, although the foundation continued to do both.

OSI was/is entrepreneurial -- or, I should say, it encourages entrepreneurship and individual initiative -- in a way that is unprecedented in philanthropic operations and all but a very few non-profits or think tanks. (New America is in this sense a close parallel.) In many cases, OSI had a program on a particular topic largely because Soros or the board found a particular person compelling and gave that individual -- such as Ethan Nadelman on drug policy or the brilliant doctor Kathy Foley on care for the dying -- a relatively free rein to design a program around his or her vision. I'm neither as single-minded as Ethan nor as expert as Kathy or my other colleagues, but their presence contributed to a spirit of enthusiasm and conviction that made all of us more imaginative and forward-looking. The entrepreneurial spirit sometimes made for a chaotic structure, and one that was difficult for outsiders -- that is, people and organizations seeking financial support -- to figure out how to access.

I don't mean to engage in the self-congratulation that is all too common among grantmaking foundations. Foundations often don't seem to recognize that they don't do things, they just make it possible for other people to do things, which is why ultimately I was ready to do something else. But it was a great perspective from which to see the world of progressive politics and political reform, and I learned a lot about the many different ways in which Washington advocates, community organizers, membership organizations, well-designed research groups, and idea-generating public intellectuals can change the terms of public debate.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Using Chaos

Michael Crowley of the New Republic has a fascinating insight into the real game that House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas might be playing on Social Security, with some fascinating quotes. In short, his point is that this is what Thomas always does: make some noise that suggests he's independent or going to screw up the White House's plans, and then, when he's been treated with the proper deference, he falls into line: "While some Democrats may see Bill Thomas as a heroic dissident," Crowley writes, "when all is said and done, he may turn out to be just another House GOP apparatchik."

And there is certainly enough evidence mustered here to show a very clear record of Thomas's behavior. I've never paid much attention to Thomas, but people who have to deal with him seem to develop quite a obsession. He is a strange character, one of those politicians who raises a question that's always puzzled me: Why do people who don't seem to like people at all wind up in electoral politics?

Anyway, back to the point. Crowley's is an important reminder that every time we think the Republican command-and-control operation seems to be breaking down, they pull it back together. It's not just Thomas. Remember Senator Voinovich's vow to vote against any tax bill in 2003 that cost more than $300 billion? They laughed at him, tinkered some numbers to give him cover, and he voted for it. Same with the Medicare bill.

But something feels a little different this time. The basic Bush m.o. is to take something that's superficially popular in a general sense -- tax cuts, Medicare drug benefits, getting tough with bad guys like Saddam -- and stuff into that envelope outrageous specifics, daring anyone to oppose the basic principle. Two academic papers that I've mentioned before -- "Homer Gets a Tax Cut" by Larry Bartels, and "Abandoning The Middle: The Revealing Case of the Bush Tax Cut" by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson -- both show how this dynamic worked in the case of tax cuts, in which a very loose preference for lower taxes and total ignorance of the details was used to push through cuts the specifics of which would not survive any test of public opinion.

In this case, though, Bush does not -- or does not yet -- have the popular envelope into which to stuff private accounts. Republican members of Congress aren't hearing any constituency demand to change Social Security in any way, and the false claims of crisis are undermined not only by the facts but by the George Wills and Newt Gingriches who either didn't get the memo or chose to ignore it. And the fact that, as I've argued before, Bush himself did not put his neck on the line during the election to test the popular appeal of changing Social Security makes it very hard for him to convince members of Congress that they should.

Crowley concludes with an interesting quote: "What's much worse for the members of the House is to attempt Social Security and fail," [Michael] Tanner [of the Cato Institute] says. "If you get [reform], and the checks still go out to seniors in 2006, the [Democratic] scare tactics are over. But, if you try and fail, then everyone says, 'Aha! If they had succeeded, then you wouldn't be getting your checks.'"

That's the opposite of my own belief, a distinctly minority viewpoint, which has been that part of the game with Social Security was to force a debate between Republicans holding out limitless visions of universal prosperity and opportunity, and Democrats blocking it in the defense of a stale old boring program. In my view there's plenty to be gained by losing, and I think that still applies if the audience is not just people who are getting checks, but those who aren't -- the younger voters to whom this is pitched. Still, to win-by-losing, the White House needs to get to a level of credibility that is very far away.

But Tanner is right that members of Congress are going to be more scared of older voters. (Also known as "chronic voters.") And if what he is saying represents what the members believe then this is a very difficult moment for them. If this is what the members think, then they have to be terrified of even entering into the debate without some reasonable certainty that they can "win." And I don't see how they can have that certainty, especially knowing that the handful of Democrats in the Senate ready to play along on this is too small and getting smaller. At that point, they have to be thinking about how to change the subject, now. And if the White House isn't ready to change the subject, then they really will drift farther apart.

At that point, this gets interesting. Congressional politics, which lately has been about as interesting as watching robots reenact the Myth of Sisyphus, has suddenly become as complex and uncertain as it has been since the resignations of two Speakers of the House in quick succession back in 1999. Thomas is not the only member with his own wacky ideas, and when the White House loses control, they all come out of the woodwork. But that's the "normal" way Congress works, and sometimes it leads to getting things doen. Neither this White House nor the congressional leadership has ever had to operate under normal conditions in which Senators and representatives think and act for themselves. How at this late date can they adjust to it?

One possibility, as Kevin Drum suggests today and Ed Kilgore hinted at a week ago, is that there is a plan, and the plan is to change the subject to tax anti-reform. Agree with the Democrats to set up private accounts as add-ons to Social Security ("Crisis? Did we say crisis? You must have misunderstood -- you know the Chinese character for crisis is danger and opportunity -- we must have meant 'opportunity.' Yeah, that's it.") And then the private accounts become the popular envelope for ugly details, specifically allowing people to set aside unlimited amounts of money -- if they have unlimited amounts of money -- that accumulates tax-free.

On the other hand, what if there is no plan, or the White House is not ready or not graceful enough to carry off this slick move? At that point, chaos ensues. The challenge then for the opposition party is to nurture the chaos. Flatter various Republican potentates into thinking they can pull off various deals. Let them play with the payroll tax, consumption taxes, unified credits -- all things that in the end will go nowhere or Bush will veto. What's the payoff? It's not winning the congressional elections in 2006. It's this: just enough chaos around taxes and Social Security makes it possible, I think, to prevent this Congress from getting its act together to make the 2001-2003 tax cuts permanent.

And that is a goal every bit as important as saving Social Security. If it were possible to keep those tax cuts on track to expire, then its possible that government might one day be able to recover itself and once again play a constructive role in this country. If not, then in just 11 years, the total revenue of the federal government, as a percentage of GDP, will be consumed by defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest. There will be nothing else. Or, more likely, we continue to spend on basic public goods and run deficits that lead to economic disaster. That's at least as consequential as phasing out Social Security.

A few months ago, it was generally assumed that the battle on extending the tax cuts or making them permanent was lost. Maybe it still is. But -- danger and opportunity and all that -- maybe the Republican debacle on Social Security will have some bigger consequences.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

How to Read a Bush Budget -- A Rerun

Last year at about this time, I cranked out a blog post in about half an hour very late at night that appears to have been the most useful of anything I've written. It was an inventory of all the basic little dishonesties that go into the president's budget and a skeptical readers' guide to the inevitably gullible press stories about the budget. I noticed someone make reference to it the other day in a comment on someone else's blog, so I thought maybe it's time to bring it out again. I could update the examples based on this year, but there's really no need to. It's the same story, different year.

I should emphasize a point I should have made more strongly a year ago: These are the dishonesties in every modern president's budget. Some of them have reached a level of absurdity in the Bush world, and there are also special deceits in the current administration that would never have occurred to even the more I-am-not-a-crook occupants of the White House. Most notable among these is the decision to base its plan to "cut the deficit in half" on an inflated estimate of what the deficit would be last year, rather than what it actually was, thus making it easier to cut in half. And then, of course, there are the multi-trillion dollar dishonesties connected with Social Security.

But this is a guide to the little billion-here-billion-there scams, as well as real budget cuts, that will litter the newspapers between now and the formal submission of the budget.


How to Read the Bush Budget (from January 2004)

The strategic leaks have begun about what will be in the President's budget when it appears in a month or so. This is a period when the White House will use every day to create managed news on some aspect of the budget or the State of the Union address.

From today's Times story, (Bush's Budget for 2005 Seeks to Rein In Domestic Costs), it's obvious that the topline story the administration wants to put out is just that: reining in domestic spending. This is a way of appealing to their own conservative base that is upset about the deficit and lack of restraint, and also a way of showing, at least on paper, that they can afford some of the additional spending, mostly through the tax code, that they will propose.

All I've read so far is this story, so I don't have many specifics to go on (neither does anyone else). But as this month of strategic leaks begins, it's time for a reminder that presidential budgets are political documents -- they are not actually guides to what the government will really spend in the next fiscal year. And to understand this one as a political document, here is a brief guide to the four different kinds of cuts that will be in play.

First, there will be some real cuts to programs whose congressional defenders are out of power and whose beneficiaries are not swing voters. An example from the Times story is probably the the President's proposal to restrict the number of housing vouchers available through local housing authorities. Twenty-three years ago, Reagan's budget director David Stockman drew a distinction between "weak claims" and "weak clients," promising to attack weak claims and protect the politically weak who had a strong claim to help from the government. Stockman didn't exactly keep that promise, but still, we look back at the Reagan years nostalgically now. There is no longer even a pretense of protecting those with a strong claim; this is all about going after those too politically weak to defend themselves, whether they need housing or not.

But these programs have all been cut plenty, and there isn't much more room to cut the weak without running into what they want to avoid, which is, according to the article, "alienating politically influential constituencies." So beyond the real cuts, the tricks is to find things that appear to be cuts, sufficient to make the budget appear reasonably close to balance, while also paying for the additional spending, mostly through the tax code, that the President will propose. The cuts and the new spending have to add up, but just for one day.

So the second type of "cut" in the budget will be proposals for cuts that will simply never happen and everyone knows it. No one even gets that worked up when the president proposes them. This category usually comprises the largest portion of the cuts in any president's budget. Here the secret is to go after strong clients, clients so strong that everyone knows no one will ever touch them. It's not clear from this first article which of the cuts fall into this category, but they will not be hard to spot in the actual budget. For example, most years presidents propose to cut Impact Aid, an education fund for school districts that have lots of federal employees or federal land exempt from local taxes. It's a wasteful program, but there are tens of thousands of Impact Aid school districts, their lobby is well-organized and relentless, and cutting it just isn't going to happen. But if you're OMB, and you need your numbers to add up today, there's no reason not to put it in. It saves a few hundred million on paper, and your job is done. Proposing to cut a defense project whose prime sponsor chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee is another good way to get some savings on paper. And the affected congressman probably doesn't even mind. It gives him a way to announce that he "saved" the project. The proposed cuts to veterans benefits mentioned in the Times probably fall in this category.

Third, and a variation on the second, is the cut that the administration will itself reverse with great fanfare. Here's how it works: You propose some cut in the budget. It helps your numbers add up, which is to say, it offsets the cost of your tax cut or your spending on such urgent national needs as "encouraging sexual abstinence among teenagers." But weeks after the budget is announced, you grandly announce that you have reconsidered, and will put the matter off for further study. Everyone's happy. And you're not required to go back and find another cut to replace the first one. The Times article mentions one cut on which this process seems to have already begun: it reports that "the Pentagon has been considering a new proposal to increase pharmacy co-payments for [military] retirees," but also that the indignant Military Officers Association believed it had won a concession from the Pentagon to study the issue for another year. Sometimes you don't judge this right, and have to withdraw the proposal even before you use it to make your numbers.

Finally, there is the kind of gimmick that can be used to reduce apparent spending on entitlement programs, which is where the real money is. Here the trick is to propose some sort of inoffensive policy change that might lead to a chain of events that would reduce spending on some federal program. And then get the Congressional Budget Office to "score" the change as producing a budget savings. Whether it actually does or not is a matter for another day. There's a great example of this in the Times story:

Federal officials said they would also require families seeking housing aid to help the government obtain more accurate information on their earnings. As a condition of receiving aid, families would have to consent to the disclosure of income data reported to a national directory of newly hired employees. The directory was created under a 1996 law to help enforce child-support obligations.

(As a congressional staffer, I drafted the bill that created that directory of new hires, so this is familiar territory.) I'm sure this is a perfectly good idea, and it's hard to argue with getting accurate information about people's eligibility for programs. Some analyst at the Congressional Budget Office is going to be handed this proposal and told to score it. "I don't know" is not an option, so he will produce a number for the savings this provision will produce. But what if the income information reported through the directory doesn't really change the criteria of who is eligible? What if other people with low incomes appear to replace those who are disqualified through use of the database? What if it takes longer than expected to add income data into the database, and set up privacy protections? And on and on. The connection between the small and inoffensive act of including income in the database, and actually reducing public housing costs, is rather tenuous. But as long as you can get the number you want from CBO, the reality doesn't matter one bit.

If you can spot these gimmicks, you might be protected from the baloney that will fall from the sky every day from now until the budget is released at the beginning of February.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

No Guru, No Method, No "DaVinci Code"

I agree with pretty much every word of
Ken Baer's negative review of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff's book Don't
Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
And yet, at the same time, I think it is largely unfair to George Lakoff.

I know Lakoff a little bit. I read Moral Politics in the first edition, ten years ago, and found it useful. I visited Lakoff's Rockridge Institute last year when it consisted of a room 12 feet square with four people working in it. That was shortly before he became the darling of the left-wing funding world.

I found his insights about language useful in the 1990s and they are useful today. For anyone trying to master the role of language and mental images in political life, it is extremely helpful to grasp what linguists and cognitive scientists know about how people hear and use words, and the mental frames that language evokes and fits into. It provides some rigor and theoretical underpinning to a part of what a speechwriter is trying to do.

In addition, Lakoff significantly helped liberals understand the difference between policy proposals that are simply good ideas with a constituency, and those that have a much broader resonance, such as the Apollo Initiative to reduce dependence on foreign oil by creating U.S. jobs in energy research.

But as Baer points out, when Lakoff is asked to recommend specific political proposals, his answers are pretty much what you would expect from a Berkeley humanities professor who hasn't spent much time outside of the coasts or actively trying to master the political process: redefine spending as investment. A living wage. "Understanding and restraint" rather than war in Afghanistan. And his policy proposals, as well as the underlying analysis, are profoundly ahistorical. As Baer points out, Lakoff seems to believe that the Right recently invented the
term "tax relief" and that with a similarly savvy choice of words, liberals might undo a 
century's worth of anti-tax politics. I don't think so.

But is it Lakoff's fault that he's a cognitive linguist, not a historian or a congressman? Or is it the fault of those Democrats, such as the consultant Baer cites at the beginning of his review who brings out a heavily underlined copy of Don't Think of an Elephant at the beginning of a campaign meeting and proposes to use it as an atlas to political success? Is it Lakoff's fault that people who should know better fall at his feet, despite the fact that he's never had the slightest involvement in American politics, and beg him for pearls of wisdom? "Oh, Professor Lakoff, please tell us the magic words that will unlock the gates of the promised land?"

The deeper problem is in liberals' search for a guru, which inevitably leads to a cycle of over-expectation and disappointment, with Lakoff one day and someone else the next. What happened to the ability to take some insight like Lakoff's, and some insight from a historian like Alan Brinkley or Kevin Mattson, and some insight from an economist like, say, Edward Wolff, and a sociologist here and a journalist or three, and put them in perspective and integrate them? Why is that so difficult? Perhaps the problem is that too many of the people in the fawning audience for this don't have a solid, multi-disciplinary liberal arts education that enables them to do that. They're political science majors with masters' in public policy, and the world of linguistics is mysterious and enthralling, and the fact that it seems to be based in "neuroscience" (oooh!) makes it somehow an extra-powerful secret code.

It's the same problem I have with David Sirota's "DaVinci Code" article from the American Prospect. Sirota identified four utterly idiosyncratic Democrats mostly from rural states or districts, ranging from one of the most deeply conservative Southern Democrats to Socialist Bernie Sanders in Vermont, and declares them to have some kind of magic formula that would revive liberalism and the Democratic Party. If they do, it's certainly not the same magic formula! Each of his four politicians has found a distinctive way of connecting their own strengths and their ideas to their own consitituency. Good for them. There's something to be learned from that. But it is not a code, and Lakoff's ideas are not a code either. Moral Politics (not Don't Think of an Elephant) is a book worth reading. But so are a hundred other books.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Bill Thomas Gives the Game Away

The best minds of my generation profess to being mystified by why House Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas would declare Social Security privatization a "dead horse."

It's twisted, but not impossible to figure out. Here's the key section from the Washington Post article citing Thomas's remarks:

"Every breath that's spent on discussing that plan [the Bush privatization plan] is an attempt to lay a political ground war for the next election," Thomas said. "Save those breaths. Talk about what we need to do now that the president's plan is on the table so that we can address, in a legislative way, a solution on a bill the president could sign. That would be, I think, a positive gesture.

What Thomas was saying is exactly the point I've been trying to make: that the Bush/DeLay goal is not primarily to privatize Social Security, although they would be happy to do that if they can. Rather, the goal is to create a political dynamic over the next one to two years in which the Republicans appear the party of opportunity, ownership, dynamism, and forward thinking, while the Democrats appear to be the defenders of old, boring, inadequate safety net programs. As Gingrich said, going for the biggest privatization of Social Security has the biggest political payoff, but only if it doesn't actually become law. (If it were to become law, the global financial markets would write off our debt and we would go begging to the IMF, not an event that is likely to redound to the benefit of the party in power.)

I had some doubts about this when I made this argument a week ago, drawing on White House "resident thinker" Peter Wehner's memo to conservatives. But Thomas's comments leave no doubt. He is a prickly, stubborn, unpleasant man, but I happen to know one thing about him: He likes to legislate, not play political games. That's why he so often antagonizes his colleagues. And what he is saying here is that he knows full well that the Social Security proposal is a political game. Like Wehner, he's trying to pull them back to the zone where they might pass something. But just as Wehner's argument seemed desperate, so does Thomas's. This is not about legislating. It's about positioning. (If it all works out so well that they get Social Security privatization, that's a bonus.) And failing to recognize that game -- or at least the strong possibility that it is a game -- is a fatal mistake. Liberals might "win" on Social Security by defeating privatization, but we might easily lose the very different war of ideas.

The problem for the White House is not that they will lose the legislation. They were prepared for that. The problem is that they can't even get to the starting point of credibility on their legislation, even befor they offer it. If they can't get to the debate they want, they will lose control of the agenda, and it will disintegrate into a bunch of nutty and hugely embarassing ideas like Thomas's plan to "gender-adjust" Social Security to reduce benefits for women because they live longer. (Putting all this together, Social Security is, according to Republicans, unfair to African-Americans because they die young and too generous to widows because they live too long.) If you can remember not to panic about any of this actually becoming law, it will be highly entertaining.

This sorry game is over. The challenge for Democrats is now to drag it out, to inflict maximum pain, to drag this out at least as long as the Clinton health care debacle was drawn out.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

The Tax Anti-Reformers

Thanks to a recommendation by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, I've been reading Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century , which tracks the rise and fall of "embedded liberalism" in the U.S. and Sweden. The opening chapter has drawn me into a background discussion of the different ways in which these developments can be analyzed -- in terms of individual economic interests as a microeconomist or rational choice political scientist would do; or by looking at ideas and how the emergence and acceptance of ideas can change the institutions in which political and economic choices are made. (A gross oversimplification of this section of the book, but it makes my point.)

That this interpretive choice is of more than just academic interest should be clear as we attempt to divine the Bush administration's ultimate goal on tax policy. Consider two excellent articles that appeared in the last few days: Jonathan Chait's "Tax Fraud" in the New Republic and Nick Confessore's "Breaking the Code" in the Times Magazine. Both are superb pieces of journalism and analysis, and they start from the same premise: that what Bush calls "tax reform" is something that would be utterly unrecognizable to those who struggled to make the tax code simpler, fairer and less distorting of economic activity from the 1960s through their breakthrough in the 1986 tax reform. Both trace the current "reformers," such as Grover Norquist and Ernest Christian, directly back to the opposition to reform in the Reagan era. In many ways, they are similar articles, although Confessore's is on a larger scale.

But they differ in one important way: Confessore really tries to understand the evolution of the ideas -- if there are any -- that are motivating the current drive to shift the tax burden off investment income and onto labor. Chait views it as a matter of interests: the same corporate lobbyist sleazeballs that opposed reform in the 1980s oppose it now, although they've perhaps draped their interests in a cheap veneer of "theory."

So, which is it? Is the Bush tax plan a story of ideas in politics, of a radical and fairly recent philosophy that, among other things, happens to fit the prejudices of K Street, Tom DeLay and the plutocrats in positions of power? Or is it that some corporate interests have funded a tenuous theoretical underpinning for their own short-sighted economic preferences? The slight difference in emphasis between Confessore and Chait is important to our understanding of how to approach this argument. If the tax "reformers" don't take their theories seriously, why should we?

That said, there is not one answer to this question.
Former White House economic advisor Glenn Hubbard presumably has some sort of theory about taxation, the lobbyist for Exxon-Mobil probably doesn't -- or at any rate, it's not his job to have such theories except to the extent they serve the company's bottom line. If that's the spectrum, where do others fit within it? Bush? Rove? DeLay? Cheney? Norquist?

The Iraq War presented the same question. There were those who were certain that it was all about oil, or all about Halliburton or all about the political benefits of a war, or whatever, and those who tried to take the ideas expressed by Wolfowitz and others as seriously as possible. Two years on, I think it's clear that the ideas expressed to and by Bush -- of an undivided war on "evil," of democratization by force, of remaking the Middle East, of Iraq as a regional model, etc. -- while mostly wrong and all badly implemented -- provide a much more robust explanation for what happened than a calculation of interest.

Is the same true on taxes? My first instinct is that it's less likely. I think Bush gave himself away when he said of Kerry's proposals to roll back the portion of the Bush tax cuts that went to those earning over $200,000: "you know how the rich is: They've got accountants. That means you pay." Unlike Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, cited in Chait's article, Bush is not someone who has any outrage over the complexity of the tax code or any belief that it could be otherwise. He is pure cynicism. And it is not surprising: Bush made his dubious living in an industry -- oil -- that depended entirely on its tax advantages for its economic model. His passive investors in Harken Energy were buying his losses. That was the most significant of all the loopholes closed in 1986. It's also telling that Bush has passed three tax bills and every one has made the code vastly more complex.

On the other hand, the economic interests of the anti-reformers were always there. They were always looking for the same thing. In 1986, they lost. The reformers had a theory about taxes that was persuasive and cohesive. The key moment in the 1986 tax reform came when Republican Senator Bob Packwood, chair of the Finance Committee, decided over a pitcher of beer with a staffer to throw out entirely a bill that had become encrusted with all sorts of special provisions, and start over again with a version that met the theory of simple/fair/efficient. Anti-reformers had power, but they didn't have a theory that could organize their claims and make them seem like something more than self-interest. What's changed is that now they sort of have a theory, however dubious.

Whatever you do, read both articles.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 18, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack