Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why I am Not a Centrist

Tom Friedman is back to his old "partisanship is the problem" scam. He asks, I hope rhetorically, "How can you have a serious public policy discussion without acknowledging trade-offs?" He tries to insist that partisans deny this, which is rubbish. I acknowledge, for example, that the good of environmental and safety regulations has to be balanced against the harm of bureaucracy -- but I also think that anyone who thinks the harm of the EPA bureaucracy is worse than unregulated air and water pollution is a fool. Acknowledging that there are always trade-offs does not mean that the best policy is exactly half-way between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. Friedman then goes on to advocate for a grab-bag of proposals, some good and some bad:
  • With interest rates this low, Washington should be borrowing billions to invest in infrastructure — roads, ports, airports and 21st-century connectivity and both medical and basic science research — to make us more productive and create jobs.
I agree with that, and so do most Democrats.
  • How is it that we are not deploying a carbon tax and using that to reduce payroll taxes that discourage hiring and shrink corporate taxes that reduce investment? Many economists — left, right and center — agree that a carbon tax, with adjustments for low-income earners, makes a world of sense.
Hint: because Republican oppose it. Instead of just blaming "partisanship," might it be possible to point a finger in the right direction? Obama and Hillary would both love a carbon tax, but just try floating that balloon in a Republican debate. This has irked me about Friedman for years; he goes around denouncing both parties equally even though Democrats support about 80 percent of this program. But not all of it:
  • And we should be pairing that with phased-in entitlement trims and means-testing to Social Security and Medicare to make sure that these safety nets, as well as discretionary spending on education and research, will be there for the next generation.
Bah. Means testing of these programs would drastically erode public support of them, which is based on their being available to everyone, and despite what deficit scolds like to say it is by no means necessary.

It is certainly true that many Americans are die-hard partisans who support policies and politicians because they believe they are conservative or liberal, rather than because they understand why they would be good. But this is equally true of "centrists." Believing that Social Security must somehow be cut is a bedrock centrist belief that self-proclaimed centrists support without having any understanding of the underlying economics. It would be equally easy to put Social Security on a sound financial footing by raising taxes. Why isn't that sensible and centrist?

We then get a lot of one from Column A, one from Column B crap that reminds me of ancient Roman rhetoric. On immigration:
  • We need a high wall — but with a very big gate.
This strikes me as more like the old joke about St. Peter barring the door while Mary opens the window than a policy.
  • Given the incredible power that new technologies give both governments and terrorists we need a strong American Civil Liberties Union and a strong National Security Agency.
Another platitude. Just saying you need both is meaningless, because the devil here, and in many other issues, is in the details. What should the NSA be able to read, and what should it have to leave private?
  • How is it that our two parties cannot agree on imaginative solutions to ease the burden of $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans — by, say, enabling graduates to pay off student loans with pretax income, the same way we allow workers to save in 401(k)s? 
Why doesn't everyone support my pet scheme?

That is my real gripe with all this "centrist" crap. Draw up a list of policy proposals that you like, being sure to include at least one opposed by each party, and then say, "It's so obvious what we ought to do, if only we weren't so partisan! My ideas are so good, only a power-mad hack could oppose them!" Sure.

The other annoying thing about Friedman and his ilk is that they never bother to ask why American politics is the way it is. Why, for example, is it so rife with mistrust of elites? Why do so many ordinary Americans reflexively oppose policies that Friedman's economist friends all think are good ideas? And -- an even better question -- how can we change their minds?

I don't have pat answers to these questions, but I think talking about them would be a lot more productive than sneering about partisan idiocy. Because really Friedman is just another kind of partisan, a radical Centrist, no more interested in compromise or mutual understanding than any Republican or Democrat.

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