Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stark Choices vs. Real Choices

Reading over this Economist piece on how inscrutable Romney's real views are and how his stated ideas have transformed since he was Governor of Massachusetts has made me reflect on how we're not having a real discussion of the problems facing this country (while this article inspired these thoughts, the rest of this post doesn't draw from the article much). Basically, I see the GOP mostly denying the inevitability of various challenges and the Democratic party's proposals showing the sloppiness that comes from their ideas not having any competing ideas that address the underlying challenge.

This is most obvious with climate change. The science is growing increasingly undeniable yet our political system refuses to grapple with it. The GOP largely denies that we should take action, while Democratic ideas are not exactly inspired.

But why should they be? Those ideas aren't going through the kind of competitive process that results in good ideas, instead all we have is two partisan sides shouting at each other about the reality of the problem, rather than about how we can address it. The big problem here is that there are many different approaches we could be taking, there is more than enough room for two parties to distinguish themselves from each other by proposing competing solutions. It is frustrating that we're not having this discussion.

The next major point is on how to deal with the inevitable growth of the state that comes with a shifting dependency ratio. I phrase the growing spending this way intentionally, there is no plausible way the state will not grow with shifting demographics.* The GOP mission to shrink the size of the state is denialism at its worst. This is unfortunate, our shifting demographics are going to put great strain on our political institutions, our economy, and on our communities. How we deal with this shift will play a significant part in deciding how economically successful our country is, how we can maintain our international leadership, and what kind of society we want to live in. Buck passing, by simply shifting responsibility to the states or community organizations through vouchers that don't keep up with inflation is just a way of ignoring an inconvenient reality. We need to accept the inevitability of the fiscal shift, though acknowledging this shift is potentially transient as demographics shift again in 20-30 years, then get on with the hard work of deciding how we want to deal with this as a nation. I find weak proposals on one side and outright denialism on the other a rather poor way forward.

The last is that taxes have to rise. This is separate from the size of the state since taxes have to rise even if expenditure is cut. There is a really good debate to be had here over which taxes will rise how much and how they will be distributed. But that is not the debate we're having. Both sides want to cut taxes, for only most people on the left vs. everyone on the right, but this is just fantasy. In this case both sides are in denialism, but the simple arithmetic says there is a conversation here we're going to have to have even though nobody wants to have it.

At the end of this little piece I find myself thinking that politics should be a lot more like an uncomfortable family conversation around the dinner table than it is now.

*I am exaggerating only slightly. Canada and Australia will likely be able maintain the size of their state at roughly the size of ours without radical changes (Japan likely will as well, but its economic challenges don't make it a very appealing model). The key difference here is lower military spending, state spending likely only has to increase a few percent to be sustainable, it would be possible to shrink the American security state (not just military but domestic security, such as the prison system, as well) to pay for inevitable increases in social spending thus keeping overall expenditure near current levels (I expect Canada's and Australia's to increase, but their model is more successful at controlling health care costs and other social expenditures than our system, and Australia has lower spending than we do, though social expenditure is higher in both). I find this scenario rather more implausible than I find the scenario of a small growth in total state expenditure.

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