Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New Big Projects

Wonkblogger Evan Soltas recently wrote a helpfully clarifying article entitled "Having Both Won, Left and Right Need New Big Projects" for the Ticker blog at Bloomberg. He notes that with the reelection of President Obama, liberals have secured the perpetuation of the Affordable Care Act, the capstone of the New Deal welfare state. Meanwhile, with the fiscal cliff deal, conservatives have secured the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, the capstone of the Reagan-era project to lower income taxes on the middle class. Both parties, then, will need something new to do.

Soltas offers some possibilities:

Liberals seem to be weighing a "War on Poverty"-type effort against inequality of economic opportunity. That was Obama’s focus in his re-election victory speech, which analysts found substantive precisely because it began to articulate anew the goals of the liberal project.

But we can also see alternate claimants for the liberal focus. One is the environmental effort. The Obama administration entertained this agenda item in his first term without ever incorporating it into his governing plan. Another option might focus on social inequality and civil rights: improving the status of immigrants, expanding gay rights and improving minority access to quality education.

Conservatives are contemplating their own options. Some within the Tea Party caucus want to take up Taft’s abandoned battle against the spending side of the welfare state, and House Republicans, especially Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, will have to define what they want from “entitlement reform.”

Or Republicans could recast themselves as libertarians in support of marijuana legalization, patent reform and "pro-market, not pro-business" economic policy, as New York Times columnist David Brooks has written. Alternatively, they might take a communitarian path, working to rebuild degraded social and economic institutions that supported advancement and opportunity for the lower-middle class in the past, as Brooks’ colleague Ross Douthat has argued.

I hope to blog more about politics soon–much as I enjoy the posts on the daily Mass readings, they don’t provide occasion for all my interests. I’ll have more to say about many of Soltas’ suggestions in those later posts. Here, I’ll briefly note of them that, except for taking up again Senator Taft’s ancient crusade against welfare spending, these are all excellent suggestions. Instead, I’d like to talk about some conspicuous omissions from his list.

From Democrats, I expect to see something substantive on gun control soon. From Republicans, I hope to see continued progress on life issues at the state level and in the judiciary. Neither of these is a minor project; both are grave matters.

Other possible agenda items could be bipartisan: prison reform, lead abatement, and data-driven reform of educational quality and cost.

From either solidarity (Democratic) or subsidiarity (Republican) considerations, either party might take up, some day, an incremental partial restructuring of some of our currently existing welfare state in the direction of a Basic Income Guarantee. But that is, sadly, not a project for the present.

I would also like to see less craven capitulation to the White House from Democrats on civil liberties in the interminable war on anxiety about minor threats from madmen (ahem, “terror”) and on stopping the hemorrhaging of blood and treasure to the follies of our hubristically Augustan hegemony. From Republicans, I would hope to see more action at the state level to enable families to receive vouchers for parochial education.

One of the most gaping lacunae in American politics, however, is the dearth of distinct partisan positions at the level of local and metropolitan politics. Greater density of urban living through relaxed zoning, and lower barriers to entry in the form of reduced occupational licensing–the two fixations of econo-blogger Matthew Yglesias–would do a surprisingly great deal to enable richer community life and enhanced prosperity in this country. Such an agenda need not come with a Democratic or Republican label, but some sort of branding would clarify things. It would represent an improvement to have our local elections contested by Libertarians and Greens and our national by the current admittedly deeply unsatisfactory duopoly, as the concerns of the former pair are often most salient at the local level.

Indeed, as arguments over the welfare state and the level of taxation fade away as this century proceeds, I suspect that Green and Libertarian sensibilities will become more prominent in the national duopoly parties, and local elections might be the best grassroots vehicle for working the kinks out. Someday, perhaps, a duopoly reformed in the Greens’ and Libertarians’ image by a generation of activists and statesmen (a future generation hopefully no longer re-fighting Boomers' kulturkampf or the rearguard actions against the welfare state characteristic of contemporary libertarianism and its Californian Ideology) might be contemplating a grand bargain of replacing deadweight income and payroll taxation with Pigovian taxes on carbon, on traffic congestion, and on entirely legal but still unhealthy foods and drugs. Someday.

I do hope Soltas is right that new big projects are in the offing. After all, it really is time to get going on our Fourth Foundation.

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