It’s Got to Come Down to Cases, Not Rhetoric

December 26th, 2011 at 9:33 am

I’m increasingly convinced that this point is of central importance: the national debate we’re about to have must come down to specifics, to cases, to the actual role of actual programs in our actual lives (see here too).

If not–if the debate stays up at 40,000 feet–we will be stuck in miasma of ideological-tweaking generalities, with conservatives like Romney and Gingrich plucking knee-jerk heartstrings (block that metaphor!) in ways that don’t merely mislead.  They employ upside-down logic to avoid dealing with the real challenges we face in today’s political economy.

As much astute writing has picked up in recent days, these themes are being hammered by R candidates on the trail (EJ Dionne has a good summary, with important links to others).  It’s all this rhetoric about “entitlement” vs. “opportunity.”

By rhetoric, I mean something quite specific: language that generalizes to the point where its non-specificity loses touch with the reality of underlying topic.

You will really learn nothing accurate or even true about the nation’s system of so-called entitlement programs from listening to Mitt Romney, for example.  It’s pure rhetoric in the above sense.  It plucks heartstrings with words like opportunity (good) and entitlement (bad) but we learn nothing about how we as a nation will tackle a basic problem of advanced societies: economic security for those past their working years.  Or how we, again, as a society, will tackle the burden of health care.  Or education.  Or the environment.

Regarding retirement, to get down to an actual case, advanced societies have all implemented solutions that draw some resources from the current workforce to help provide for the current generation of retirees.  There’s an economic rationale: the generation that came before helped build the productive infrastructure that produces today’s economic output, so it makes sense for them to benefit from it.  And there’s a social rationale: most of us want to provide something–a foundation, not a mansion—for our elderly: we respect the intergenerational contract that is Social Security.

Many of us respect the intergenerational contract going the other way in the age scale as well: we are glad to know that Head Start, for example, helps children facing steep opportunity barriers get some help.  BTW, Head Start is a great example of just how bereft this Romney frame is: he seeks to portray any program that’s redistributive as anti-opportunity.  But the logic is totally upside down.  Head Start, or for that matter, other nutritional and health programs for families in poverty, are redistributive programs that enhance opportunity in the face of steep market and social barriers.

Let me be clear: I’m not giving any of these programs a free pass.  Getting down to cases mean they too need evaluation.  Is Medicare cost effective (more so than private sector health coverage, but it needs improvement)?  Is Social Security efficient (very much so; I challenge anyone to identify a private mechanism that is more so)?  Head Start has mixed reviews in terms of long-term benefits, but early educational intervention in general scores very high in term of cost-benefits.

I recently cited George Will as weighing into this debate thusly:  “I think big government harms freedom, because it is an enormous tree in the shade of which the smaller institutions of civil society cannot prosper.”

Mitt’s “will the United States be an entitlement society or an opportunity society?” is equally vapid and misleading.  Not just a false choice, but an illogical one, like saying “we must decide whether to grow food or eat food.”   Government has and will always play an integral role in enhancing opportunity, in offsetting market failures that thwart opportunity, from poverty to pollution.

Progressives musn’t allow this debate to float miles above the real world.  It all comes down to cases, and every time someone tries to avoid this reality, I for one am going to try to make them face it.


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8 comments in reply to "It’s Got to Come Down to Cases, Not Rhetoric"

  1. Jerry G says:

    I think we are entitled to opportunity.

  2. Bumpa says:

    It is hard to argue with the right when their argument is nonsensical. Good words that strike a responsive chord, phrases that make you want to stand up and shout “Right on!” — but in context pure gibberish. The word “Freedom” stirs up those emotions, as does “Socialism” but when someone is in need; homeless and sick – then he has the Freedom to die, alone – don’t offer him a hand or assistance of any kind, therein lies Socialism.

  3. JillSH says:

    After paying into Social Security for the fifty or so years I’ve been in the workforce, I think I’m entitled to collect that moderate annuity for the rest of my life.

    And low- and moderate-income people who can’t afford to buy health insurance nonetheless pay a significant amount in taxes at all levels — federal payroll taxes, state and local sales, income, and property taxes — that pay for the health care for a lot of other people — elderly, military, teachers, police, fire, public employees at all level. Seem they should be entitled to help paying for their own healthcare.

  4. Jean says:

    It’s amazing to me that Republicans call taxpayers getting something in return for their tax dollars “Socialism”.

  5. jerkyEd says:

    I keep coming back to why are their views governed by emotional wedge issues? Why can”t they take a rational look at data? I get worked up and… well, emotional and therefore negate my own argument. As long as you keep publishing your series of rebuttals to that pesky Brother-in-law of yours, I can use your ready made points or cases for my own “in laws”. Maybe I’ll do better in a “real cases vs rhetoric” framework.

  6. Michael says:

    This is good, but it’s not looking at the central issue of American politics — that Republicans and their entire base want to burn this country to its foundations as punishment for electing a black President.

  7. rootless_e says:

    It’s sad that the “left” economists have been more interested in scoring points than in confronting the GOP’s anti-American economics

  8. Ben Leet says:

    The AARP states that $14,000 is the median annual Social Security pension. Is that exorbitant? That’s about $1,100 a month. Exorbitant? Romney, and the others, they should answer why the top 1% earn, after taxes and transfers according to the CBO report Trends in Income Distribution 1979-2007, — why that 1% earns about the same as the bottom 44%. Let them answer that question. And answer why the 1% own more than the bottom 90%. The questions do matter, and if Obama or some Dem fails to come down hard on inequality, many voters will be confused.