The powerful seem very potent: Have the powerful never seemed so powerless?
That’s what it said, one week ago, at the top of the Washington Post Outlook section. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/13.) Yesterday, we thought of that rather ridiculous claim when we read an opinion piece in the new Sunday Washington Post.
The piece was written by Harry Holzer and Isabel Sawhill; they describe themselves as progressives right in their piece. (Holzer is a Georgetown professor. Sawhill is holed up at Brookings.)
We aren’t saying they aren’t progressives. We aren’t even saying they’re wrong in all their proposals. But good lord! When progressives assess the world as they do, we’d say the powerful have total control over our public discourse.
The pair start out by criticizing the senselessness of the sequester. After that, they say that “alarmists who call for immediate spending cuts and immediate reductions in our debt-to-GDP ratio” are wrong—but “at the same time,” so is Paul Krugman (though no, they don’t mention his name). In this passage, the unnamed Krugman gets criticized—and we start to see the potency of the powerful:
HOLZER AND SAWHILL (3/10/13): At the same time, those who argue that we can put off any serious discussion of debt reduction for a number of years—because of the temporarily stable debt-to-GDP ratio projected for 2015 to 2022—understate the dangers that loom just beyond this period. The aging population and the growth of health-care costs make enacting reforms to entitlements imperative. Enacting them now would help the economy by reducing uncertainty. This would also instill more confidence in government, give people time to adjust and release the pressure on the small portion of the budget that so far has absorbed virtually all of the cuts.Fair enough! It may be possible to enact “reforms to entitlement programs” without harming the oldest and the most fragile. That said, we saw the complete total rule by the powerful as the pair continued.
The reluctance of our fellow progressives to consider sensible reforms to entitlement programs is puzzling. None of us wants to impose new burdens on vulnerable seniors or those who are about to retire. But any new provisions can be phased in gradually and structured in a way that protects the oldest and most fragile members of the population in addition to those with limited incomes.
Why do we have to cut future spending on our social insurance programs? In the highlighted passage, we get told—and in one major way, we pretty much get the bum’s rush:
HOLZER AND SAWHILL (continuing directly): With these caveats, progressives must begin to acknowledge a hard fact: Our very expensive retirement programs already crowd out public spending on virtually all other priorities—including programs for the poor and those that strengthen the nation’s future—and will do so at even higher rates in the next decade and beyond unless we reform these large programs.Why do we have to reduce future spending? Because higher taxation is off the table! After all, “Americans have always resisted paying high taxes!” With that single laconic statement, the progressive pair move right past the possibility of higher revenues, whether from the Romney types (still only 13.9 percent!) or from the broad middle class.
Social Security and Medicare alone cost the federal government about $1.3 trillion last year, accounting for more than 37 percent of federal spending; they are slated, along with interest on the debt, to absorb virtually all currently projected federal revenue within the next several decades. In contrast, all nondefense discretionary spending—which includes outlays on education, job training, transportation, public safety, research and many other growth-enhancing programs—amounted to only 17 percent of the budget, and they will continue shrinking each year.
Given that Americans have always resisted paying high taxes—and we see little sign of that viewpoint changing—what will happen to other priorities as our spending on retirement programs soars?
When progressives reason that way, we’d say the powerful have total control of the discourse. We had the same reaction as the progressives finished their column:
HOLZER AND SAWHILL: Our preference is to restructure the delivery of health care so that it delivers the same benefits in less costly ways. Growth in health-care costs has slowed over the past few years, and the Affordable Care Act may bring further progress. But such changes are likely to be insufficient, requiring some restrictions on eligibility or expenditures. Asking affluent seniors to pay more for their benefits would be a good place to start.When it comes to health care, Americans spend two to three times as much per person as folk in other developed nations. Presumably, much of that money is being looted by the powerful, and the massive cost of health care largely explains projected deficits.
If the issues are fairness and growth, not the size of government per se, then the right thing to do is to ask the affluent to pay more. Cutting programs aimed at providing a way up the ladder for the young and the poor, and doing so at a time when the economy is weak, is just plain dumb.
But so what? These fiery progressives skip right past that topic too! They'd like to deliver health care “in less costly ways.” But the massive size of our overspending remains a forbidden fact.
Rules are rules! It's a topic which can't be discussed!
We can’t raise future taxes—and we can’t even discuss the looting in our bloated health care spending! When progressives adopt this framework, plutocrats hold complete control of the discourse. Question:
When the nation’s progressives misdirect us like this, what’s left for conservatives to do?