16 October, 2008

The Gods of Public Policy

I can already see myself becoming agitated at progressives after the election. Ezra Klein writes:

If you look at the Obama campaign, the basic argument has been...tax cuts. Their biggest economic policy is a massive tax cut. Their health care argument has largely been a tax-based attack on John McCain. Their stimulus proposal was a tax cut. Now, these are not Republican tax cuts: They're decidedly progressive. The Obama campaign is taking advantage of the unequal distribution of wealth in this country, which allows you to drop taxes sharply on the vast majority of Americans while raising them modestly on a small minority and not blow a hole in your budget. They've realized, in other words, that cutting taxes on most people is what folks want in a tax cut. Aggregate revenues don't have to go down. And when the top one percent control 20 percent of the country's income, you can make up a lot of revenue by taxing them a bit.

But tactically smart though this decision may be, it's not exactly the sort of thing that pleases the Gods of Public Policy. This country needs more in the way of tax revenues. The Republicans have turned honesty on that score into a form of electoral suicide. The Obama campaign -- and thus the Democrats more generally -- have basically thrown up their hands and said "fine." If Republicans are going to demagogue taxes and make irresponsible cuts a constant feature of elections, then the Democrats will prove that two can play at that game. Politically, that may be wise. But it's going to make the eventual reckoning much worse.
I think Ezra's right that Obama has figured out how best for the Democrats to politically approach tax cuts. Moreover, Obama is framing a tax raise (for 5% of the population) in a very appealing way. But it simply isn't true that this is somehow caving to the Republicans. Kennedy had a middle-class tax cut. Clinton had a middle-class tax cut. There's a long history of middle-class tax cuts in the Democratic party.

I think what really annoyed me about this post is the assertion that there's some known objective truth as to what the best public policy is. But we're pretty far from that. There are very very few policies (relative to the total number of policies) for which we have experimental or quasi-experimental evidence as to their success or failure. We just don't know much about it. We're constantly making advances, but we still are mostly in a state of ignorance. The process by which an academic paper, with all of it's nuance and hedging, works its way through policy shops, the media, and various pundits, is kind of disheartening. The end result is that we appear to know much more than we do. And while Ezra and Yglesias are great bloggers, I think they tend toward this perspective a bit too much for my tastes. And I expect to be very annoyed come January.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

you and Andrew Sullivan.