Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Wonky Conservatism

I try not to insulate myself completely from conservative thought. I don't want to cocoon myself in a bubble of writers I largely agree with, never challenging my assumptions. The problem I run into is that there are a lot of really bad conservative writers out there. Cheap demagoguery does not do much to enhance my understanding of any particular issue. As a result, I stay away from Big Government and, just as I stay away from Daily Kos, HuffPo and FDL.

However, this leaves precious little in the way of conservative writing to follow. The ones I've settled on and added to my RSS feed are Ross Douthat at the Times and his co-author Reihan Salam's blog at NRO. I also read The American Scene, Conor Friedersdorf and Dave Weigel, whose politics are hard to pin down, but can usually loosely be characterized as libertarian. When something by Jim Manzi pops up on twitter or something, I'm always sure to read his take, as well.

The big takeaway I get from reading these authors is caution about the limits of government intervention's ability to fix things. Salam and his co-authors at The Agenda don't deny that there are huge issues with our health-care system, for example. There's none of the grandstanding "greatest health-care system in the world" rhetoric that you get from a Michelle Bachmann. Instead, you get a constant refrain of caution and acknowledgment of the limits of the government's ability to fix problems without making them worse.

I get that, I really do. But we face some very serious problems in this country. And every time liberals come up with a proposal to address one of them, it is demagogued by movement conservatives, and picked apart by the wonky conservatives. During the health care debate, cost controls were demagogued by the Sarah Palins of the world (death panels!) while the Reihan Salams and David Brookses of the world lamented the lack of cost controls in the bill. There was no way to win for the Democrats.

There certainly is a place for a "loyal opposition." And the opposition offered by conservative wonks like Salam and Douthat is certainly helpful. In fact, the Wyden/Bennet health care bill was based on just the sort of common ground that wonks on both sides of the aisle can find. I probably would have preferred it to the PPACA, but it had no chance at getting passed. (One of the other bloggers at the Agenda pointed this out the other day.) The problem is that right now, mainstream conservatives are nowhere near the same positions as wonky conservatives like Reihan and his co-bloggers.

I noted above that the Wyden/Bennet bill didn't have much support on either side of the aisle. This gets back to something that Mr. Roy noted in advocating the elimination of the employer tax break for health insurance. When John McCain proposed it during the campaign, Obama decried it as "the largest middle-class tax increase in history." As I pointed out to him on twitter, if the positions were reversed, I guarantee McCain would have said the same. If Democrats had included that in the PPACA last year, there's no doubt in my mind that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would have been on TV every single day talking about a $300bn tax increase. Wonky policy is great in abstraction, but the zero-sum nature of our politics makes good policy hard to craft.

Another example is the mortgage interest tax deduction. This acts as a massive subsidy to the middle and upper class for owning a home. Poor people rent and don't get it. It also distorts the housing market away from renting and toward owning. As a result, it's basically impossible to find affordable rental housing for a family in urban areas. (Or affordable rental housing of any kind, see Nickel and Dimed.) Combined with idiotic zoning requirements, places like Manhattan have had to resort to Byzantine systems of rent control. It's a tax break that distorts the market (conservatives should hate it) and benefits the upper class at the expense of the lower class (liberals should hate it). So why does it still exist? Well, houses are popular, but more importantly, whoever proposes ending the tax break will be demagogued as an evil bastard who wants to enact a massive tax increase on the middle class. (Remember that in Washington, $250k is middle class.)

As a result, wonky policies that conservatives and liberals should agree on are destroyed by demagogues and interest group politics. That brings me to the crux of my argument. Wonky, smart conservatives provide well-reasoned critiques to liberal policies. But they're not able to provide alternatives that are politically viable. There's a massive disconect between the incentives, expertise and policy preferences of conservative wonks and the conservative movement. I talked about the effect of this on the health care debate, but it also results in a conflation of pro-business and pro-market policies on the right.

I understand caution, but sausage-making is an ugly process. Unless we get a whole new brand of politician in Washington (not gonna happen), policy solutions are going to be sub-optimal by default. But in my mind, that's not a reason to not try them. I'm not willing to accept a status quo where tens of millions of citizens of the richest country in the world are unable to buy health insurance.

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