Arguments

Keep It Simple and Take Credit

By Jack Meserve

Tagged GovernmentLiberalism

As Democrats stare down eight years of policies being wiped out within months, it’s worth looking at why those policies did virtually nothing for their electoral success at any level. And, in the interest of supporting a united front between liberals and socialists, let me start this off with a rather long quote from Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House, on why Obamacare failed to gain more popularity:

There are parts to it that are unambiguously good — like, Medicaid expansion is good, and why? Because there’s no fucking strings attached. You don’t have to go to a goddamned website and become a fucking hacker to try to figure out how to pick the right plan, they just tell you “you’re covered now.”  And that’s it! That’s all it ever should have been and that is why — [Jonathan Chait] is bemoaning why it’s a political failure? Because modern neoliberal, left-neoliberal policy is all about making this shit invisible to people so that they don’t know what they’re getting out of it.

And as Rick Perlstein has talked about a lot, that’s one of the reasons that Democrats end up fucking themselves over. The reason they held Congress for 40 years after enacting Social Security is because Social Security was right in your fucking face. They could say to you, “you didn’t used to have money when you were old, now you do. Thank Democrats.” And they fucking did. Now it’s, “you didn’t used to be able to log on to a website and negotiate between 15 different providers to pick a platinum or gold or zinc plan and apply a fucking formula for a subsidy that’s gonna change depending on your income so you might end up having to retroactively owe money or have a higher premium.” Holy shit, thank you so much.

This point has been made before on Obamacare, but the tendency behind it, the tendency to muddle and mask benefits, has become endemic to center-left politics. Either Democrats complicate their initiatives enough to be inscrutable to anyone who doesn’t love reading hours of explainers on public policy, or else they don’t take credit for the few simple policies they do enact. Let’s run through a few examples.

Tax Cuts:

As background, George W. Bush signed a tax cut in the first year of his term, during a recession, and sent out a rebate check of up to $600 to taxpayers, along with a letter saying that he and the Republican congress had passed the law providing that check.

Barack Obama also passed a tax cut in the first year of his term, also during a recession. Did he send out a similar letter and check, crediting he and his Democratic Congress? Let’s go to The New York Times:

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 8.17.26 PM
Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 8.17.42 PM
Very high-minded. Let’s see if Franklin Roosevelt had similar qualms about sending checks:

Poster Advertising Social Security

Infrastructure:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, “the stimulus,” as most people know it, had huge amounts of infrastructure improvements. Better roads, highways, and so on, are easy to understand and take credit for, in theory. They’re tangible improvements average people encounter every day.

Did Obama’s stimulus take advantage of this? Sort of—here’s an ugly sign that was common:

recoveryact-signage

Did those signs stay up, as a reminder of what government had helped do? Hard to say definitively, but probably not, for the most part. Here’s the Ohio government’s internal guidance on what’s to be done with ARRA signage after the road or bridge is completed: “Remove the ARRA sign and supports at the end of the project. Removed ARRA sign and supports are the property of the contractor.”

By contrast, here’s a Works Progress Administration plaque on a Rhode Island sidewalk, still there 80 years after the job was completed.

A WPA plaque on a Providence, RI Sidewalk

Obamacare:

Those examples are about taking credit, but what about keeping it simple? As a model program, here’s an advertisement for the National Health Service of the UK. Read the circled part.

nhs-ad-cropped

Pretty easy to understand: Anyone can use it, and all you need to do is go to your family doctor.

Here’s an article on Obamacare, one that also features a  diagram:

obamacare-chart-headline

obamacare-chart

Great.

Tax Credits and Savings Accounts:

Beyond just the Obama Administration, though, this kind of limp, obfuscated benefit has become common among progressives more broadly.

During the recent debate over paid leave in Washington, D.C. a centrist Democratic councilmember offered an alternative to the universal paid leave initially proposed: “businesses with more than 50 employees would pay for a staffer’s leave out-of-pocket, and are then refunded through a $200-per-employee tax credit.” So instead of government just giving you the benefit, your employer pays you (as long as they’re the right size), and gets refunded by the government. Bad politics, worse policy. Thankfully, the bill that passed was indeed universal and will provide leave to anyone, no matter the size of the company they work for.

This “benefit through tax cut” idea is far from unusual, unfortunately. Here’s a partial list of  programs based on federal tax credits, many started by Democrats:

Got those? Ok, now don’t forget tax-preferenced savings accounts—for retirement, there are IRAs, Roth IRAs, 401ks, and 4013bs. For your kid’s college, start a 529. And if you’re eligible, don’t forget to create a health savings account.

Instead of making retirement benefits more generous, or college cheaper, or health care universal, we’ve created accounts upon accounts, each of which you have to have enough money to contribute to, remember to pay into, and jump through all sorts of other hoops to maintain. As Ryan Cooper says, “Welcome to Technocracy Hell.”

Implementing these kinds of policies are also no road to electoral success. Peoples’ lives are hard enough without tax credits and savings accounts and eligibility forms and government phone calls that determine whether one’s household income puts one in the bracket for this or that plan or benefit or subsidy and on and on. No voter is thanking anyone who puts them on this road, even if there’s a small pot of money at the end of it.

And forget the annoyance—the amount of immense mental energy and social capital required to keep track of, comprehend the eligibility requirements of, and then successfully apply for these benefits is a de facto regressive tax on people whose lives are too materially difficult to deal with arcane bureaucratic bullshit. That is, those people that need the help the most.

So what to do? No more savings accounts, no more cleverly hidden help that people won’t even notice, no more tax-preferenced, means-tested, government-monitored, website-reliant, bronze/gold/platinum-benefits-so-long-as-you-apply-during-open-enrollment. Just give people the stuff they need.

This shouldn’t even be a liberal-socialist divide, although it seems to have become one in recent years. When society decided citizens should be able to read, we didn’t provide tax credits for books, we created public libraries. When we decided peoples’ houses shouldn’t burn down, we didn’t provide savings accounts for private fire insurance, we hired firefighters and built fire stations. If the broad left takes power again, enough with too-clever-by-half social engineering. Help people and take credit.

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Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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