The Debt Ceiling Debate: Social Democracy v. Limited Government?
Charles Krauthammer claims we are in the midst of a great debate. I am not so sure.
Writing at NRO, Charles Krauthammer casts the current debate is rather grand terms (The Debt-Ceiling Divide):
We’re in the midst of a great four-year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state. The distinctive visions of the two parties — social-democratic versus limited-government — have underlain every debate on every issue since Barack Obama’s inauguration: the stimulus, the auto bailouts, health-care reform, financial regulation, deficit spending. Everything. The debt ceiling is but the latest focus of this fundamental divide.
This sounds quite grandiose, and while I think that there is a kernel of truth in the above paragraph, I think it well over-states (and indeed even distorts) the actual debate being had.
The kernel of truth is this: there is a debate in the US over the exact role of social welfare policy in the US (i.e., old age pensions and health care specifically). However, the debate is not about whether to have these things or not, as public opinion is quite clear on the following point: the vast majority of the population overwhelmingly support Social Security and Medicare. The issue is not whether we should have these things, but rather a) the exact form that they will take and, b) how to pay for them (Medicare in particular).
Further, it is unclear to me how Krauthammer’s list is representative of some massive conflict between two distinct visions of US politics.
1) The stimulus. There are various ways that one could (and that I would) criticize the stimulus. However, was it a philosophical fork in the road between two visions of government? No, as there would have been a stimulus under a McCain administration as well (just as there were fiscal policies aimed at propping up the economy under Bush). It might not have looked the same, but there would have been one. The Great Recession was such that any administration would have entered into a stimulus plan.
2) The auto bailouts. See point #1. Not to mention the fact that the auto bailouts started under Bush.
3) Health-care reform. The PPACA is the one policy that was not going to pass in any form under McCain. However, as I have pointed out ad nauseam, the basic structure of the PPACA is one that was once considered a “conservative” approach to universal health-care (see: Romney’s plan in Mass. and the fact that the Heritage Foundation in the 1990s supported such a plan, amongst other examples). Now, this doesn’t mean that the PPACA was a good idea or that conservatives should embrace it. However, it is hardly the stuff of a massive shift toward social democracy as it basically institutionalizes the existing system of private insurance companies and employer-provided coverage.
4) Financial regulation. This is one of those things one can criticize and state was done improperly, but the basic notion of financial reform is hardly new nor it is the exclusive domain of “social democracy.” Further, after the financial crisis in 2008 did anyone think that there would be no new financial regs? How is this part of some grandiose social democracy v. limited government debate?
5) Deficit spending. This one stuns me. How does deficit spending, which is the clear norm, equate to an indication of deficit spending v. limited government? As that noted social Democrat, Dick Cheney once said “deficits don’t matter.”
Here’s the real problem with Krauthammer’s position: the current debt ceiling debate isn’t about a massive vision of fiscal policy nor is it about the scope of government. The only hint of a discussion of reform to the welfare state was in Obama’s “Grand Bargain” approach. Otherwise, the spending cut debate has been, as it always seems to be, about discretionary spending cuts. See Keith Hennessey’s Quick summary of the Boehner bill and tell me that this is about some grandiose debate between social democracy and limited government. What one will find is a list of discretionary spending cuts. That is not the stuff of a grand theoretical debate between alternative visions of the US government.
Quite frankly, the current debate has hardly struck me as some grand policy debate or some philosophical showdown. Do some actors see it that way? Very possibly, but I need more than “we have a spending problem” or “we just need to stop out of control spending” to be convinced that proponents of massive cuts have a complex worldview that needs to be considered as part of a grand debate. Quite honestly, the debate appears to be about taxes and not about the actual complexities of governance and what to do about things like old age pensions and health care.
And, of course, the main problem at the end of the day is health care costs going forward. And we are hardly dealing with that problem.
I had some other things to say about Krauthammer’s column, but this post has already gotten pretty long. He makes some salient points about the politics of the moment, but I reject his grandiose framing of the problem.
Again: if this was a major philosophical conflict we wouldn’t be arguing over nibbling at discretionary spending and, further, the Tea Party faction would be able to offer more than just “we spend too much” and “there is no problem with not raising the debt ceiling.”
One last point: do I think that the debate that Krauthammer details exists in some segments of the population? Yes, I do. But while one may have a grand theory about US government, the fact of the matter is that our politicians are not having that debate at the moment (nor are they likely to). And, moreover, even if you think we need to dismantle the welfare state or you think that we need a single payer health care system immediately, that is not the debate we are having in the Congress.
Put as simply as possible: does the Boehner plan represent the “limited government” side and does the Reid plan represent the “social democracy side”? No, they do not. Both largely support the status quo design of US government policies going forward, and seek to find savings largely via discretionary spending cuts. Hardly a grand conflict over philosophy.
*In other words: I cannot take seriously as a grand philosophical position simplistic assertions or denials of reality.