The beginning of a new year sets the stage for some degree of hope that we as a nation can do better on some of the key policy challenges we face.
I recognize the constraints embedded in that hope: Trumpian chaos isn’t going away, and gridlock will probably get worse before it gets better. Also, when I say “we” at this moment of peak divisiveness, who am I talking about? My “better” might not be your “better.”
But allow me to try to cut through at least some of that by pushing not for agreement on the way forward next year, but on something that is simpler, more fundamental and possibly even bipartisan: clarification. The diffusion of falsehoods and smoke have so distorted the big issues I’m about to raise that we’re unable to get anywhere close to sound diagnoses and, thus, solutions.
So, my small contribution to starting the new year on a better foot is to identify five pressing policy questions that need better answers, regardless of politics.
Border security: We’re all for it, but what is it? What works? What doesn’t? Before we throw another penny at this goal, much less President Donald Trump’s $5 billion request for a “wall,” we need to answer these questions. There’s little evidence that walls keep people out (most undocumented immigrants are here on expired visas). Instead, we’ve allowed an anti-immigrant campaign slogan to morph into something real: taxpayer dollars allocated for what? If you don’t believe these questions remain unanswered, listen to any politician talk about border security (and read Anne Applebaum’s smart takedown of the nonreality of this debate). Beyond a few vagaries, I’ve not heard any insight as to coherent goals and ways to achieve them, and, trust me — when that happens, it’s an invitation for boondoggles.
War in the Middle East: I suspect I’m not alone as a nonexpert in this area who did not know what to make of Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria. I trust those who say he’s wrong about the Islamic State being defeated, but, much like the matter of border security, what’s the goal here? What would success look like? I get how armies defeat other armies, but how does an army defeat a terrorist organization? My strong fear is that the defense industrial complex is dug in a way that has as much to do with self-interest as self-defense. Don’t take it from me. Read this dose of common sense from Iraq veteran Matt Gallagher, who concludes, “The American public has been conditioned to believe that foreign war is necessary, even vital, to maintaining our way of life. Forcing those in power to explain why — beyond easy, histrionic references to Sept. 11 — would go a long way toward moving beyond this forever war.”
Health care: This is a particularly interesting one because, while this may be wishful thinking on my part, I believe we’ve already answered the question of what to do about this basic human need. It’s just that the political system hasn’t caught up, for the simple reason that some of its powerful members are paid very big bucks not to do so. But the reality is that Republicans couldn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act because people of all political stripes don’t want to lose the affordable coverage they have. Then, Republicans ran in the midterms — falsely — on protecting the coverage of pre-existing conditions (recall Trump’s warning that the Democrats would “obliterate Obamacare”). Thus, the pressing, diagnostic question becomes: What’s blocking Americans from getting what they want (and what virtually all other citizens of advanced economies have): quality, affordable coverage? As with defense, the medical and pharmaceutical industrial complex is between where we are and where we need to be, extracting big bucks all along the health-care delivery chain. Obamacare basically tried to work with this complex. The question for 2019 is: Can we begin to craft a policy that reduces its influence?
Taxes and fiscal policy: The question here is as simple to ask as it is hard to answer: How much government do Americans want to pay for? The problem we face is that — using 2018 as an example — we’ve implicitly been told that we can have $4.1 trillion worth of federal government for $3.3 trillion in taxes. The difference is, of course, the deficit, which, at 3.8 percent of GDP, is much larger than it should be in the current economy. Some people squawk about that fiscal gap, but for most of us, if we’re told we can have this much government for $800 billion less than its cost, we’ll happily take it. At least we will until the deal goes sour, either because the economy overheats through excessive fiscal stimulus at full employment (which, to be clear, is not the case today), or politicians use the excuse of high debt levels to cut programs on which people depend, such as Social Security and Medicare. Before that happens, I’d welcome an honest conversation that told taxpayers — and not just the top 1 percent — “if you want to keep what we’ve got, or add to it, you’ll need to pony up something closer to its cost.”
Inequality: The question is: Are we willing to recognize that markets will only widen gaps that have developed in earnings, income, wealth and power, gaps that persist across class, race and place? The argument that people just need more education to close these gaps falsely shifts the policy locus away from structural inequities and onto individuals, many of whom, especially people of color and those in communities hurt by globalization, face steep barriers not of their making. This is not an issue only for the left. Many Trump (and Brexit) voters are aware of inequalities that have hurt their living standards. It’s just that their leaders tell them to blame immigrants and minorities instead of uniting with them against those rigging markets in their favor. Linking this to the previous question, if we want to effectively address these inequalities, we must raise the necessary revenue to directly help those left behind.
To those patient enough to read my scribblings, I thank you for your time and promise to try to bring in 2019 some clarification to these and many other poorly understood questions.
Jared Bernstein is former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of “The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.” He wrote this for the Washington Post.