Sunday, March 8, 2009

Washington Post: Healthcare=Iraq

From the annals of journalistic equivalence, comes this tendentious editorial from Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post. The Very Serious Diehl informs us that in actually attempting to follow through on his campaign promises, President Obama risks following his predecessor George W. Bush into presidential oblivion. Indeed, Diehl finds it "odd" that most of the punditocracy has spent the last few weeks comparing Obama's transformative potential to that of FDR or Reagan, while to Diehl the parallels to Bush are so apparently obvious.

David Broder would be proud. After all, while this "pox on both your houses" style of journalism seems easy to write, it often requires a great deal of intellectual dexterity to argue that up is down. Being this vapid is hard. And so in a rather breathtaking display of equivalence, Diehl argues that healthcare reform is Obama's Iraq. Bravura performance.

Diehl claims Obama mirrors Bush's trajectory first in not asking people to sacrifice in the face of crisis. I suppose the question could be asked, sacrifice what exactly? Their homes? Their jobs? Their retirement investments? People are already losing everything in this economic crisis. Asking them to give something else up now makes no sense. And it would be counterproductive to recovery. Once the economy is on stronger footing, and we know how much we spent to plug the holes in the banking sector and to stimulate growth, it would make sense to talk about broader based tax increases. I suspect President Obama will be forced to do just that, particularly with the payroll tax to make Social Security solvent over the longer term. But criticizing him for not talking about the hard choices we will have to make when we don't know what they are exactly is a cheap shot.

Second, Diehl argues that, like Bush, Obama has not made serious efforts at bipartisanship, and has instead used a crisis to push through a partisan agenda. This makes so many mistakes, it's hard to keep track of them all. First, it assumes that bipartisanship is in itself desirable. This is always the starting point for Very Serious centrists like Diehl; they see both sides of the issues and understand that compromise is always the best solution. This is simply untrue. There are right answers. Now there will always be disagreement, but a lack of unanimity does not make a policy incorrect. Sometimes the price of watering down a correct policy to appease the minority is disastrous. Now is one of those times. If you think we should have a government spending freeze during a depression and I think we should aggressively spend to use the excess capacity in the economy, we should not simply split the difference. Diehl complains that Obama has not done that. Indeed, according to Diehl, President Obama:
has been unapologetic about using emergency measures like the stimulus bill to press polarizing Democratic priorities, such as the expansion of Medicaid benefits to the unemployed and union-friendly contracting provisions.
Perhaps Diehl should become economically literate. Does he really believe President Obama pushed for increased aid to the unemployed because those are Democratic priorities, or because spending targeted at those most in need is the most stimulative? Mark Zandi, a middle of the road economist who advised Senator McCain's campaign, has estimated that spending is much more stimulative than tax cuts during a recession. Aid such as food stamps and extended unemployment benefits give the greatest bang for the buck in terms of stimulus. But for Diehl, how successful a policy is irrelevant in judging its merits. Whether Republicans and Democrats agree on it is the only factor that matters. This is the final fallacy Diehl adheres to: all disagreements are equal. Democrats voting against an intrusive infringement of our civil rights is equivalent to Republicans reverting to neo-Hooverism as the economy collapses (and, of course, the Very Serious people always blame the Democrats for any failure to agree; they had to give in to President Bush on the Patriot Act, and they must be willing to include more bad ideas in the stimulus to get Republicans to sign on).

To conclude this stunning tour de force of intellectual vapidity, Diehl tells us that President Obama's efforts at healthcare reform are analogous to the war in Iraq. Really. Both, according to Diehl, are "divisive and risky." Both, in a rather telling admission, have "lurked in the background of the national agenda for years." And both threaten to divide the set off "an enormous domestic battle," while the real problems besieging us - in this case the war in Afghanistan and the financial crisis - continue unsolved. Credit Diehl with this one point: he is correct that the Obama team needs to do more vis-a-vis the banks. Tim Geithner's performance and lack of a coherent plan thus far has been troubling. But comparing healthcare reform to the Iraq war is insane. Obama ran on a platform of healthcare, energy, and education. Now he is trying to make good on his campaign promises. He is not using this crisis to try to enact a secret agenda. He ran on this agenda, and won on it. People want dramatic change in all of these areas. Conversely, Bush misled us into war in Iraq for reasons still unknown. It was a complete non sequitur from 9/11. It never made any sense. This is why half the country vociferously opposed the war from the beginning. Furthermore, the war in Iraq directly took away resources from the real fight in Afghanistan. Reforming healthcare is not similarly zero sum when it comes to fixing financial crisis. And bringing down the costs and expanding coverage will put our economy on more competitive ground so that we can have real, sustainable growth in the future, not the purely speculative, illusory growth we have had for the last decade and a half. But never mind that - for Diehl and the organs of the conventional wisdom, Democrats and Republicans are always equally to blame. Especially Democrats. As Brad DeLong laments, why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?

No comments:

Post a Comment


Wikinvest Wire