Monday, December 27, 2004

The 2% solution-part one

This is a multi-part series on one of the most outstanding new wonkish books in recent memory, at least in my opinion, Matt Miller's Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Both Liberals and Conservatives Can Love. The book is pretty much what it describes. A way to fix America's biggest domestic problems. It doesn't address America's current big problem, war and terrorism. But that's not really Miller's specialty from reading his columns. He's a domestic policy wonk, first and foremost, and a darn good one. He worked on the Clinton administration's first economic plan in 1993 and is currently a fellow in the centrist think tank Center for American Progress.

The first three chapters of Miller's book deals with the fundamental unseriousness of American politics. He blames in part the media, for being stenographic in the way it covers political news. The media bends over backwards to avoid the appearance of bias, so has mostly limited itself to just copying down whatever the politicians say. I don't know if this is as true as he thinks it is. Blogs have been exposing media bias in both directions for awhile. But I do think it's evident that on policy matters, the media really doesn't contribute anything. I'm not so sure it's even supposed to, and later in the book Miller interviews the main editor of the Washington Post and he makes precisely that case. Since I'm reluctant to blame the media, let's concentrate on politicians.

Few politicians are willng to take chances on really big ideas. On one hand, it's not their fault. Voters tend to punish the really ambitious ideas, such as Social Security privatization, universal college education, universal health care, etc. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. Obviously, Dennis Kucinich's or Pat Buchanan's type of "big ideas" are nutty in the extreme to all but a small minority of voters. Non-profit health care? Limit non-white immigration? Ugh. On the other hand, politicians have not been bold enough to attempt to educate the voters. Now I don't mean voters are dumb. Far from it. I have an intrinsic faith in the American voter. I realize that Americans tend to be ignorant of policy matters and foreign affairs, but somehow they always seem to understand the big picture and make the right choices. Perhaps I'm being hopelessly naive, but I challenge anyone to name one Presidential election in recent memory where voters made the wrong choice. Besides the most recent President of course, because it's too soon to assess his record. However, on specific policy matters, Americans can often be demagogued. Instead of educating the public about the pros and cons of a proposed policy, both sides make outrageous claims that can fit into 30-second talking points. The media dutifully copies the talking points verbatim and does little helpful to expound upon the themes. So politicians tend to work at the margins of problems.

The Democratic Presidential candidates presented a health care program that would cover fewer Americans than one that George Bush senior proposed during his Presidency. George W. Bush proposes a private accounts plan for Social Security that would allow Americans to divert a measly 2 percentage points of their FICA tax. Matt Miller endeavors to discuss America's problems and find real solutions. And for the most part, I think he does. We'll detail his solutions in the following parts of this essay.