Wednesday, October 30, 2013

It's Time for Conservatives to Embrace Welfare as We Know It

Rather than post an incredibly long response in a thread on a similar topic, I've decided to write a fairly long blog post instead.  The topic du jour I suppose is how do conservatives create an ideas driven approach that is palatable to Americans and sits in opposition to the social democratic practices of the modern Democratic party.

My answer to this question is too long for a single blog post but I'll start today by talking about the entitlement state, the place where I think there is the most opportunity but where there is also a significant change in mindset required.  My central thesis is that conservatives should embrace welfare as we know it to change the nature of the dialogue in Washington.

Today the dialog is about those who want to help versus the anti-governmental anarchists.  Leaving aside the fact that neither of these characterizations is true, it's quite easy for the caricature to emerge.  Modern Republicans, of whatever stripe, seem opposed to any extension of benefits pretty much at any time (with exceptions for farm supports and benefits for the elderly).  This is simply an untenable approach, and it's devoid of principle as well.  As an example, why are the elderly worthy of benefits and the poor not?  And no, "because they paid for their benefits" isn't a rationale.  We don't use that for anything else.  I pay taxes.  Am I therefore eligible for SNAP?  Fortunately for me, I am not.

Rather, the right approach for the modern conservative is to embrace the government's role (yes, even the Federal government's role) as guarantor of last resort.  This means you are for Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, and a whole bunch of things that conservatives are thought to be against.  At the same time, you are opposed to benefits that are paid to people who do not need them.  This shifts the ground from probenefit/antibenefit to what the definition of need actually is.

At the edges, there is really little difference in Americans.  Pretty much everyone agrees that children deserve help to avoid bad outcomes and Warren Buffet should get nothing I would imagine.  The debate is where in the middle to draw the line.  And yet, this is a debate we almost never have as a nation.  Take the recent dustup over SNAP benefits.  The positioning is that Republicans want to cut benefits and Democrats want to sustain (or increase) benefits.  The right conversation should be over who received benefits and how much benefit they should receive.  Republicans should redirect the SNAP debate to a debate over how much and who, not whether the total is $80 billion or $76 billion a year on average over 10 years.  The debate is abstract and useless.

Parenthetically, I don't know what the "right" answer is on SNAP.  It may well be that we spend to little, based on who we give benefits to and how much we give.  Or it may be we spend to much.  I simply do not know.  Some things I do know however.

First, providing government benefits to the wealthy is not something we should be doing.  It does nothing more than encourage wealth formation and subsidize intergenerational wealth transfer.  Benefits should time and again be linked to the need of the recipient - to put the payor and the payee in the same conversation. Where there is no need, there should be no benefit.

Second, the only way to provide benefits to all (or nearly all) regardless of need is to move to a European style tax structure at the federal level where taxes on the middle class are far higher than they are toady.  The tradeoff needs to be shown.  But to do this, Republicans need to abandon the fiction that small changes in "entitlement" programs can address the fiscal imbalance the US faces.

Finally, this approach brings the Republicans closer to a defendable principle and a productive debate.  There's simply no productive debate where you take the position that the people most in need (the perceived status of SNAP beneficiaries) should get less.  There is a productive debate about who should get benefits and how much each beneficiary should get, recognizing that what one gets is what another pays.

I don't know where this debate would leave us in terms of taxing and spending.  My hope is that we would collectively decide that some level of need is necessary to receive benefits and that, given that decision, current or lower levels of taxation can sustain what we wish to supply.  However, even if it doesn't result in that outcome, it is a much more productive discussion than the one in which we are currently engaged.

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