Much as I agree with much of what former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has to say in his op-ed in the Washington Post:
Since the New Deal, Democrats have thrived when championing ideas moored in the belief that rights come with responsibilities and that benefits are earned through work. If we fail to return to that agenda ahead of the 2020 election, we risk squandering a rare opportunity. Fortunately, we now have a chance to shift the narrative.
Amid all the talk about programs designed to redistribute America’s wealth, the phrase most glaringly absent from the 2020 campaign to this point is “inclusive growth.” With former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entering the race last week and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg emerging as another late entrant, we can begin to have an ideas primary in earnest. We’re stronger as a party when we debate substantive proposals for how to expand prosperity and opportunity. But to meet the far left’s big ideas, traditional liberals need to show up with bold ideas of their own.
Admittedly, I’ve been critical of those trying to the steer the Democratic Party further to the left. I think Medicare-for-all is a pipe dream, though I support efforts to expand coverage and control costs. And much as I agree that concentrated power is a threat to American prosperity, I believe a universal basic income runs counter to America’s deep-seated belief that people should earn their living by working hard and playing by the rules. As power and money have flowed away from the working and middle classes — a change driven as much by technology and globalization as by a rigged system — government has too frequently turned the other cheek. Since we have consensus on the nature of the problem, the question then is how to level the playing field.
Traditional liberals need to begin offering their own bold ideas for three principle reasons. The first and most important centers on history. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, and Barack Obama’s belief that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America. There’s the United States of America,” all appealed to voters by tapping into the nation’s firmly established belief that people should earn their prosperity through hard work. Social Security and Medicare aren’t handouts; they’re financed by what workers pay through a payroll tax. The GI Bill and AmeriCorps both offer tuition assistance in return for national service. The earned-income tax credit is designed to boost families working their way out of poverty.
By tying benefits to work, the programs that remain the central pillars of the Democratic Party’s legacy stand apart from the agenda the far left has embraced in this campaign. Our most sweeping successes fighting poverty have emerged when we’ve offered the American people a core bargain: If you work through the course of your life, the government will help you climb into the middle class. When our party has nominated candidates banging the drum for redistribution — such as George McGovern or Walter Mondale — we’ve lost. Hopefully, bids from Bloomberg and Patrick will serve as a wake-up call.
I have some points of disagreement as well. First, he’s overstating the degree to which present benefits are actually based on work. Presently, there are funding shortfalls in a number of Social Security and Medicare trust funds. The shortest, most simplified version of that is that 98% of outlays are based on work while 2% aren’t. Unless action is taken by Congress the percentage of outlays that aren’t based on work will only increase.
Second, you can’t have a benefits system based on work without controlling immigration unless you’re willing to exclude illegal immigrants from benefits. We do not do that at present, at least not really. Not only is that going to become increasingly difficult politically as the percentage of illegal immigrants in the population increases, that illegal immigrants are not subject to the taxes that support the benefits is both one of their attractions and a strain on the system. Simply put, a political party may support controlling immigration and a work-based benefits system or tolerating illegal immigration and a benefits system not based on work and remain coherent but it can’t support tolerating illegal immigration and a work-based benefits system and remain coherent which is about where the Democrats are right now. I don’t think any country including the United States can afford to tolerate illegal immigration while maintaining an expansive, inclusive benefits system but that’s a topic for a different post.
Is that incoherence the price of keeping the caucus together? I think it may be.
Note, too, that he’s ignoring Lyndon Johnson and Medicaid. Medicaid isn’t based on work and, since Medicaid outlays are just about the same as Medicare outlays, about $600 billion dollars a year, that’s a pretty significant omission.
Most importantly I think he’s missing something more basic. If you do not believe that most Americans will be able to find work that would also allow them to pay for the benefits you want to convey, abandoning work-based benefits programs makes sense. I do not know whether they think that all jobs will be exported to China, be performed by illegal immigrants, taken by robots or all of the above but that certainly seems to be the future that’s being envisioned.