I’m concerned about what seems to be a kind of giddiness in the Democratic Party. Winning control of the house was a major accomplishment, and there does seem to be a shift in national attitudes toward the liberal agenda. But I’m worried that the feeling that everything is now possible is getting ahead of what it will take to make it so.
I’ll start with Green New Deal and Medicare For All. In both cases there’s a lot that’s good. We’ve succeeded in focusing attention on key problem areas that urgently need to be addressed. But in both cases there is so much room for interpretation that it’s hard to see what will come out. And I don’t understand what the decision process is going to be.
Climate change and healthcare are both highly technical issues. We’ve talked here before about what it will take to put together a true national plan to address climate change. (The chart at the start has to be addressed point-by-point.) The current GND bill doesn’t claim to do anything like that and adds a number of other issues into the mix. Part of that is good—for the first time we’ve succeeded in presenting action on climate change as a step forward for everyone, not as distasteful but necessary medicine. At the same time, though, we now have a number of competing objectives for whatever will come out as plan.
However attractive those objectives may be, there is a lot more in GND than anyone will deliver. Fighting climate change will create many jobs, but will not—by itself—solve unemployment. If we start fighting about whose jobs get created, climate will suffer. It’s okay that part of the planning process is political, but that can’t be the main thing. Roosevelt had a brain trust of people driving the original New Deal. We need something like that here, and we also need a broad-based process for contributions to the plan. It’s not enough to let the Presidential candidates or other players chime in with soundbites. This is a real test for our ability to govern.
Healthcare makes me nervous for similar reasons. Medicare for All sounds very specific, but one hopes it’s not. A literal Medical for All solution would not be a simple change and would force a premature answer to a problem that deserves careful study. Virtually every developed country other than us has implemented some form of universal healthcare, and there is quite a lot of variety in the solutions. We have every opportunity to make a careful and successful choice for both the overall plan and the sequence of steps to get there.
I don’t see enough of that happening. Thus far there seems to be more concern about how to relate to Medicare than about how other countries have achieved universal coverage. Positions of Presidential candidates seem like shots in the dark. We should be careful to avoid making the transition harder than it has to be, we should avoid fighting battles we don’t have to, and we should certainly make sure to keep the ACA surtax!
A third and final topic is international affairs. What’s worrisome about that one is that there is no way of avoiding competing objectives. One of the biggest mistakes of the current administration is its zero-sum approach to the rest of the world. We’re trying to “win” international affairs by making sure everyone else loses. Such belligerence may sound great—defending America—but it’s a wrong model. The world has learned the hard way that economic nationalism is self-defeating. We need rules of engagement so that nations can participate in building shared prosperity. The world has a real chance to succeed at that, but it’s not a given.
In particular it’s not easy for us and not easy now. The drastic changes in the world economy are calling out for nationalism and trade wars. “The worst thing about globalization is everything that can be blamed on it.” Better trade rules will help some of it, as will a better safety net. But the problems won’t go away. Not only are we going to have to say no to tariffs (still popular despite a cost of $900,000 a job), but we may also have to spend serious money outside the US to help poorer countries fight climate change. The only way forward is to recognize how interconnected we all are. That applies to Trump’s Devil’s bargain with dictators too.
Both the country and the world need us to get this right.