new homes for the heartland to a GI Bill for babies, Washington
scholars bring their ideas to BC
There was no
teleprompter in the Heights Room, no red carpet, no grand, heralded
entrance. There were no portly Congressional leaders giving standing
ovations. Indeed, the "State of the Union" talks presented
at Boston College in late February resembled not in the slightest
the one delivered by President George W. Bush in Washington at the
start of the year.
The talks formed part of a panel discussion organized around an
ambitious package of 15 articles published in the January/February
issue of the Atlantic Monthly under the headline "The
Real State of the Union." Four of the magazine's authors
were on hand, as well as Atlantic managing editor Cullen
Murphy, who moderated, and BC political science professor Alan Wolfe,
who commented on the authors' findings.
The panelists touched on an array of issues absent from President
Bush's annual assessment, while leaving aside the item at the top
of Bush's agenda—war in Iraq. Murphy launched the discussion by
explaining that the magazine had deliberately commissioned an in-depth
look at domestic issues, knowing that official Washington has been
preoccupied by foreign policy. "The idea was simple: At a time when
the nation is looking outward, let's look inward," he said.
That was only one of the ways the evening event took on a contrarian
spirit. To produce the articles, the Atlantic had teamed
up with the New America Foundation (NAF), a Washington-based think
tank that since its founding in 1999 has sought to examine politics
and policy without regard for orthodoxies of the left or right.
And yet, the kinds of ideas being developed by the NAF fellows could
be plausibly described as "progressive," in that most of them project
a more active role for the federal government—especially in battling
inequities in health care, education, economic opportunity, and
Panelist Michael Lind took the Atlantic's assignment of "looking
inward" literally: He concentrated on demographic changes that are
leading to "the hollowing out of the country." While economic development
and migration patterns contribute to population growth on the coasts,
he said, great swaths of the heartland are emptying out. The result
is a shortage of affordable housing in congested coastal areas while
many communities in the Great Plains lose economic vitality. Stating
that federal funds tend to be "misdirected," Lind suggested that
money now spent on agriculture subsidies would be better used to
bring new infrastructure and housing to areas of the heartland that
might yet be made desirable to entrepreneurs and immigrants.
Shannon Brownlee followed with a provocative look at inequities
in the U.S. health care system. Looking at Medicare data, she said,
researchers have learned that "when you divide the country up, there
are large discrepancies in the use of health care. [But] it is not
the case that the sickest people are getting the most care." Rather,
she said, it is the supply of medical care that seems to drive consumption.
Where the number of hospital beds and doctors is high, spending
on health care is also likely to be high.
Brownlee suggested that while part of the population has too little
access to health care, another part has tended toward "overtreatment."
She identified four aspects of health care delivery that, if reformed,
could yield substantial reductions in the $400 billion that she
estimates Americans overspend. These were the treatment standards
set by doctors (now too liberal); medical technology, expensive
and overused; medical school tuitions, which leave doctors in enormous
debt; and preventive medicine, often neglected.
Ray Boshara's comments approached the inequality issue from another
direction. He noted that the chasm between rich and poor is most
dramatic when seen in terms not of income but of who owns what.
Asset inequality is now at "the highest level since the dawn of
the New Deal," Boshara said. The top 1 percent in America owns 38
percent of the nation's wealth; 40 percent of the nation has virtually
no assets. How to ensure that "the inequality of outcome in one
generation does not become inequality of opportunity in the next?"
Boshara, who is director of NAF's Asset Building Program, proposed
an "active" government policy, "in the spirit of the Homestead Act
or the GI Bill," of awarding $6,000 to every child at birth. Invested
wisely, the stake could be worth from $20,000 to $45,000 by young
adulthood. The account would "stay with [each person] for life";
its use would be restricted, said Boshara, to asset building—buying
a first home, entering college, developing one's skills, launching
a business, saving for retirement.
Boshara noted in his Atlantic article that such a program
could be accomplished by spending only "about a sixth of what government
gives in tax breaks to corporations every year." But like any new
expenditure, the idea ultimately depends on larger taxing and spending
questions faced by Congress and the White House. Maya MacGuineas,
one of the New America Foundation's specialists on budget and pension
policy, spoke about those concerns. A former advisor to Arizona
Senator John McCain, MacGuineas noted that the phrase "budget deficit"
was not mentioned in President Bush's State of the Union address.
Though it may make sense for the government to run a deficit in
economic downturns, MacGuineas warned that such government stimulus
must be "temporary and targeted."
On the subject of Social Security, she advocated cutting benefits,
increasing Social Security taxes, and raising the retirement age:
"There's just no way around that," she said, because the government
"has made huge promises it cannot afford to pay." And she favored
the creation of individual Social Security accounts to replace the
government trust fund, a policy that would encourage consumers to
carry less debt and increase long-term savings.
"I wonder if you don't get a little depressed when you study this
subject," Professor Wolfe responded. Wolfe cited a political columnist's
recent assessment that the Bush administration's long-term tax cuts
are "the most irresponsible policy in U.S. history," adding, "which
I don't think goes far enough." Saving for the future used to be
thought of as a Republican idea, he said. "Then the Republicans
found this idea of tax cuts, which is their form of Keynesianism,
and you can't get them off it."
Similar themes were struck later in a Q & A with the audience. And
then a bearded young man, primed for activism, wondered "how we
could bumperstickerize some of these ideas."
No bumper-sticker slogans were offered. But in the closing article
of the Atlantic's package, the New America Foundation's president,
Ted Halstead, spoke of "something very powerful . . . brewing" in
the country, of a "new social contract." If he's right, the evening's
discussion of how government might act to promote fairness and equality—in
fact, a host of new progressive social policies—presented more than
a look at "the real state of the union." It gave the BC audience
a preview of the politics of the future.
Dave Denison is a writer based in the Boston area.
Monthly writers (from left) Ray Boshara, Shannon Brownlee, Maya
MacGuineas, and Michael Lind. By Lee Pellegrini