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America, the analyzed

From new homes for the heartland to a GI Bill for babies, Washington scholars bring their ideas to BC

Photo: Atlantic Monthly writers (from left) Ray Boshara, Shannon Brownlee, Maya MacGuineas, and Michael Lind. By Lee Pellegrini 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 wealth distribution.

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

Dave Denison is a writer based in the Boston area.

Photo: Atlantic Monthly writers (from left) Ray Boshara, Shannon Brownlee, Maya MacGuineas, and Michael Lind. By Lee Pellegrini

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