Piketty, Poverty, Political Pooh

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has led to a flurry of articles and debates about whether that war succeeded. That debate has been reenergized by Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, which argues that inequality is rising because returns to capital have risen relative to average economic growth. A solution to this inexorable force, Piketty claims, lies in some form of worldwide wealth tax.

In both cases, I find the political debate largely unproductive. Many conservatives and liberals pick at pieces of data and history to support their own forgone conclusions. Rather than seek practical margins for making progress, much of the discussion turns to thumbs up/thumbs down rhetoric or totally impractical solutions.

Here’s how the data play out. Since the late 1970s, market-based measures of poverty and the distribution of income (that is, measures of income before taking account of government redistribution through taxes and transfers) improved very little in the first case and got worse in the second. Both did much better a few decades earlier, including up to the mid-1970s. PIketty bases his broad historical conclusions about growing inequality largely on market measures. In turn, researchers ranging from Gary Burtless at Brookings to Tim Smeeding at Wisconsin to Richard Burkhauser at Cornell to Diana Furchgott-Roth and Scott Winship at the Manhattan Institute have shown greater reductions in poverty and less growth in inequality of income or consumption when market-based income is adjusted for government taxes and transfers.

These two different ways of looking at the data make for strange bedfellows as the debate turns political. Conservative critics of the War on Poverty combine with liberal world-always-getting-worse warriors, who like to cite Piketty, to form conclusions based largely on the before-tax, before-transfer measures. They unite to attack the status quo, with one suggesting fewer transfers (the war failed) and the other higher taxes on the rich (the tax system failed). Liberal defenders of social welfare programs and conservative opponents of higher tax rates, in turn, conclude that on an after-tax, after-transfer basis the world is a lot better off than the other side asserts. They defend the status quo.

Here are the statistics that I ponder. In real terms, social welfare spending averaged about $7,500 per household at the time the War on Poverty was declared. By the time that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, spending per household had grown to $15,000. And today it has doubled again from the start of the Reagan administration to about $32,000. (These figures do not even include tax expenditures for social welfare, such as pension, housing, and wage subsidies, which averaged about $7,000 per household in 2013.) Meanwhile, GDP per household grew from about $70,000 in 1964 to nearly $140,000 today.

Over this same 50 years the official thresholds for measuring who is in poverty have not grown one dollar in real terms. These measures, adjusted only for inflation, in a sense, are based on absolute poverty, unadjusted for the new goods and services a growing economy provides or, said another way, for whether a household’s income keeps up with average or median income in the economy. For a family of four, for instance, the nonfarm poverty threshold is crossed when a household’s income falls below roughly $23,550 today, essentially the same level as in 1964. For a single person, the poverty threshold equals $11,490

“Wait a second,” you may think. The government spends far more on social welfare than would be required to give every household support above poverty levels. And in almost every year there have been substantial real increases in the amount of transfers made. Why, then, has the poverty rate not fallen more?

There is no single answer. Here are four pieces of the puzzle:

Huge gains at the top. Inequality in market-based income DID grow substantially since the late 1970s, the period when progress against poverty slowed. The ability of high-income individuals at the top of a winner-take-all economy to capture much of the extra rewards that derive from monopoly or oligopoly settings does help explain some of the stagnation in earnings growth for those with average or low earnings.

It doesn’t explain why the public supports, which have continued to grow, haven’t made greater headway in improving the skills of the population enough that their market incomes would rise more. That brings us to the next three pieces of the puzzle: the extent to which the public money has been spent to help providers, help the middle class, and pay for health care.

Providers. Beneficiaries include providers who have captured large portions of government, not just private market, money. Before you start looking elsewhere, just remember that providers include, among others, doctors, drug manufacturers, social workers, lawyers, lenders, other financial intermediaries, builders, housing officials, software developers, tax preparers, government contractors, and, for that matter, researchers like myself.

The Middle Class. The middle class rather than the poor has also captured very large portions of the social welfare budget, largely in ways that have for decades encouraged them to retire and work less for greater portions of their lives. Early growth in Social Security benefits, for instance, did a good deal to reduce poverty, but in more recent decades has made less progress because growth—the marginal increase in payments—has been concentrated preponderantly on more years of support and higher levels of benefits for everyone, from rich to poor alike. Remember that a program can on average be successful in meeting some objectives, yet still target its incremental budget poorly. Incremental spending in our public retirement programs in the modern age increasingly operates to decrease the market incomes of the middle class and, despite billions of additional dollars spent each and every year, only modestly increases the transfers received by the poor.

Health Care. A large share of the growth in the income of almost everyone but the rich has come not in cash but in the form of government and employer-provided health care and insurance. One-third of per capita income growth in our economy from 1990 to 2010, for instance, went simply to pay for real increases in health care, as average annual health care spending per household from all sources ballooned to approximately $24,000. Measures of both market income (e.g., Piketty) and most measures of after-transfer income (e.g., the official poverty measure) fail altogether to count this major source of income. Yet for many, particularly those below median income, that item has dominated the way their income has grown for perhaps three decades. The CBO has tried very recently to count health insurance received as income in some of their work, but its efforts are an exception to the rule.

These four pieces interlock in various ways. For instance, more years and money in Social Security support, particularly as people live longer, has encouraged the average worker to retire for more than a decade longer than in 1940, when benefits were first paid, thus reducing their market income. Because many of the government’s expenditures on health care have been captured by providers, the public’s gain in benefits comes out to only a fraction of each additional $1 the government spends, while in the private sector cash compensation stagnates to pay for higher costs of health insurance.

In sum, the debate over poverty and inequality deserves renewed attention. However, it provides a quandary to many in both major political parties, who are largely mired in mid-20th century debates and fighting the thumbs-up, thumbs-down battles that blocks improvement from either side. The times beg for a 21st century agenda (an issue I try to address in my new book, Dead Men Ruling).


Dead Men Ruling

A personal note to you, my readers and friends.

My latest book, Dead Men Ruling, is in many ways the most important that I have ever written. I try not only to diagnose the disease that underlies so many of our economic and political problems today, but also to attack the wrong-headed notion that we live in an age of austerity and limited possibility.

Consider: the gross domestic product per household is $141,000 today and is projected, even with slower growth, to reach $168,000 in 10 years. Over that same period under Republican and Democratic budgets alike, government at all levels is likely to increase spending and tax subsidies from $55,000 to around $65,000 per household. Our budget may be terribly allocated, and the way we tax and spend can be quite inequitable, but do these numbers suggest a nation that must continue to turn its back to the ocean of possibilities that lie right at our feet?

I hope you will read Dead Men Ruling. Even more, I hope that you recommend it to friends and elected officials who want to move beyond yesteryear’s stale debates toward a 21st-century agenda—particularly when it comes to promoting opportunity and mobility, prioritizing children and their future, and creating a government that can be both effective and lean.

If you cover the news, are organizing an event, or have a group interested in the book, I can help. Please contact me.

Because I make no money on the book, my motivation is purely aspirational. I strongly believe that the country is at an inevitable turning point, requiring honest leadership. Though it will take time, together we can make that turn well.

At DeadMenRuling.com, you can order copies directly and find many related recommendations, videos, and interviews. As a Government We Deserve reader, you can use discount code KCD4. Or you can use various book venders (including Amazon).

To tease your interest a bit further, I include the preface below.

PREFACE

Low or zero growth in employment… inadequate funds to pay future Social Security and Medicare bills…declining rates of investment… cuts in funding for education and children’s programs…arbitrary sequesters or cutbacks in good and bad programs alike… underfunded pension plans…bankrupt cities…threats not to pay our nation’s debts… inability to reach political compromise…political parties with no real vision for 21st century government.

I’ve come to a strong belief that these and a whole host of seemingly separable economic and political problems are symptoms of a common disease, one unique to our time and shared widely throughout the developed world. Unless that disease and the history of how it spread over time is understood, it’s easy to fall prey to believing in simple but ineffective nostrums, hoping that a cure lies merely in switching political parties or reducing the deficit, expanding our favorite program, or hunkering down to protect it. My first purpose in writing this book is to accurately diagnose that disease so we can attack it at its roots

But my fonder hope is that we reawaken to the extraordinary possibilities that lay right at our feet and restore the American can-do spirit that has prevailed over most of our history. Despite the despairing claims of many, we no more live in an age of austerity than did Americans at the turn into the 20th century with the demise of the frontier. Conditions are ripe to advance opportunity in ways never before possible, including doing for children and the young in this century what the 20th did for senior citizens, yet without abandoning those earlier gains. Recognizing this extraordinary but checked potential is also the secret to breaking the political logjam that, as I will show, was created largely by now dead (and retired) men.

 

 


Dave Camp’s Tax Reform Could Kill Community Foundations

House Ways and Means Committee Chair  Dave Camp deserves credit for proposing a tax reform that takes on many special interests,  something  too few other elected officials are willing to do. But one provision mistakenly threatens the survival of most community foundations without improving the tax system or strengthening the charitable community.

The proposal would effectively eliminate most donor advised funds (DAFs), the major source of revenues to community foundations, so they could no longer provide long-term support for local and regional charitable activities. Instead, those funds would need to pay out all their assets over a period of five years.

DAFs support community foundations in two ways. First, donors pay about one percent of asset value to the foundation for sponsoring the fund. Second, community foundations distribute donor gifts to many local charities.  By simplifying giving and reducing costs, they make it possible for people who are not wealthy to  endow charitable activities.

Requiring a community foundation to pay out all its assets over five years is equivalent to telling the Ford Foundation that it, too, must pay out all of its endowment over a short period of time.  But the draft bill only targets those with limited funds, while it leaves the really big guys like Ford alone.

Usually, I analyze tax policy as a disinterested observer. But as chair of a community foundation called ACT for Alexandria, I have a personal interest in this issue.

So let me tell you how this proposal would lead to the demise of many of our activities and, likely, the community foundation itself.

Each year we engage in a one-day fundraising effort for the charities of Alexandria, VA, a city of about 145,000 across the Potomac River from  Washington, DC.  This year we raised over $1 million for 121 local charities, and many contributions to support the effort itself, not just the charitable contributions themselves, came from our donor advised funds.

The fees we earned from the funds supported our program to train  local charities on how to better use social media and do online fundraising. No one else in the community does this coordination and training.

In addition, several of our donors create DAFs, often small, to engage their families in philanthropic efforts. By doing so, they encourage a new generation to make  charitable giving  part of their lifestyles.

DAFs give donors  flexibility to vary their gifts as circumstances  change. For instance, one of our funds provides long-term support for schools in Afghanistan through U.S.-based charities, but  there is no guarantee that any particular Afghanistan project would be strong enough to merit a direct permanent endowment.  Other funds support a long-term examination of early childhood education opportunities in Alexandria, a project likely to change as needs change. DAFs or equivalent funds also allow “giving circles” that combine small gifts to assist an activity without having to create a new charity every time.

Without these funds, we likely would be unable to support a grant program for capacity building and training of local nonprofit leaders.

I doubt seriously that Chairman Camp’s staff saw fully how they would wipe out most community foundations and confine endowment giving only to the rich. By making it more complicated and expensive to engage in such activity, they would move almost all endowment decision-making to elite, often established institutions where the average citizen has little or no voice and where the operational expenses are greater.

Why are critics of DAFs so worried about someone having a say over an annual grant of $5,000 out of an endowment but not when the President of Harvard decides over time how to spend billions of dollars out of the income from an endowment?

There are legitimate concerns over how such donor advised funds should be regulated. It may even be possible to design a proposal for a minimum annual payout, though, if badly designed, such a limitation could curb the ability of some people to build up assets to make a major gift to try to achieve some large charitable purpose.

The very small literature I have seen arguing for this type of proposal entangles DAFs and community foundations with  separable  issues. For instance, one can argue about the extent to which givers to charity should be allowed special capital gains treatment. But those discussions go well beyond DAFs, and removing DAFs as a source of more endowed funds hardly targets the perceived problem.

Still, I also understand why tax staff and policymakers sometimes see charities as just another special interest. The charitable sector needs to go beyond its “we’re all good, leave us alone” mantra, and address real problems as they arise.

There are ways for Congress to reform the tax laws that would raise revenues and strengthen the charitable sector. But this DAF proposal would wipe out most community foundations, increase administrative costs, and raise nothing or almost nothing for Treasury.

This post originally appeared on TaxVoxAn earlier version of this column stated that a fund-raising effort by ACT for Alexandria supported over 200 charities; the corrected number is 121 charities


Economic Competition and the NCAA Basketball Tournaments

I love the NCAA tourneys. I grew up in Louisville at a time when basketball was synonymous with Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. I give the NCAA and the networks credit for building up the excitement, tension, and attention in this national event. This year, my interest was especially piqued because five family alma maters (including mine) made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the men’s tourney: Dayton, Wisconsin, Louisville, Kentucky, and Virginia.

My undergraduate school, Dayton, was among the elite in college basketball in the 1950s—and, to some extent, the 1960s. Dayton fell in status over time because, at least relative to some other schools, it started stressing academics more and athletics less. These experiences color the lessons on economic competition, both positive and negative, that I draw from the tournaments each year.

When competition flourishes, it’s hard to establish a monopoly.

Okay, Harvard did make it to the men’s tourney this year, but credentials don’t go very far when your accomplishments determine whether you get ahead. This stands in contrast to the politics of academia. High school seniors focus intensely on college admissions because they correctly sense that future success depends not simply on what they learn than but where they can make connections to get onto a faster career track. If you’re an economist, for instance, your odds of a top job in either a Democratic or Republican administration multiply one-thousand-fold if you have a Harvard connection at some point in your education as opposed to, say, a University of Connecticut one. It’s tough finding a job teaching history almost anywhere if your PhD is not from a ranked university, no matter the brilliance of your work. The NCAA appeals to the common person, I think, because we identify with any field where anyone with enough talent and effort can succeed.

Create a level playing field (court), and you’d be amazed at the amount of upward mobility.

Many of my fellow social scientists despair of the lack of upward mobility in American society, with young black men especially singled out as left behind. Yet notice their success in basketball, where there’s pretty much a level playing field from the time of birth. If you can run circles around me on the court, I can’t rise above you by turning to Daddy’s friends or the connections available only in higher-income communities. (Then again, maybe I can succeed in athletics by convincing the Olympic Committee to adopt some new sport played by an elite few. How many kids in inner-city Detroit have access to $100,000 bobsleds or a “playground” for luges?)

Money still matters—a lot.

As the tourney goes on and my position in the office bracket pool falls lower, I start turning to my cynical side and some negative lessons. Though there’s close to true competition among athletes, schools still compete on more than talent. Large state schools have done quite well in recent decades with the move toward big-money sports and huge TV rewards, perhaps even more so in football than basketball because of the expense involved. Multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, extraordinary facilities, the latest in physical therapy, and multiple support staff to develop statistics or simply run around as lackeys—you name it, each of these can add to the probability of success. Given this world, I shouldn’t admit that I’m still thankful to former Wisconsin chancellor Donna Shalala for bringing big-time sports success back to Wisconsin; it’s not surprising that Miami hired her away after her stint in the Clinton administration.

Those who take maximum advantage of the letter of the law often do well.

Consider the new Kentucky style of “one and done”: recruiting players who never intend to study or complete more than a year of school once they become eligible for the NBA draft. It works. It’s easy to cast Kentucky coaches in the same light as those traders on Wall Street who gain by faster computerized trading or better access to soon-to-be public information. Or multinationals that shift their profits with the flip of a switch to some low-tax country. It may all be legal (or almost legal), but dodges like these don’t generate growth in a capitalist economy or additional value for watching sporting events. In many ways, the relative advantage for these winners comes mainly from avoiding having to compete under the same rules as everyone else.

The working stiff still gets shafted.

Everyone knows that there’s big money to be made in major college sports. One way to get rich is to leverage the work of others, then claim a large share of the total rewards from the enterprise for yourself. Perhaps the few college basketball players who make it to the NBA might claim that their college training was a good investment. For many other big-time college sports athletes, the reward can be a 50+ hour workweek at almost no pay and a loss of other educational opportunities (see Joe Nocera’s take on unionization of players as employees).

Suppose society is willing to pay $1 billion to be entertained by the NCAA tournament. The players can’t get paid, though they might get some very nice meals or plush accommodations, so much of the $1 billion is up for grabs by coaches, athletic department personnel, and others—some of whom walk away with huge rewards at their athletes’ expense. The NBA also gets a free training ground and media promotion of its future players.

To be fair, the school receives some of the profits, and it divides the funds among money-losing athletics or (god forbid) academics. Still, the working stiff doesn’t have much say in the matter one way or the other.

My new book, Dead Men Ruling, is now available to order.


Why Most Tax Extenders Should Not Be Permanent

This post originally appeared on TaxVox.

What to do about the tax extenders—or, as my colleague Donald Marron calls them, the “tax expirers”? Restoring the current crop (most of which expired on December 31) for 10 years would add about $900 billion to the deficit. House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) have pledged to address these extenders, though in very different ways.

Camp would take them on one by one this year, making some permanent and killing others.  Wyden (and senior panel Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah) would restore nearly all of them but only through 2015.

Clearly, as my colleague Howard Gleckman suggests, we need to rigorously examine the merits of each one. But after paring out those we don’t want, should we make the rest permanent as Camp and many lawyers and accountants favor? Or should we keep them on temporarily?

Making them permanent would reduce complexity and uncertainty. But keeping them temporary would allow Congress to regularly review them on their merits. I believe that, with a few exceptions, most should not be made permanent. However, I’d extend most of them for a more than a year at a time according to the purpose they are meant to serve.

Why not make them permanent?  As Professor George Yin of the University of Virginia School of Law has argued, most of these provisions really look more like spending than taxes.  We must distinguish, therefore, between those items that legitimately adjust the income tax base, and those that, like direct expenditures, subsidize particular activities or persons, or respond to a temporary need.

In my forthcoming book, Dead Men Ruling, I lay out the many complications that arise when elected officials make too many subsidies permanent. Over many decades, lawmakers have effectively destroyed the very flexibility government needs to adapt to new needs and demands over time.  Making the extenders permanent would tie even tighter the fiscal straightjacket we have placed on ourselves.

Fiscal reform demands retrenchment, not expansion, of the extraordinary power of permanent programs to drive up our debt and override the ability of today’s and tomorrow’s voters to make their own political choices.

Now onto a more complicated but related issue.  The way Congress handles tax subsidies such as extenders should be treated similarly to the way it handles direct spending subsidies. But doing this requires addressing some tricky budget accounting problems.

Direct expenditures can be divided into two categories: mandatory spending, often called entitlements, and discretionary spending.  Discretionary spending, in turn, has multiyear and single-year spending programs.  Both must be appropriated occasionally.   To simplify, let’s call permanent tax subsidies “tax entitlements” and tax extenders “tax appropriations.”

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) treats direct entitlements and tax entitlements similarly, projecting them perpetually into the future. If legislation enacted decades ago requires those entitlements to grow, CBO will treat that growth as part of the baseline of what the public is promised by “current law.”

But CBO does not treat direct appropriations and tax appropriations similarly.  It assumes that direct appropriations will be extended either according to the program rules in effect (as in the case of most multi-year appropriations) or in aggregate (as in the case of most annual expenditures).  In contrast, CBO assumes that tax extenders or tax appropriations expire at the end of each year. Continuing temporary tax extenders would be scored as adding significantly to the deficit, whereas extending many or most appropriations at current levels would not.

These inconsistent budget accounting rules mean we need to rethink how Congress treats temporary tax subsidies. If they are not going to be made into permanent tax entitlements, then, as far as practical, they should be treated closer to multiyear or annual tax appropriations.    Multiyear often makes more sense for planning purposes.  Of course, subsidies that are truly meant to be temporary, such as anti-recession relief, should be treated as if they end at a fixed date.  The net result would be that when most “tax appropriations” other than those clearly meant to be temporary meet the end of some arbitrary extension period, CBO would no longer project their future costs at zero.

However one slices it, Congress needs to avoid making permanent or converting into entitlements even more subsidy programs, whether hidden in the tax code or not.  At the same time, it must address its inconsistent budget accounting rules for direct appropriations and those extenders that are really little more than appropriations made by the tax-writing committees.


A Camp-ground for Tax Reform

This post originally appeared on TaxVox, the Tax Policy Center blog.

By proposing a far-reaching and detailed rewrite of the Revenue Code, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) did something very few elected officials have done in recent years: He stuck out his neck and proposed radical reform. The initial press response has focused on politics and concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to take on the special interests, that there is too much partisan gridlock, and that the plan is going nowhere.

But such responses largely ignore the history of successful reforms and forget that some policymakers do care about policy. If the goal is to conquer a mountain, someone has to start by building a common basecamp.

Almost any major systemic reform that does more than give away money creates losers. Someone always has to pay for whatever new use of resources the reform seeks—in this case, tax rate reduction and a leaner code with fewer complications. But politicians hate identifying losers. We voters punish them for their candor, which is why they nearly always increase deficits to achieve their goals and leave it to a future Congress to identify the losers who pay the bill.

With his full-blown tax reform proposal, Chairman Camp decided to lead and proposed repealing many popular tax breaks. There’s a lot I like and some things I don’t like in his proposal, but the simple fact is that a well-designed comprehensive alternative to current law can change the burden of proof. Change a few items, and each interest group argues that it was unfairly picked on. Put forward an alternative that takes on almost all preferences, and each interest then needs to justify why it deserves special treatment not accorded others.

The prospect for any reform is nil if no leaders do what Camp did and step up to the plate. The process is not one of instant epiphany. Rather it slowly builds support. Those who first propose change may increase the odds of success from 5 percent to 10 percent. Others who follow further improve those odds.  If we reject out of hand all ideas that start with less than a 50 percent chance of success, we’d probably never reform anything.

It often takes modest support by others to move the process forward.  In 1985, President Reagan and House Ways & Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski started the legislative process that yielded the Tax Reform Act of 1986 by simply agreeing not to criticize each other while the measure went through committee. Like Speaker Boehner today, Speaker O’Neill wasn’t enthusiastic about reform then, but Rostenkowski was able to proceed anyway.

In 1985, Rostenkowski knew he could pass a Democratic bill. But he knew it would go next to the GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee. Each party would have a turn and a final agreement would come from a bipartisan conference committee. If House GOP leaders let Camp mark-up his bill now, Democrats would have their turn, at least this year, in the Senate. At least so far, both President Obama and senior Ways & Means Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI)  have avoided any major criticism of Camp’s plan, but one wonders if Democrats aren’t going to forego an opportunity, once again joining Republicans in deciding in advance that nothing substantial can be done, so it won’t.

Leadership is seldom about achieving results that can be predicted with certainly. More often it requires using your clout to change the process or reframe the debate in ways more likely to serve the public. It’s certainly about more than protecting your party’s incumbents in the next election regardless of the policy consequences.

When I served as economic coordinator and original organizer of the 1984 Treasury study that led to the ’86 Act, it was a time when books declared major tax reform the “impossible dream.”  Sound familiar? In the face of that dispiriting commentary, I tried to encourage the Treasury staff with what I call the “hopper theory” of democracy: the more good things you put in the hopper, the more good things are likely to come out. By this reckoning, Chairman Camp has already won.


Can the Modern Politician Call Us to “Place Our Collective Shoulder to the Wheel”?

Whom do we remember as our greatest presidents? Often, the ones who call us to act on a higher plane, to be more than we have been. Some leaders stand out in every list: Washington, who led us through a treacherous beginning; Lincoln, who saved the nation; and FDR, who led us against perhaps the most evil axis of nations in history. But let’s add others: Truman, with his leadership on the Marshall Plan and postwar communist containment; and Jefferson, with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Similarly, when we think about which rhetoric inspires us, we don’t usually quote the language used to back the latest farm bill or tax break. Ever undergo the emotional transition at the Lincoln memorial from feeling touristy and tepid outside this behemoth boulder building, to turning teary as you read the second inaugural address? You may not have noticed, but one line in that address mentions a new government program:

 Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Did you find it? Look again at how it’s worded. Lincoln didn’t promise that he would do something for widows and orphans; he called us to add that task to the many sacrifices we still needed to make.

Now consider President Obama’s State of the Union address. I don’t mean to pick on it, as it largely followed the format to which for several decades we have become accustomed. Its emotional high point wasn’t when he listed all his proposals but, at the end, when he extolled the sacrifices of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.

Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress—to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

Remsburg, by the way, was on this tenth tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, when his life underwent dramatic upheaval.

Now consider what the president and his Republican counterparts, in their follow-up addresses, ask of us. For the most part, to accept more goodies: more benefits or fewer taxes somehow paid for by someone else. Fortunately, they tell us, we don’t have to put our shoulder to the wheel of progress; we only need to move aside others who block it from rolling forward.

Therein lies a great tragedy of politics and one of the greatest threats to the functioning of democratic government: politicians’ need to tell us about all the great things they will do for us, usually combined with their plodding efforts to tell us that the source of our nation’s problems is those who don’t agree with us. And the great focus they place on “I,” as in I—not you, not we—am going to make all these good things happen. Try to find “I” in Lincoln’s great addresses.

Yes, I recognize that few politicians can win elections without playing this game. Still, I don’t find myself inspired by the tax cuts or extra government benefits I might receive. I’m not moved by the call for others to sacrifice for me. I’m not motivated to do more for posterity by contemplating what you should be doing.

I’m not suggesting that sacrifice has merit in and of itself. When we make such efforts, we do so because we expect that society will benefit in the long run. But not now, when we must give up our time or energy or resources at building that better world. And not necessarily us.

One of the most popular Old Testament verses, sung and read repeatedly in churches and synagogues, comes from the most quoted of all of the Hebrew prophets:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

Even if we continually vote out of office any politician who asks us to sacrifice something to make the world a bit better off, we still want to be called. We want collectively to put our shoulder to the wheel. Thanks, Cory. I hope I have half the courage in dealing with these mundane issues that you display in dealing with life and death.


On the Progressivity of Obamacare

Is the Affordable Care Act progressive in the most effective way?

In a very fine study, Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless at Brookings have looked at the ACA’s potential effects on income inequality and have preliminarily concluded that the ACA redistributes income—largely in the form of health benefits fits—to the poorest one-third of Americans. Most of the law’s additional subsidies—the expansion of Medicaid and subsidies for those buying insurance on the exchange—are highest for those with the lowest incomes. Offsets, such as some new taxes, tend to be concentrated less at those lower income levels.

What the Aaron and Burtless’ study was never intended to assess—and a lingering 21st century concern with almost all government health policies—is the ACA’s effectiveness and efficiency, both for the public in general and those with modest means in particular. For instance, many rewards of our government health policy have traditionally been captured by health industry providers, who are able to charge consumers higher prices. A program can be progressive, but still end up charging the public an additional $2 for $1.50 or $1 worth of care.

The ACA does at times attempt to deal with some of these issues and includes several experiments. But it was mainly directed at improving access, not reducing health costs. Reforms beyond the ACA still are required on that front regardless of which political party accedes to power.