Sunday, October 21, 2012

Highly Informed, Highly Engaged Voters Won't Be Fooled by Douthat

It's reasonable to infer that when a partisan Republican columnist laments that he has "sympathy for the undecided", his column is going to attempt to explain why undecided voters should break in favor of his candidate of choice. Alas, Ross Douthat has not polished his skill at making this form of argument to the extent of his colleague, David Brooks, but he gives it his best shot.

Douthat's first tactic, flatter his audience. People make fun of undecided voters, Douthat laments, but you, his undecided reader are part of a "rarer species" than the undecideds who are subject to ridicule - you are "the highly informed, highly engaged, yet still conflicted voter."
Whatever partisans on both sides may insist, there are good reasons that a high-information voter with views somewhere near the American median might still regard this November’s decision as a harder-than-average call.
Rarer than rarer than rare, you're not only a highly informed undecided voter, you're one whose views coincide with the latest opinion polls. I guess Douthat credits you with enough intelligence to recognize that Romney's latest positions are poll-driven, and that you cannot trust that he has departed from the similarly poll-driven positions he took in his past campaigns because the only thing you can trust about the man's political positions is that he'll say what he thinks it takes to get himself elected. No, who am I kidding, Douthat's not crediting you with that much intelligence - if he were, he would write a different column.

So what, to Douthat, is "one of the biggest issues the campaigns are arguing about", the only one he writes about so presumably the one he believes will most influence the vanishingly small group of highly informed independent voters whose views align with the latest opinion polls? The standard Beltway obsession, "the question of how to bring our spending in line with our revenues". Douthat presents a statement he knows to be false, but who cares about facts when you can fall back on platitudes?
Conservatives think we tax too much and liberals think we spend too little, but the present combination of relatively low middle-class taxes and relatively generous entitlement spending is one that most Americans would happily maintain in perpetuity.
Let's see... on the one hand, we have a party that is promising a small tax increase on the wealthiest Americans, and the hope that through economic growth and spending cuts we can sustain the present system. On the other hand we have a party that is promising a $4-$5 trillion tax cut to be paid for by spending cuts and the closing of tax loopholes, but refuses to get more specific about how that will be achieved than "We'll defund PBS", and is simultaneously proposing a $2 trillion increase in the military budget. As for spending less? The only specifics, turning Medicare into a voucher program, are pushed off a decade into the future - everything stays the same for now.

It is perhaps not an unfair simplification of those different visions of our future budget as "Conservatives think we tax too much and liberals think we should balance the budget before we talk about tax cuts," but it is absurd to pretend that Romney's budget-busting military spending and refusal to commit to even a single meaningful spending cut constitutes anything but thinking we spend too little. And if you look at the history of Douthat's party, going back to Reagan, the whine going into the election has been "liberals tax and spend too much" and the policy coming after the election has been to go on budget-exploding spending sprees - the problem is with taxation that brings the budget closer to balance, not with the spending.

You can argue that trying to cover government spending through tax revenues is a horrible thing, and certain Republicans love to defy math, logic and history by purporting that tax cuts can be presumed to "pay for themselves" by producing economic growth... never mind how G.W.'s tax cuts were followed by sluggish growth - much less impressive than growth under Clinton - propelled in significant part by a housing bubble, and culminating in economic catastrophe. (Yes, Clinton's economic boom was driven in part by a different bubble, the Internet bubble, but at least he didn't squander the tax revenues.) A highly informed undecided might say, "I'm undecided because I want to vote for a guy who prioritizes long-term fiscal responsibility, someone whose budget priorities are first to balance the budget and only then to discuss what we might do with an assumed future surplus," but they're not going to fall for Douthat's oversimplification.

If we are to actually assume that Douthat's undecided voter is in fact highly informed, that voter knows this: Democrats are more likely to balance the budget when economic times are good, but are less likely to call for cuts in social spending when the economy is faltering or in recession. Republicans are going to call for tax cuts, inuring principally to the benefit of the wealthy, no matter what the economic conditions are, when in power are likely to adopt the Dick Cheney philosophy of "deficits don't matter", would prefer to cut and privatize Social Security and Medicare, but have balked at serious reform because they don't want to alienate the important voting bloc of seniors who receive, or are about to start receiving, those benefits.

The highly informed undecided voter is aware that Romeny is trying to "split the baby" by promising that nothing will change for anybody over 55, but that the promise likely translates into "nothing getting done" because ten years from now somebody else will be in the White House, that President will be as terrified as Romney at standing up to seniors, and that any budget proposal that doesn't go into effect for a decade whil have no impact on the budget, debt or deficit during the next eight to ten years.

At this point, Douthat's highly informed, undecided voter is no doubt wondering, "Why do I bother reading this guy's columns," as they understand that on the issue Douthat deems of highest importance, Romney offers nothing but snake oil and Douthat's nonetheless attempting to argue that it could in fact be a cure-all.

Back to "Beltway wisdom":
Unfortunately, the status quo can’t actually continue: the combination of the baby boomers’ retirement and rising health care costs means something has to give.
Social Security is a big expenditure, certainly, but as Douthat knows, it is not in imminent fiscal peril and can be rendered solvent for many decades to come through some relatively minor adjustments. Granted, the wealthy balk at increasing the FICA cap, and both older Americans and the political left oppose raising the retirement age or cutting benefits, but it has been done before and can be done again. Douthat knows that the only President to present a serious proposal on this issue, to make the same type of adjustments that were put into effect under Ronald Reagan is President Obama. And, one must assume, so does his highly informed yet undecided voter.

Medicare is a more pressing issue, not so much because of its present size but because of its projected growth.
The White House is arguing that we can limit health care spending largely by bureaucratic fiat, by empowering experts to change the way doctors and hospitals spend and treat and charge. But we’ve tried variations on centralized cost control for years — “Medicare Whac-A-Mole,” Reason magazine’s Peter Suderman has called it — without reaping anything like the promised benefits.
Douthat's highly informed voter can see through Douthat's charade. This voter knows that there is nothing unique in the government's effort to try to steer patients toward the most cost-effective care and to reduce waste - that private insurers do that as well, sometimes with a very heavy hand.

The highly informed voter is probably also thinking, "The best Douthat can come up with to back up his rhetoric is a columnist for Reason magazine? Isn't that a bit like inbreeding - one columnist who knows little to nothing about the subject matter attempting to support his political case by referring to another guy who who knows little to nothing about the subject matter but has a similar political philosophy?" They might click through to the article and see that it opens,
House Republicans, you may have heard, are trying to “end Medicare as we know it.” And well they should—Medicare as we know it is the nation’s biggest fiscal disaster.
And recognize that it's not going to attempt balance. They might wonder, "Does Douthat think that marrying Megan McCardle gave Sunderman a bachelor's degree level understanding of economics by proxy?" Or, "Why is Douthat citing as an expert a guy who is part of a political debate about Medicare, but is not part of the actual discussion amongst experts on Medicare reform - the year-old column of a non-expert is the best Douthat can come up with?" They might pause for a moment and wonder, "Has Douthat ever challenged Romney's pretense that a couple of off-the-cuff blog posts constitute 'studies' that prove his mystery budget can work?" and again wonder, "Why am I still reading this guy?"

Seriously, resorting to Sunderman is fine if you oppose Medicare, don't believe that the nation should provide comprehensive health insurance to the elderly as a matter of policy, and don't mind a somewhat inconsistent narrative explaining how the program is an affront to libertarianism. But if you're the highly informed centrist that Douthat proposes, one who wants to continue Medicare as a meaningful program, you're apt to find Sunderman's article to be long but ultimately unconvincing. You already know cost control is difficult and that past efforts have resulted in uneven benefits, and Douthat presupposes that you nonetheless want to keep trying to find solutions that will allow Medicare to continue more or less in its present, highly popular form.

Douthat, as usual, goes from there to worse:
The Republicans are arguing for a more competition-driven approach, which would allow private insurers to compete for Medicare dollars, and hopefully bid down the cost of coverage. There are studies and pilot programs that suggest this kind of structural change might lower costs.
The highly informed voter sees right through Douthat's word salad: "The Republicans want to turn Medicare into a voucher program, have the benefit shrink in value over time relative to medical inflation, and put much more responsibility for health care costs onto seniors while simultaneously providing a massive transfer of wealth to participating private insurance companies." They also can see for themselves that Douthat's pretense that "studies and pilot programs" support the viability of vouchers is false - they know that Medicare came into existence because private insurers did not want to insure the elderly at an affordable price, and know that Medicare Advantage participants needed a subsidy in order to compete with Medicare - and are probably thinking, "Douthat at least linked to a libertarian screed to support his last argument - why no link for these purported 'studies and pilot programs'?"

Douthat continues,
But there isn’t a large-scale example that conservatives can point to as the template for the United States to follow.
At least, nothing that has worked. If you look for "large-scale examples" of approaches to health insurance that reduce cost and control inflation while preserving choice of doctor, quality of care and quality of outcome, you can look around the world and find many - all of which would be decried by the Republican Party and people like Sunderman as "socialized medicine". You will find that those programs were implemented largely as a response to the faltering or failure of market-based alternatives. You will find that "single payer" is not prerequisite to success, and that it is possible to rely upon private insurance companies to provide coverage under a national health insurance program.

What you will find when you look for "a large-scale [or small-scale] example" is that the most market-based country in the world, the United States, has not only repeatedly failed to demonstrate the superiority of "a more competition-driven approach", its approach has made health care exceptionally costly without an associated improvement in outcomes. If you want to take it on faith that one more experiment will disprove decades of failure, there's nothing wrong with adhering to your philosophical principles, but if you are a highly informed voter attempting to perpetuate Medicare while realizing significant cost savings you know up front that voucher proposals are just another round of snake oil.

On to the hollow man:
That same skeptic’s eye would also tell our hypothetical undecided that neither side is being entirely honest about the costs of its approach. The Democrats are pretending that taxing the rich can pay for almost everything. The Republicans are pretending that neither today’s taxpayers nor today’s seniors need bear any of the burden. The high-information swing voters are basically left to decide which dishonesty is worse, and which unacknowledged cuts or tax hikes they’d rather risk having to bear.
The fact is, "The Democrats" are not claiming that a modest tax increase on the rich will balance the budget, certainly not that it will "pay for almost everything". Douthat probably knows that his claim is untrue - after all, he can read - and no doubt any highly informed voter who has not yet given up on his column knows the claim to be untrue.

But what of the criticism of the Republican Party? It's a point that even Douthat found it hard to gloss over, the aforementioned fact that the Romney/Ryan Republican approach is, "We'll kick the can down the road a decade, at which time Medicare will be a voucher program." Douthat apparently would like to see Medicare immediately tranformed into a voucher program - his criticism is not of its substance but of its timing. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, that his mention of the fact that the Republicans have promised to spare "today's seniors" of any pain is an actual criticism, not a reminder to seniors who might be reading his column that they don't have to worry about voting for Romney.

But Douthat's highly informed voter, seeing the hollow man on one side of the scale - a position no Democrat has actually taken - weighed against the postponement of any action on the other side of the scale, might be wondering, "Why did Douthat present that hollow man argument in the first place, rather than presenting a simple, honest criticism of his own party. He knows I'm an informed and intelligent person - does he seriously think I'm going to fall for that?" I jest - I expect that by now the "high-information swing voters" to whom Douthat is supposedly speaking have long given up on the column.

Douthat next picks up his fiddle and starts singing about Rome:
If you want to think well of swing voters, and imagine them as wise Athenians rather than a Colosseum-going mob, you could see the improving odds for what once seemed like an unlikely 2012 outcome — a Romney victory in which Democrats hold the Senate — as a nod to the necessity for bipartisanship, and an attempt to make a significant change in Washington while also forcing both parties back to the negotiating table.
The highly informed swing voter, though, knows that the Republican problems with their Senate races emerge in no small part from the radicalism of some of their Senate candidates, and how their dream boys (like Scott Brown) haven't held up as well as they anticipated when running against competent, well-funded opponents. They know it has nothing to do with a fantasy that "bipartisanship" will magically start working just because one party controls the White House and the other controls the Senate.

Douthat's back to his historic practice, pretending to be a wise man, perched upon a fence, but unwilling to come down clearly on one side or the other. His highly informed voter long ago figured out the side upon which Douthat falls - why is he afraid of admitting it?

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