Bigger Is Easier – says Brooks, but which bigger?
December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment
Most important, the president will probably have to take advantage of the following paradox: bigger is easier. If he just tinkers around the edges with modest proposals, then everybody will be on familiar ground. But if he can expand the current debate, then, suddenly, everybody is on new ground.
The general approach should be to offer the left something it really craves. Then offer the right something it really craves. Then, once you get them watering at the mouth, tell them they’re going to have to bend on the things they don’t care about in order to get the things they do.
To get the left excited, Obama might offer an activist growth agenda. This would involve spending more on infrastructure, research and job training — the basic things he has always talked about. But it also would mean going further and embracing industrial policy.
Personally, I don’t think the government is very good at investing in green energy, Midwestern job growth or other things. But many liberals do believe this. Smart economists like Dani Rodrik and Jeff Faux have been hatching what they call smart industrial policy proposals. Others have talked about learning from the Chinese and Singaporeans. If Obama showed some support for this kind of stuff, he’d generate enormous excitement on the left.
To get the right excited, he needs to offer fundamental welfare state reform. So far, most efforts to avert national bankruptcy have involved controlling spending but keeping the basic structure of the safety net intact.
But it should be possible to strengthen the safety net while modernizing some of the Great Society structures. Paul Ryan, a Republican, and Alice Rivlin, a Democrat, have come up with a Medicare reform plan in which new enrollees would receive a fixed contribution from the government, growing a bit faster than inflation. They would apply that money against the cost of health insurance. This would make Medicare a defined contribution program and save hundreds of billions. If Obama said he was open to thinking about this sort of fundamental reform, he’d generate tremendous excitement on the right.
This is the opposite of triangulation. Instead of finding small compromises in the middle, it marries big ideas on the left and right. In a polarized country, it may be easier to push through big change by marrying the left and the right than by relying upon an unfortunately weak vital center.
Moreover, this marriage is intellectually coherent. Joining these initiatives means shifting resources from consumption to production, from current spending to future investment.
Liberals would get dollars for the unemployed in Ohio. Conservatives would cap the growth of government. Bond markets would see credible action. Voters would see a government that can function and a future that looks better than the present.