Saturday, June 26, 2010

Quick thoughts about good faith

Yglesias cites Mark Kleiman saying:
Remember this the next time a conservative explains how we ought to voucherize public education. The minute that happens, the conservatives will come back and decide that we need to means-test the vouchers. That done, they’ll attack the remaining program as “welfare.”
This seems bang on, and is a good part of why I changed my mind about these things. Given a sufficient degree of good faith and such, it would make sense to argue that the government ought to means-test the safety net, and that people who've got the money to send their kids to school or themselves to the hospital ought to spend on such things. But of course any means-tested program is vulnerable to the welfare-for-people-not-like-us line of attacks unless it provides goodies for a sufficiently large number of people; conversely, any public program that provides goodies for enough people is politically invulnerable. Therefore the best model for sustainable safety-net programs is something like Medicare, which spends most of its money on people who pay (slightly) more in taxes than they get out of the program, but feel -- being irrational -- as if they're getting free stuff. [One could argue about the existence of economies of scale, as with e.g. the NYC subway, but this is beside my point.] Another promising line of attack is to make most people feel vulnerable and in need of a safety net -- this is Tony Judt's notion of a "social democracy of fear" -- but I'm not clear how much mileage an approach like this would have in countries like the US where the rate of downward mobility has not historically been very high.