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Mayor Pete’s Status Quo Bias

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It’s tempting to dismiss the policy argument occurring in the Democratic presidential nominating contest as a bunch of passionate conflicts over ideological distinctions that in the end are pretty minor, particularly when compared to what distinguishes the candidates from Donald Trump and the Republican Party. But that policy argument has profound implications for how the candidates want to shape the country’s ideological character and where the next Democratic president will take the country.

It goes beyond the simple question of how far they want to move to the left. Consider this interesting new ad from Pete Buttigieg:

Buttigieg would make public college free for students whose parents earn less than $100,000 a year—a substantial expansion of public benefits—but at the same time, he makes an argument against universal public goods. He objects to making college “free even for the kids of millionaires,” warning that free tuition would risk “turning off half the country.”

And it’s true that conservatives imbibe a lot of anti-government rhetoric about how public benefits are “free stuff” and therefore repugnant. But here is the question for Democrats: Do they have to accept that we can only work within a framework conservatives have built?

Buttigieg’s argument—that we should limit how far to extend a government benefit lest it be enjoyed by some people who don’t need it—has a direct parallel in conservative thinking about benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Republicans often advocate things like drug testing and work requirements for public programs for the poor, in effect trying to weed out the people they consider morally undeserving of benefits. Indeed, they regularly use stories of individual undeserving people (your “welfare queens”), taking advantage of the program as an excuse to cut benefits for everyone who needs it, deserving or not.

You may have encountered this on an individual level as well, from people who say, “I’m against food stamps, because my lazy no-good cousin gets them, and he just sits around all day playing video games.” To many conservatives, the fact that someone morally undeserving might get a benefit is a reason why no one, or at least as few people as possible, should get them.

That’s not quite what Pete Buttigieg thinks, but it has parallels. Buttigieg believes that the danger of parents taking advantage of the system by getting free tuition at public schools when they could afford to pay is reason enough to impose an inevitably elaborate system of rules, regulations, and income verification on that free tuition, rather than just saying it’s open to everybody. As if the danger of a millionaire’s kid going to a state university for free instead of paying tuition at a private college is such a profound injustice that it simply cannot be abided.

You can make a fiscal critique of this argument, which is that as long as we have a progressive tax system, those millionaires will be paying plenty (especially if Democrats get their way), which should lesson any concern about them saving $10,000 on tuition for their kids. But Buttigieg isn’t talking about how the rich getting free tuition would affect the budget. He’s making a moral argument.

This goes beyond education; we’re having a similar debate on health care, about whether we should maintain a system still largely determined by your ability to pay, or create one in which except at the “concierge care” high end, your ability to pay (premiums, deductibles, etc.) does not affect your access to care. In short, we’re asking where the limits are of the government’s provision of public goods.

To clarify for those who are recalling their freshman economics class, I’m not referring here to the narrow definition of “public goods” commonly associated with the economist Paul Samuelson, which includes only goods where extending the benefit to an additional person does not increase the cost, and it is not feasible to exclude anyone from the benefit even if you wanted to. That would cover things like clean air, street lighting, or the GPS system, but not things like health care or education.

Instead, I want to consider “public good” in a broader way, as anything government provides to everyone without making distinctions by income. For instance, through the late 19th and early 20th century, we came as a society to believe that an education through high school was so fundamental to human flourishing that it should be denied to no one, no matter where in the country they lived or what their income. We still have dramatically unequal schools (primarily because we fund them with property taxes), but at least we hold to the idea that every child deserves to go to school.

We do not, however, believe that everyone deserves a college education if they want it—at least not yet. In some countries like Germany and Denmark, they do believe that, and so college is free.

Every other industrialized country in the world also decided decades ago that health care should be a public good like primary and secondary education: available to everyone no matter your income. While the rules differ from country to country, in most of them the idea that you’d have to pay a deductible before getting care is just as ludicrous as the idea that an eight-year old would have to fork over a tuition payment before showing up at their neighborhood elementary school.

We just have to decide how widely we’re going to draw that circle of universal public goods, and opinions will differ. But it’s notable that Pete Buttigieg used to talk about his “Medicare for all who want it” not as an end it itself but as a smoother path to achieve the ultimate goal of single payer health care. Now, in trying to strike a contrast with Warren and Sanders, he seems to be arguing that we shouldn’t expand the scope of public goods beyond the status quo; we just need to add some means-tested programs to make things less difficult for people.

You can make both policy and political arguments for why those are the best policy alternatives right now. One thing they won’t do, however, is change how the public thinks about government and what obligations it has to the public. That’s something Ronald Reagan accomplished, and thirty years after he left office we’re still living with the effects, forced to push against the presumption that government is inherently incompetent and corrupt, and the free market is always superior, no matter how pathological the effects it may produce in areas like health care.

Barack Obama said he wanted to do what Reagan did, but in the other direction; in 2008 he noted that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Yet despite many policy accomplishments, Obama failed to change the country’s trajectory. And the next Democratic president may not even try.

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Thanks !

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