Sunday, November 17, 2013

Status quo Sunday at the New York Times

I had the oddest sense of deja vu while reading Ross Douthat's column about the Affordable Care Act today immediately after reading Tom Friedman's column about Israel. 

Both were sleight-of-hand defenses of a status quo: an Israel continuously extended on theft of land and a welfare state in statsis that Douthat would not have adapt to mitigate new problems of wealth distribution and risk transfer.

Friedman's column is a mealy-mouthed plug for a book by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, which may well be better than Friedman's characterization.  It begins with an even-handedness trope: a plea to view "the real Israel, not the fantasy, do-no-wrong Israel peddled by its most besotted supporters or the do-no-right colonial monster portrayed by its most savage critics." Fair enough. But the column sanitizes the colonial reality, flashing briefly on a bloodless freeze-frame of expelled refugees in 1948 rather than engaging with the continuing and accelerating gobbling of the West Bank.  It then devolves into que sera piety: Palestinians should suck it up and get on with their lives. And by the way, the failure of two-state negotiations is all their fault:

Shavit wrestles with this contradiction, arguing that it is vital for every Israeli and Zionist to acknowledge Lydda, to empathize with the Palestinians’ fate. “But Lydda does not make Zionism criminal,” he insisted in an interview. History has produced many flights of refugees — the Jewish refugees of Europe were one such wave. Israel absorbed those refugees. European countries absorbed theirs. For too long, the Arab world kept the Palestinians frozen in victimhood. “It is my moral duty as an Israeli to recognize Lydda and help the Palestinians to overcome it,” said Shavit, by helping them establish a Palestinian state that is ready to live in peace with Israel. But, ultimately, “it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to overcome the painful past, lean forward and not become addicted to victimhood.” 

Shavit’s chapter on the Oslo peace accords, which he first supported but later denounced, challenges the Israeli left. The great mistake of the Israeli left was that it was right about the evils of Israel’s occupation, he said, “but it was wrong that ending the occupation would end the conflict with the Palestinians, because the Palestinians have not overcome the trauma of 1948 and many still oppose a Jewish democracy in this region, no matter what the borders.” But Shavit argues that Israel can’t afford to just wait for every Palestinian to embrace a Jewish state. It must find a way to separate from the West Bank, as it did in Gaza, otherwise the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel. 
Shavit may feel deeply burned by Palestinian rejection of two-state deals on offer in 2000 and 2008.  His discussion is book-length, and I won't gainsay it (I'm sure I've read a column of his here and there, but I don't have a clear idea of his thinking). But Freidman, in his I-suspect-somewhat-sanitized Shavit sampling, doesn't engage with the more recent past, in which Palestinians have largely renounced violence and seemed ready to deal, while Netanyahu has sandbagged negotiations and continued to push settlement toward the point of no return.  Separation on the Gazan model also gets a pass, though in Gaza, it means continued Israeli control of the formerly occupied territory's economic vitals. Having tamed the "tension" of Israel's moral ambiguity, Friedman settles into the mildly asterisked fanboy enthusiasm he purports at the outset to reject.

Douthat pulls off a structurally similar maneuver. He begins by purporting to give the beleaguered Affordable Care Act its due: it has survived three (or so far, two-and-a-half) near-death experiences: the loss of a Senate supermajority in January 2010, the conservative Supreme Court's semi-pass in 2012, and the current rock rollout.  But why so troubled a birth?  For Douthat, it's the inherent instability of the welfare state:
 Because our government spends and regulates so much, [Jonathan] Rauch argued, because its influence sprawls into so many walks of life, because so many clients and beneficiaries and interest groups depend on its programs and policies, the policy status quo is far harder to dislodge today than it was during the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society. 

This status quo bias is structural rather than ideological; it frustrates limited-government conservatives as well as liberal technocrats. But the frustration has been much more acute and ironic for Democrats, who find themselves handcuffed by the very achievements they aspire to emulate, and attacked by the beneficiaries of yesterday’s liberal programs when they attempt to propose programs for tomorrow.
I suppose that's one way of looking at it...indignant beneficiaries of Medicare and the employer's health insurance tax exemption have risen up to reject the new foreign body entitlement. Ergo, a light touch may push it over:
And what’s going on right now, the convergence of the website’s technical problems with the backlash surrounding canceled plans, reveals the perils of trying to outsmart the political system’s status quo bias. Your strategy can end up so intricate and deceptive, and your policy so complex and jerry-built, that something as basic as a malfunctioning website can suffice to bring the whole policy crashing down. 
What Douthat leaves out of the picture, of course, is relentless Republican sabotage. Passage of the ACA should not have required a Senate supermajority: the bill has a Republican pedigree and architecture, and Obama and Baucus bent over backwards to win a modicum of GOP buy-in.  Public distrust of the law did not arise spontaneously: the GOP's full-bore, lockstep, relentless lying (death panels, government-run, deficit-exploding) has had its effect. So have the GOP's successful efforts to starve the law of implementation funds, choke off essential state government cooperation in 36 states, lop off a huge chunk of the Medicaid expansion, and refuse to allow the kinds of routine legislative fixes that any major reform requires during and after implementation. 

The website failure may be in large part a self-inflicted wound -- though born, in large part, by attempts to circumvent the relentless sabotage. But the past two Democratic administrations demonstrate that self-inflicted wounds are inevitable when the opposition fundamentally rejects the legitimacy of the elected government. Rather, they're inevitable in all administrations, but they do deeper damage when the opposition is not a loyal one.

As Douthat acknowledges, the ACA will probably survive the website crisis.  For one thing the website should not be necessary to implementation: a law like the ACA would have been viable before a web that can handle complex transactions existed. Even now, with the a law like the ACA would have been viable before a web that can handle complex transactions existed. Even now, with the help of private aggregator sites, a user can bypass the site, comparison shop and buy insurance on the exchanges easily enough if the government can make the subsidy determination via phone or print application in reasonable time.

But succeed or fail, the ACA's the has nothing to do with the inherent viability of the welfare state. After all, every other wealthy country in the world has managed to deliver universal health insurance without constitutional crisis.  Failure, if it occurs, will be a failure of democracy in America, bred of multiple complex causes: our undemocratic Constitution, which disproportionately empowers conservative regions; the rising power of elites, further empowered by the removal of campaign finance constraints; economic stress, triggered in large part by elites' deregulatory agenda; and a debased, Murdoch-ized mass media.

Distrust of a modernized safety net is part of American culture, no doubt. But that distrust is both cause and effect of our political system and is not a universal condition.

1 comment:

  1. Clear thinking. It goes far too often unnoticed that every other democracy manages to provide health care for its citizens without imperiling democracy or the free market or health care results.