Radical change in America is hard for a reason, progressives should learn it well at their own peril

If you think the government is dysfunctional now, imagine what it will look like when every department and program is subject to an endless, see-saw partisan battle, coming and going practically with each election cycle.  That’s precisely what will happen if 50 votes is the new 60 in the Senate.

As Democrats press ahead with their scheme to radically expand the government and its role in American life without controlling an actual majority in the United States Senate, it’s worth carefully considering why change in this country is so hard to achieve and requires such a high threshold, otherwise known as a filibuster proof majority of 60 Senators.  Simply put, the goal is to preserve the status quo.  The status quo, of course, is not perfect by any means, but various incarnations of it have taken thirteen fledgling colonies from a British backwater to the most powerful country in the history of the known universe in less than 250 years.  Every previous significant change to this status quo, what we can variously see as major alterations in the structure of government, from the New Deal to the Great Society, required far more than an even Senate and the most closely divided House in decades. Most had overwhelming support from both parties.

Despite their many protestations to the contrary, Democrats are not the first political party to be frustrated by the structural barriers our Constitutional order and democratic norms place in the way of rapid change. In their minds, they currently control both the Executive and Legislative branches of government, and therefore should be able to pass what they want without hindrance.  The question is:  Why is that not the case?  Why does permanent, lasting change require 60 votes in the Senate and, usually, a significant majority in the House of Representatives?  In my opinion, there are two obvious reasons for this, almost immutable laws of politics:  All changes come with unintended consequences and, all things being equal, stability is preferable to constant, untested change.

Politicians of both parties, of course, promote their legislative priorities by focusing exclusively on the positive, but nothing in this world is all upside.  There is always a cost, always things we didn’t see coming, even if we pursue a policy with the best possible intentions.  These could be actual costs, as in the bills being much higher than expected as we’ve seen with Social Security and Medicare.  Both began as a combined 1% payroll tax in 1937, but the rate more than doubled over the next 20 years to 2.25% in 1957.  Today, the programs are funded through two separate taxes that total 7.65%, almost 8 times the initial rate.  These are the taxes paid by the employee only; the employer also kicks in the same amount, meaning a 2% tax at the start is now over 15% today.  Perhaps needless to say, this is not what the original crafters of the regulation promised.  They swore these taxes would never be higher than 1%, but that was based on their original cost projections and, as costs spiraled for various reasons, the taxes needed to increase to keep pace.

Likewise, previous iterations of the Democrats’ social spending spree proposals run between $3.5 and $5.5 trillion over ten years.  That’s quite a swing, and fortunately or unfortunately it’s near impossible to put an exact figure on it because no one can predict precisely how this smorgasbord of new services would be utilized and taken advantage of by the public.  Take free community college for example.  The costs are estimated at $109 billion so that “every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate,” but who knows how many more young people will opt for community college rather than going straight into the workforce because it’s “free.”  As far as I can tell, the costs would be paid for by the federal government regardless of whether or not a student graduates, meaning it seems likely to me more high school graduates would choose that path than ever before, if only to delay entering the real world.  It might well turn community college into two more years of high school.

The same is true for the plans for “universal” Pre-K and subsidies for childcare.  The truth is no one has any idea what these plans would actually cost, or the impact on how families provide care for their children.  The Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, found that parents in 32 states would save more than $100 per week on childcare costs.  They based this figure on the plan’s use of state median income (SMI) to determine eligibility. If a family’s SMI is below 75% of the state average, they would be eligible for free child care.  At the same time, no family would be required to pay more than 7% of their income towards child care expenses.  Undoubtedly, there are tens of thousands of families around that threshold that have deferred expenses by sharing caregiving responsibilities with a family member like a grandparent or working from home.  If the government is going to pay for it, however, why wouldn’t they take advantage of the new subsidy?

Ultimately, this brings us to the law of unintended consequences:  Apart from the cost, major new social policies will impact peoples’ behavior in ways that are impossible to predict.  As incentives change, so do decisions and actions.  If government money perceived as “free” is available, entire industries will spring up to ensure it’s being spent by the billions.  A hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a lawyer who specialized in social security and disability.  Today, even a truly disabled person, that is a person classified with special needs almost their entire lives, needs to engage one to obtain benefits that are rightfully theirs by law.  An entire industry of legal experts has positioned themselves as the gatekeeper to an important government benefit, skimming a few thousand dollars off the top of every successful claim.  The same is true of practically any government grant.  The average person can’t access these resources without help and that help, of course, has to be paid for.

A strong, bipartisan majority at the passage of a new program ensures both parties have a vested interest in revising and updating the laws as cost structures and behaviors change.  Social Security and Medicare for example have been revised somewhere around 30 times since their passage, about once every three years.  More recently, we’ve heard many lamentations from Democrats that Republicans refused to participate in strengthening the Affordable Care Act, but why would they be inclined to do so when it passed without a single Republican vote?  Likewise, Democrats had little to no interest in continuing the tax cuts passed under President Bush, though a deal was ultimately struck to preserve most of them, and we’re now seeing the same thing with those passed under President Trump.  No one should reasonably expect the opposing party to revise and strengthen laws that passed over their strenuous objections.

The end result is instability, ineffective laws that need revision or extension, but without the support to make it happen.  This segues nicely into the second point:  Laws passed by narrow or even non-existent majorities can be much more easily repealed, replaced, or just plain forgotten when the other party comes into power.  Republicans controlled both the Executive and Legislative branches for periods under both President Bush and Trump.  What might they have done if they could pass major legislation without the normal filibuster proof 60 vote threshold?  Obviously, we will never know for sure, but a few things come to mind:  The Affordable Care Act would’ve been completely repealed, Social Security might well have been privatized, and entire departments in the government could have been eliminated or completely gutted including the Department of Education and even the Internal Revenue Service.  A flat tax isn’t beyond the realm of reasonableness as many hot items in more conservative circles were never seriously entertained because the supermajority required for passage simply didn’t exist.  If the target were a bare 50 votes in the Senate with the Vice President serving as tie-breaker, who knows what more “extreme” conservatives like myself might have pushed for and gotten?

In a similar vein, what precisely do Democrats think is going to happen to their plans if Republicans win the White House and take back control of Congress in 2024?  What was passed without a significant majority, can be repealed the same.  I understand they believe Republicans would be hesitant to eliminate programs that provide direct benefits, but that’s hardly a tested theory.  First, it’s unlikely these policies would even be fully implemented in three years, making them much easier to curtail, phase out, or get rid of entirely.  Second, this is a highly polarized age dominated by base-pleasing politics coupled with the difficulty of unseating an incumbent of either party.  The Republicans might well reason that they are better off catering to their right wing and pleasing them in the short term than worrying about what blowback they could hypothetically suffer come the next election.  After all, that’s precisely the war going on in the Democrat party right now:  The two moderate Senators are blocking President Biden’s attempt to placate his base.  A future Republican President would surely at least consider the same political calculus.

The end result could well be massive, structural changes to the government undertaken every time one party controls the Presidency and Congress.  The only status quo would be flux as policies are repealed before they are even fully implemented and then implemented again perhaps before they are even fully repealed.  It should be noted that this is essentially a classic self-fulfilling prophecy:  In order to win a primary, candidates will be forced to promise their base they will institute this or repeal that.  They will be incentivized to engage in this behavior, and there will be no stability whatsoever in the operations of government.  If you think the government is dysfunctional now, imagine what it will look like when every department and program is subject to an endless, see-saw partisan battle, coming and going practically with each election cycle.

That, my friends, is the future progressives are pushing for, though they might lack the self-awareness to fully understand it, and that’s precisely why our Constitutional order makes change extremely difficult to achieve.  The Founders, and most of our great leaders since, were a unique combination of idealism and realism.  They understood and accepted that no system was perfect, and so they built a system that preserved the status quo despite its flaws.  They did this because a flourishing social and business community requires stability, and the alternative is no status quo at all, otherwise known as anarchy and confusion, where no problem is ever solved and one gets what they want anyway.

2 thoughts on “Radical change in America is hard for a reason, progressives should learn it well at their own peril”

  1. Thanks, I appreciate it. I agree with that. I read a biography of Harry Truman recently, and he had some pretty progressive ideas and an agenda in private, but in public he recognized the reality of a governing coalition and adjusted accordingly. I think everyone should ready his Secretary of State Acheson’s address on the need to focus on the problems you can actually solve and not claiming you can save the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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