Monday, August 06, 2007

Two Views of Populism

I could summarize the following by writing the American Enterprise Institute versus the Center for American Progress and you might have a good clue where this is going.

First, in one corner, from yesterday in The Financial Times we have Matt Miller and "Phoney Fears Grip America":

A spectre is apparently haunting America – the spectre of “populism”. “New populism spurs Democrats on the economy,” cried the front page headline in The New York Times the other day. Republicans rail against unseemly “class warfare”, while centrist Democrats fret that hard-edged populist appeals will spook suburban voters.

“It is not unusual,” The New York Times explained, “for candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to move left in the primary season.” However, rhetoric aside, there is little reason to view today’s supposedly wild-eyed Democrats as “populist” or “leftwing” at all.

Consider John Edwards, who the press and Republicans have cast as the heartthrob of the resurgent “left”....

The fact that a Thatcher-Cameron-Buffet agenda can be hyped as “populist” says more about propaganda success and media norms than anything else. Over three decades, America’s conservative movement has so deftly shifted the boundaries of debate to the right that even modest adjustments to the market system can be cast as the second coming of Marx without anyone blushing. Today’s phony populist fears also remind us that the real problem with the media is not ideology but stenography. If official sources call something “populist” often enough, it is.

More depressing is that many Democrats fall into the same trap, worrying that a Thatcher-Cameron agenda in America will frighten suburban swing voters, rather than asking themselves how they might win the argument over the direction America needs to take. At this rate, Americans will be lucky to catch up a decade from now to today’s social policy consensus in the UK. Meanwhile, Brits and others will have moved forward on a new generation of ideas to help citizens find security and opportunity in a global economy.

So as Miller praises the European system and demands America follow suit, we turn to the opposite corner where we find that Europe is recognizing the problems inherent in their social policies, moving toward American policies and that following Europe's mistake would be a travesty. In a recent Wall Street Journal article (which was a re-print of an article originally on TCSDaily) by Jurgen Reinhoudt, we see "Wrong Turn: Even as European leftists move right, American ones move further left":

In Europe, reforms are in vogue. Though many special interests are fiercely resisting change, it is striking to see just how many European Social Democrats have come to recognize the need for structural reforms to welfare states....

In many countries the left has been willing to discard or, at the very least, publicly reconsider old big-government approaches in order to reinvigorate economic growth and general prosperity.

In the United States, by contrast, those most committed to the welfare state tend to talk about trimming entitlements the least. This is particularly true of politicians aspiring to the highest office of the land....

Far from tackling the looming fiscal crisis, presidential candidates are busy marketing expensive new plans to voters. The health-care plan of John Edwards would "cost the federal government some $120 billion a year," $1.2 trillion over a 10-year period, for the foreseeable future. And that's not including $15 billion a year in proposed antipoverty measures. No word on how the existing entitlement shortfall will be dealt with....

While proposals for new entitlements may be politically easy, they are fiscally reckless. Candidates who promise expansive new entitlement spending are effectively writing checks the American economy cannot cash. They will take us to the place where Europe is today: a place where existing entitlements are unaffordable. Yet what matters is not so much the specific measures being considered, but the broader mindset from which they originate. It is in this context that comparing the European political mindset to the American political mindset is useful.

In 2005, the liberal Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby criticized the opposition of many Democrats to the possibility of investing in private Social Security accounts by saying that "a party that refuses to acknowledge the urgency of entitlement reform is a party of ostriches." He's right--and the label applies to many leaders in both parties.

Presidential candidates ought to learn from Europe's lessons. Even if it is politically painful, we should not race to the place that Europe is trying to get away from.

So which opinion is correct? I will let you look at the articles, research the facts and you can decide.

In case you have any doubt, my money is on Mr. Reinhoudt with Mr. Miller suffering a KO both in terms of economics and in what is the best policy for the citizens of Europe and America.

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