Is There Really a "Conservative Reform" Movement in Policy?

May 23, 2013Mike Konczal

A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written - they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists... [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different than saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word privatization is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: how many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.

Now what about disagreements? What are they adding to the table? As far as I read what reformers bring to the table, it consists of:

a. Monetary policy shouldn’t adopt a price stability mandate (or a gold standard, for that matter), and in fact Ben Bernanke could and should be doing more to help the recovery with the powers he has available. (Fiscal policy like the stimulus, however, is a bad idea that largely fails.)

b. Tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, are successful programs which might even be expanded. They’re good even though they mean 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, which conservatives hate. ("Predistribution" means of boosting low-end wages, like a higher minimum wage, should be avoided though.)

c. Financial institutions should hold more capital, and perhaps we should apply a “structural” reform to the sector like a size cap or siloing of functions.

d. The government protects incumbent interests in industry, both with obvious subsidies but also with certain property rights, like copyright.

Am I missing more? These are important things, but it’s really tough to think of this as a general new direction in policy. Much of it is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right. And even here you’ll have major disagreements. (It is amusing to think of Timothy P. Carney writing a column about how Ben Bernanke needs to “commit to being irresponsible.”)

A lot of the reformer articles posit more aggressive conservative reformers like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and now Josh Barro. What stands out to me is that these three write as if the Obama administration happened. The rest of the reformers write as if his first term never happened as a baseline, and crucially that they can’t write stuff seen as getting in the way of repeal.

They also understand that the Great Recession destroyed the previous consensus that we had solved the question of the business cycle. It’s tougher to argue that we should have a radically smaller federal government when it looks like the size of the government and automatic stabilizers helped keep the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression-like collapse. The reformers have bounced around on this topic, but aside from the three mentioned, they haven’t had conversions. Mostly they believe the Great Moderation should have just tried harder.

I’d emphasize one last thing about the policy of conservative reformers: in practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive. I don’t know enough to mediate the health care battles, but I do know financial reform pretty well. And as financial reform is often brought out as an example of new reformers at work, it’s interesting to watch the lack of attention reformers pay to the actual nuts and bolts of the process.

I don’t see reformers call for getting the head of the CFPB appointed. I don’t see them arguing that repealing FDIC’s new resolution authority powers should be taken out of the Ryan Budget. I don’t see them arguing that efforts to repeal derivatives regulations already are premature or bad policy. I don’t see them angry about the mess of the securitization servicing system, which is creating a nightmare of law-breaking in the housing market. I also don’t seem them arguing the opposite either.

It’s focused on “break up the banks!” Crucially, this gets its energy from the idea that We Should Do Something Big about financial reform, rather than how it plays into a larger set of regulations, laws, and markets. It’s to position the Republicans as Doing Something where the Democrats haven’t. It’s sadly less policy and more political strategizing.

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