Friday, September 18, 2009

The Knee-Jerk Conservatives

You know, I really want to keep this blog from being predictably partisan. But that goal is getting harder and harder. There was a time when Republicans had some good ideas that were consistent with their ideology, and which evoked knee-jerk objections from Democrats. Energy price decontrol (OK, that was actually started by Carter, but Reagan speeded it up). Tradable pollution permits.

But today Republicans don't seem to have any ideas at all, unless you call making the rich richer an idea. This outburst is provoked by a story in today's New York Times, about a Democratic plan to reform the student loan program. Instead of paying banks to make federally guaranteed loans to students, the federal government will make them directly. The estimated savings are $80 billion over ten years, which is to be redirected to Pell grants, community colleges, and early childhood education, among other things.

One congressman commented that debate over the plan bears “an eerily strong resemblance to the health care debate that rages on today.” And so it does-- both are about trying to bypass a bloated private-sector bureaucracy. But I was startled to discover that this comment was made by a Republican, and he meant it as a criticism of student-loan reform, not as a criticism of the Republican position on health care. To homo republicanus, it seems, the private sector can always do something more cheaply, even if we have to subsidize them to do it. The congressman also noted that the Democratic plan would cost 30,000 jobs nationally. So the Republican position now, apparently, is that government spending on completely unproductive jobs is a good thing. Using the same (bad) math that Republicans used on the economic stimulus bill, that's almost $3 million per job.

In the past, the one kind of federal spending that Republicans unequivocally liked was military spending. But since the private sector can do things more cheaply, why not use private contractors? So we had contract interrogators, contract embassy security, Blackwater, all of which worked out very badly. In the invasion of Iraq, some Army units had to scrounge for water in the 130-degree heat, because contractors weren't delivering enough. Later we had a bribery scandal involving contract water suppliers. What kind of army leaves its soldiers without water? And, oh yes, there was the Halliburton KBR electrocution problem. Is it unreasonable to suggest that maybe the military could do some of these things better itself?

So how do we explain Republican opposition to any kind of service delivery by government? Here are some possibilities:

1. Charitable, relative to the others: Republicans are so locked in their ideology that they will believe it even in the face of the evidence, or believe that constituents will.

2. Cynical: Ideology is just a cover for the wish to extract money from the public at large and deliver it to corporations that will support them financially.

3. Conspiratorial: What Republicans are really afraid of is that the government will be able to do some things more cheaply and effectively than the private sector, and that the public will see it.

I wasn't born yesterday. Of course, politicians worry about campaign contributions. Of course, people's guesses about how well policies will work are based partly on their personal preconceptions. That's OK. But shouldn't we expect that at some point facts and evidence will play some role?

1 comment:

  1. If they ever stopped believing that government is bad, they would have to stop being Republicans. It's that central to their party identity. That bias also creates a natural affinity with the business community, which leads to more campaign contributions. So I would say it's a combination of one and two; they're not mutually exclusive. Further, I would say that some Rs also recognize that some new government programs would end up being effective and popular, which would undermine their anti-goverment rhetoric. Rs are on the wrong side of history in opposing health care reform. It will happen sooner or later because we are on an unsustainable course; and when it does it will be broadly recognized at necessary and inevitable.