Bret, I tend to agree -- Krugman is not only becoming incredibly popular, he seems to have crossed the line into populism. Power corrupts. The problem is, our society so greatly reinforces popularity. Tens of millions of dollars for sports figures, pop stars, movie stars. Even pundits and news anchors are multi-millionaires. The more outrageous, the more popular, the richer. I'm not saying I would do anything about it. Just bemoaning the unintended consequences of our great society.
Howie, I particularly liked your relaying of observations by Edward O. Wilson. I agree that it's hard to start with transcendental arguments and expect a desired change to emerge. There's a necessary pragmatism that all change must be subject to. It's important not to oversimplify this because social systems are incredibly complex. Examination of incentives, consequences, and the barriers to adoption of new behaviors in any change effort is a good place to start.
Nonetheless, I think there is one transcendental question through which changes should be filtered: will the change provide more freedom for self-determination without significant detriment to the empowering infrastructure (which can be physical, economic, social, etc.), or will the change convey sufficient additional power for general self-actualization that it is worth any trade-off in reduced freedoms? Differences of opinion on this question will persist, but at least it would frame the argument for change in terms that people could relate to.
An example is the illegal drug policy issue that we discussed previously in this blog. The current policy creates all kinds of freedom-limiting conditions, including imprisonment for tons of small time pot users. What power for general self-actualization does this policy convey? I suppose the argument of proponents of our current drug policy would be that it protects people (esp. children?) from the ravages of drug use, and therefore allows them to otherwise pursue self-actualization. Pretty flimsy argument if you ask me. The data don't seem to support it, and, as previously noted, it is patriarchical. Might it not be more self-actualizing to decide not to do drugs on your own, based on an understanding of the facts rather than compliance with laws? If drugs really are so evil that they can hardly be resisted, then we'd better get busy outlawing candy and soda pop as well because those seem to be having a much more devastating impact on the health of our nation than illegal drugs.
Let's look at another -- harder -- issue: Bush's tax cut. Certainly, since I am in the upper percentiles of earners in the nation, the tax cut provided me more freedom in the sense that I have more money to spend on what I want to spend it on. This seems compelling in that it is so direct. The counter-arguments are harder to make, but are worth considering. What power for general self-actualization are we giving up? Because the federal budget is a giant marshmallow, it is necessarily messy to say that the tax cut will specifically disempower children because of less money for education, or cause the poor elderly more economic misery, or result in less national security, or eventually send interest rates skyward. As Bret rightly pointed out, the choices are not being honestly debated. Bush is, like so many others, a tax-cutting, high-spending politician. Why? Because it's generally the popular thing to do, and because of all the time lags, the problems associated with not making an honest choice might be pushed beyond the next election.
Don't get me wrong, I like tax cuts. But, what am I -- as a citizen who cares about the general health of our nation -- giving up? Until a taxcut-professing politician answers this, I'm not going to support him/her.
I also don't buy into the idea that cutting taxes will spur the necessity of cutting expenses. It's too easy to finance debt and avoid the issue.
Which brings us to reform, which is basically a fancy name for efficiency, which, in most cases, is the result of exposure to market forces. In general, I like the idea of reform because its promise is the same or better services at lower cost. The problem is, it almost never happens in the political arena. Yes, I agree, our educational system probably should be privatized. Maybe our highway system, too. Maybe social security. Or at least substantially so. Anyone want to place a bet on the likelihood of such reforms without the nation first experiencing a crisis? There's not even a remote chance of such reform without much greater leadership than we have now.
So, what do we need to do? We definitely need to cut spending. The federal budget is an interesting thing to contemplate. $318 billion for interest on debt -- a growing expense that is crowding out other expenditures because we have no fiscal discipline. Close to $400 billion on defense. Absolutely absurd. It should be half that much at most. What about NASA? Cut it 90%. Make it stick to science, not spectacle. Department of Energy? Cut the damn subsidies for the oil industry. I'm in the industry, and, believe me, we don't need them. Same with agriculture.
What we should not be cutting are programs that under a reasonable cost-effectiveness analysis are shown to help people become productive or programs that help prevent people from becoming a bigger drain on the rest of society. Education and training, safety nets that incent people to bounce back, preventive healthcare, a life for the elderly without physical misery, well-vetted infrastructure improvements -- these are good places for a government to spend money. Reform the way they're delivered? Of course. But not without a lot of work and great leadership.
Unfortunately, as citizens, often with good reason, we don't trust our governments to spend money in these areas wisely. What is the answer of the right? Don't even try to take on these challenges. As if somehow, magically, the market, or some other forces will make things right. The problem is, the need is not going away. It's intensifying.
Our blog has been very interesting to me. We seem to agree on a lot of things. If I can characterize one thing that we may disagree on, though, it's the role of political leaders to create change. Howie, especially, and Bret, to a lesser extent, seem to believe that most -- perhaps all -- attempts to direct social change are doomed to failure, or actually create more problems than benefits. On the other hand, I believe that without directed change -- regardless of the odds against it -- we are doomed to careen through history from one crisis to another; and, since the crises are getting bigger due to the sheer power of humans (both individually and collectively), this is an unacceptable option. Do you agree with that characterization of our differences? If not, can you better state your positions?
I've started reading Hayek's "Fatal Conceit," which, of course, is relevant to this topic. I'll let you know what I think.