About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Cynicism, government, and subsidiarity

I cross-posted my piece on "Penny-wise and (Rand) Paul Foolish" on RIFuture.org yesterday.  The article below is a response to a commenter, who raised 2 points:
1.  Given the functioning of our public school system in recent decades, isn't my call for universal public pre-k overly optimistic, if not misinformed
2.  Rather than giving the IRS more authority -- since government does very few things well anyway -- should we just simplify the tax code? 
First, your point and mine with regard to the IRS aren't incompatible.  I'm all for simplifying the federal tax code.  It would cut down on abuse, and make enforcement easier.  Unfortunately, pols from across the political spectrum share the responsibility for having made the code so immensely complicated.  

Suzanne Mettler has a really important article in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, in which she points out how tax expenditures and credits have essentially substituted for other forms of policy in recent decades.  My sense is that my fellow liberals are particularly guilty of this.  Unable to win the argument politically for a stronger and more expensive social safety net, or more authoritative regulations, tweaking the tax code seems to have become the apparently 'cost-free' way to make policy that liberals, moderates and many conservatives can agree on.  The problem, of course, is that writing the tax code with a dry erase marker means that someone else can re-write it...and when regs and codes get re-written, it is usually to the benefit of the privileged, outside of the light of public scrutiny.  The tax code is also an awkward and often inefficient tool for making social policy.
 If we simplify -- and lord knows there are lots of ways to do that -- we can return the tax code to its primary purpose, which is of course to raise revenue.  I don't think all purposeful taxes are bad, far from it (I like the estate tax, and a carbon tax, and many others), but simpler would be better...as long as the system retains its progressive nature.  Right now, in terms of actual taxes paid, the American tax system (federal income, payroll, state, property) has lost most of its progressivity.  This is in part responsible for the massive expansion of inequality in this country in recent decades.
Second, your cynicism about government (can we pull off public pre-k; govt spending is nearly always wasteful) was precisely what I was aiming at in my post.  I see the same sentiment from all sides of the political spectrum.  I think that kind of cynicism about government is factually inaccurate, politically dangerous, and -- to be frank -- intellectually lazy.  I don't want to get into public education too much here, but one gets a little tired of the constant laments about the poor quality of the system from liberals and conservatives alike.  The fact of the matter is that the system works well for the vast majority of American school kids.  Where it falls short is in the education of the poor, and students of color.  While obviously some of that is connected to flaws in how we've structured school governance and finance (particularly in cities), as much if not more of it stems from the fact that we have a lot of child poverty in this country, and that we geographically concentrate so much of that poverty, particularly among people of color.  The failures of our public schools are failures of political will, more than they are failures of government as such (in other words, the 'public' part of 'public schools' isn't the issue).
So much of our public discourse has shifted in this direction in recent decades.  One consequence, which I lament even if you don't, is the virtual elimination of liberalism from mainstream political reality.  Another, which we are discovering right now on the debt ceiling, the deficit, the Great Recession, global warming, etc, is that we have rendered ourselves incapable as a nation of grappling with the biggest issues we face.  Other than Obama's health care bill, I find it hard to name any large-scale issue that our federal government has fully addressed since the early 70s environmental legislation.  My point, in the end, was that people across the political spectrum should be able to agree on a basic point (one finds this consensus in other wealthy countries):  that government has certain basic responsibilities, and that progressive forms of taxation are the best way to pay for them. 
Personally, I'm one of those rare left-liberals who finds the Catholic notion of 'subsidiarity' convincing.  American conservatives often argue that subsidiarity is simply a call for smaller government, and more room for the marketplace.  I'm no theologian (I'm not even Catholic), but I think this is a misunderstanding.  It does insist that as many decisions as possible should be left to the local level, where citizens are more likely to be directly engaged.  But at its core is an ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, family and community.  That means larger and more interventionist government where its appropriate, with a preference for decentralization...but only if that best serves the ethical imperative. 
If American conservatives want to criticize poor government, fine -- I'm with them on that.  But when it slides into criticism of governance itself, they lose me. 

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