Democrats are optimistic that the Russian and corruptions scandals will propel the party to victory in 2018. Perhaps they are correct but I fear that they are wrong for two reasons.
First, President Trump continues to give weekly rallies to his enthusiastic base. There are no figures on the Democratic giving large robust rallies.
Second, aside from Russia and corruption (admittedly two big asides) the entire debate today centers around Trump priorities – basically immigration, trade and low taxes.
The Democrats do much better when the conversation involves health care, student debt, pensions and Social Security. The common theme linking these issues is that despite the currently strong economy many Americans are financially insecure and are having trouble saving for the future or for education.
Why aren’t Democrats out there rallying their base the way Trump is?
Why aren’t Democrats talking more about financial security — health care, student debt and retirement – issues of concern to working-class households?
The basic answer is that there is a huge split in the Democratic party both on economic priorities and appropriate policies. This split is paralyzing the party and impeding the delivery of a viable progressive agenda.
The liberal wing of the Democratic Party offers transformative radical change. The centrists believe that the liberal wing’s policy proposals are unrealistic and could make many people worse off.
The centrists offer relatively modest policy changes and appear to only reluctantly embrace left-wing proposals when they need votes. The current message offered by the centrists will not rouse the base.
The liberals correctly believe the current centrist agenda would at best maintain the status quo and at worse could implement compromises with Republicans that will weaken the existing safety net.
This conflict can be illustrated by a discussion of three issues – health care, student debt and retirement savings. These issues allow for the Democrats to create a theme for 2020. The theme is how do we make Americans more financial secure and what party do you trust to do this?
This is a good place for me to state my bias. I am a centrist not a liberal. However, many of the current policy proposals offered by centrists are insufficient.
Here is an outline of some policy ideas, which could bridge the gap between centrists and liberals.
Discussion of Health Care:
It is hard to understand why Democrats aren’t spending more time talking about health care. The number of uninsured Americans without health insurance rose by 3.2 million people during President Trump’s first year in office. This issue and other problems with health insurance markets received more coverage in CNBC than by MSNBC.
The liberals want single payer health care. The fact that single-pay works well in some countries, which have only known single payer, does not mean that the United States could transition from the current system to a single payer system.
The adoption of a single-payer system would make some people more financially secure but would make many people worse off than the current situation. Many health care providers and doctors would have substantially lower compensations. This would be a disaster for new doctors with substantial medical school debt. The single-payer would be more generous than some private plans but might deny or provide insufficient reimbursement for expensive procedures.
Many centrists have endorsed and voted for a Medicare for all plan, even though their more detailed thoughts are more in line with ACA modification proposals. They argue their vote is a symbolic one in support of universal coverage. I would argue this vote is a pander.
The centrists want to repair the ACA but their discussions do not fully acknowledge that problems with the ACA existed even before the Trump Administration weakened the program. The ACA was a big step forward but also a disappointment compared to where we want to be.
Despite the enactment of the ACA, insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses have continued to rise. There is some evidence that state exchange insurance has narrower networks and entail higher costs than some employer-based insurance. Moreover, people who take ACA coverage are required to take employer-based insurance if they obtain a job with an employer that offers coverage. Rules and tax incentives favoring employer-based insurance over state exchange insurance weaken state market places.
There is no doubt that Trump Administration polices – ending the individual mandate, reducing funds for ACA enrollment, potential new rules allowing alternatives to ACA policies and a freeze on ACA reinsurance payments – have weakened state exchanges and are responsible for the increase in the number of uninsured.
However, centrists need to do more than offer a patch to the ACA. They need to offer a vision on how we can move to a system that provides more coverage, lower out-of-pocket expenses, and access to all procedures and drugs.
Authors Note: I am currently working on a health care proposal. It will be published by the end of 2018.
Discussion of student debt: It is hard to believe that the Democrats aren’t talking a lot more about student debt, especially given recent Trump Administration proposals. Recent actions or positions taken by the Trump Administration on student debt include:
- The proposed elimination of the public service loan program,
- The proposed elimination of subsidized student loans,
- The end of compensation for student borrowers who are victims of fraud,
- The reduced enforcement of rules allowing enrollment in Income Based Replacement loan programs
Why aren’t Democrats talking more about these student debt issues?
The liberal wing wants free college for people attending public universities. This does work in some countries. However, free public college is very expensive and the transition would adversely impact private institutions.
The centrists need to come up with innovative pragmatic solutions to the college debt problem and incorporate these proposals in their standard speech.
I have published a working paper, which lists 12 pragmatic ways to reduce the growth of student borrowers with excessive student debt and mitigate debt burdens for overextended borrowers.
One of my proposals involves providing additional financial assistance and reduce student loans to first-year students who do not have an extensive credit history or proven academic record.
A second proposal reduces interest payments after 15 years. This approach is likely to be more effective than current loan forgiveness programs, which are designed to discharge debt.
My student debt proposals are available in my working paper on Amazon.
Discussion of retirement security issues: Retirement security entails Medicare, Social Security and 401(k) plans.
The discussion on this issue should start with a recognition that under current law there will be automatic cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits unless Congress acts. Democrats need to ask whether Republicans can be trusted to act given their performance on ACA repeal or replace.
In the 1980s, President Reagan and Democrats in Congress came together to fix Social Security. The Democrats need to ask whether the current Republican party can be trusted to compromise on this issue.
The other aspect of the retirement security problem is that many workers have insufficient retirement savings. Today few companies provide workers with traditional pension plans. Many 401(k) plans have high fees and most lack an annuity option during retirement. Many workers are unable or unwilling to maximize their contribution to 401(k) plans and often the money in these plans is disbursed prior to retirement.
The Democrats then need to provide detailed proposals on how to improve retirement security. These proposals should recognize two important goals – (1) Social Security needs to be placed on a sound finance system and (2) the entire retirement savings system needs to be improved.
The Democrats need to advance policies that achieve both these goals and must reiterate opposition to Social Security benefit cuts that worsen retirement security. The proposed solution is likely to include either additional revenue or use of some general tax revenue to maintain current Social Security income.
The Best Dialogue for Democrats
The current political dialogue is being set almost entirely by Trump and the Republicans. Their focus is on trade and tariffs, immigration, and standing for the national anthem.
My thesis in this essay is that Democrats need to put financial security — health care, student debt, and retirement income at the center of the national discussion.
Centrists must move forward with a pragmatic progressive approach to these issues. Many key centrists are spending more of their time either pandering to liberals or bashing liberals for being too radical than proposing polices that solve problems.
Some Democrats, both progressives and centrists, are more focused on tax issues and/or inequality. The centrists are concerned that proposals by liberals will explode the deficit. They should be more focused on revenue losses from the recently enacted Trump tax cut.
Elizabeth Warren recently pointed out the America was more prosperous when marginal tax rates were over 50 percent. This defense of high tax rates is a losing argument both substantively and politically. The decrease in prosperity or the increase in inequality was more likely caused by loss of jobs from factories moving overseas and from technological changes which reduced wages of low-skilled workers.
Tax policy is complicated. A case can be made for changes in the tax code to obtain more revenue. However, economists have found that high marginal tax rates change distort behavior. Most notably, high marginal tax rates can decrease work, especially in two-worker households.
An economic agenda stressing reforms that will improve household financial security will resonate more with voters than an agenda focused on taxes and income inequality.
We live in a world where every one of Trump’s utterances and farts dominates the news cycle. Democrats seem totally incapable of prioritizing the farts. In my view, Trump’s treasonous approach to Russia and separation of children from parents at the border are more important than Stormy Daniels
Democrats must respond to the moral dilemma created by the Trump Presidency. However, at the end of the day a person struggling with student debt, worried about health care coverage for her family, and worried about whether she will be able to retire with decent income is more concerned about financial security than the scandal of the day.
Democrats need to get out there and reset the nation’s agenda. To modify Bill Clinton said it was the economy stupid. My view is that the economy must be broadly defined to include financial security.