Steven Pearlstein: Pundit protest 2.0

Steven Pearlstein
Columnist June 21, 2011

David Brooks of the New York Times had a wonderful column the other day indicating that while he would be opining regularly about the upcoming presidential campaign, he would do so under protest. The reason: From his Hamiltonian perspective, the “two parties contesting this election are unusually pathetic. Their programs are unusually unimaginative. Their policies are unusually incommensurate to the problems at hand.”

I’ve never been quite sure what it means to be a Hamiltonian, but I don’t think you need to be one to agree with Brooks’s assessment. This is a particularly dispiriting time to be both citizen and pundit, particularly if you care about public policy and think it matters. The intellectual dishonesty, the political posturing, the absence of a sense of stewardship on the part of those who claim to be leading — it’s appalling, really.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics. View Archive

Just take health care, which lies at the heart of the debates over the budget and the role and size of government.

For months we’ve heard howls of outrage from Republicans about the health reform law that requires every American under 65 to buy a basic health insurance policy from one of several private companies competing in a government-regulated marketplace. The government will provide subsidies to low-income households to help cover their premiums. Those who refuse to buy insurance will be hit with a special tax.

Having failed to defeat the “individual mandate” in Congress, Republicans have rushed to federal court to overturn the law, claiming it is an unprecedented and unconstitutional extension of government power that threatens to trample cherished American freedoms. Their warnings about this being the first step toward a totalitarian government that will force Americans to buy organic vegetables and solar panels border on the hysterical.

At the same time, Republicans are trying to push through Congress a reform to the Medicare program that its author, Rep. Paul Ryan, claims is the only thing that can “save” it. Under his plan, the government would give every senior citizen what amounts to a voucher to buy a basic health insurance policy from a private company competing in a government-regulated marketplace. Low-income households would get additional subsidies.

Unless you’re trained as a lawyer or a Talmudic scholar, it’s hard to see a practical, moral or constitutional distinction between Obamacare (requiring every American to buy health insurance from a regulated exchange or face a tax) and Ryancare (requiring every American to pay a Medicare payroll tax so they can buy health insurance from a regulated exchange at age 65). Both involve an individual mandate. Both involve an exercise of coercive power by government not enumerated in the Constitution. Both envision federal regulation of the marketplace. And both involve a transfer of subsidies from the rich to the poor.

This intellectual dishonesty is hardly limited to Republicans. Democrats have been equally hysterical in attacking Ryancare as a throw-Grandma-under-the-bus scheme to balance the budget, even as they proudly defend the health reform law for everyone else.

Never mind that both Obamacare and Ryancare look to competition among private insurers to enhance consumer choice, encourage innovation and hold down prices. Or that under the health reform law and both the Ryan and Obama 2012 budget plans, a cap would be set on the annual growth in per beneficiary spending under Medicare. Democrats want us to believe that a system of “managed competition” that is fair and effective for working-age Americans would somehow turn into an unmitigated disaster for anyone older than 65.

Yes, there is a lively debate to be had over whether Medicare spending should be allowed to grow only as fast as inflation, as Ryan proposes, or at the rate of GDP growth plus 1 percentage point, as Obamacare requires, or at GDP plus 0.5 percent, as the president proposed in his latest deficit-reduction scheme. And we can surely have a spirited discussion about whether the methods used to limit that spending growth should be determined by private insurance companies, a panel of health-care experts appointed by the federal government, or a combination of the two. But as the old saying goes, then we are no longer arguing about the principle — we’re just haggling over the price.

I’m not the first person to notice the hypocrisy. Simon Lazarus noted it for Slate, Greg Mankiw did in the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page has been all over it, as has my colleague Ezra Klein. And what has been the impact on the debate? None, as far as I can tell. Both parties have their stories and their outrage, and they’re sticking to them.

Which brings me back to Brooks and his protest over the state of political discourse. I share his frustration, but I’ve decided to deal with it a bit differently.

This is my last weekday column for The Post and nearly my last as a Post employee. After more than 23 years as an editor, a reporter and a columnist, I’m about to take up a new career as a professor at George Mason University, where I’ll explore new ways to teach basic economic principles to undergraduates. In recent years, there’s been a widespread recognition that too many people have graduated without the economic literacy that they now require to do their jobs, manage their lives and participate in a democracy as informed citizens. I like to think I’ve helped to address that problem, along with many other business and economic journalists, but the evidence of our success is spotty. At GMU, I’ll be taking a different approach to the same challenge.

I’ll continue to write a weekly column for The Post’s Sunday Business section, in which the focus will be on the companies, industries and markets where interesting and exciting things are happening in spite of the increasingly stale and partisan debates on economic policy here in Washington. Although economic policy is important, I’ve never bought the idea that the economy is a machine whose operation is controlled by powerful men twirling dials and pulling levers in corner offices in Washington and on Wall Street. In reality, it’s more complicated, unpredictable and fun than that.

So while others are doing the necessary work of chasing after the latest budget deal or commenting on the latest outrage from the presidential debate, I’ll look to reconnect with the people, companies and competitive dynamics that drive the economy — local, national and global. Although the subjects and the angle of view may be different, I trust you’ll find the same open-minded curiosity, passion and edgy candor. The transition may get a bit rocky and I may be unable to resist the occasional policy screed, but I hope you’ll continue to tag along each Sunday, in print or online.

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