IF YOU ARE sincerely bored with the presidential electon, wondering how you can bear it 'til November, here is a question which might hold your interest: Can Ronald Reagan get through the next five months without saying what he really thinks?
What he really thinks about labor unions and the minimum wage, universities and federal aid to education, food stamps and Medicaid, Social Security and nuclear war and other matters. This sounds negative, I know, but Reagan's self-control will provide us with delicious dramatic suspense in the coming season.
However battered and forlorn the candidacy of Jimmy Carter becomes by autumn, the president can face each day in the new hope that Ronald Reagan will open his mouth and drive more voters back to the Democratic Party.The president's people will prod and tease this possibility, as nastily as necessary. Reagan, the professional actor, will wisely stick to his tested scripts and avoid candid blurts of the "true faith" which vows righteous Republicans but scares so many others.
I envision a series of press tizzies over this -- Reagan will blurt out something, followed by furious questioning, followed by deep huddles of Reagan advisers and finally by well-oiled clarifications. The candidate did not say he favors flogging. The candidate merely noted that flogging was a standard anti-crime policy of the Founding Fathers.
In a mischievous spirit, I can imagine one of these tizzies when someone asks Reagan for his true thoughts on American poverty. Poverty? The candidate sorts through the card file in his memory and comes up with a startling declaration.
Poverty has been eliminated in America.The war on poverty, launched by bleeding-heart liberals and ridiculed by conservative realists, has actually been won.No more poor folks. The federal government should declare victory and get out.
Well, you can imagine the flap. The bleeding-heart reporters would demand proof, facts, statistics. Candidate Reagan would fumble engagingly, then turn them over to his leading adviser on social policy, Stanford Prof. Martin Anderson, who would oblige with endless and authoritative documentation. Modestly, Dr. Anderson might refer them to his own chapter in a new conservatve blueprint for future government policy, "The United States in the 1980s" (Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1980). Anderson's chapter on welfare reform concludes:
"The war on poverty has been won, except perhaps for a few mopping-up operations.The combination of strong economic growth and a dramatic increase in government spending on welfare and income transfer programs for more than a decade has virtually wiped out poverty in the United States."
Good news. No more poor folks. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan campaigning on that upbeat theme? To be really mischievous, I envision Reagan driving down 14th Street in the nation's capital, or through the fetid slums of any other major city, proclaiming victory to the benighted residents.
Candidate Reagan turns to his leading adviser on social issues and asks: Martin, if poverty is eliminated, how come these people are throwing rocks?
No, that won't happen. I doubt that any candidate, even in a careless blurt, will announce that the poor are no longer with us.
The "formerly poor," as Anderson might call them, live in a special kind of hell created by modern capitalism and welfare-state liberalism. Statistically, they are taken care of, provided with federal coupons for food, housing, doctors, new shoes, school lunches, even a little monthly cash. In economic terms, they are useless and they know it. In human terms, they are trapped, degraded, hostile, even outlaw to the affluent society surrounding them.
Any professor who has the nerve to explore those grim neighborhoods, to visit the deteriorating and dangerous public housing complexes and talk with the people who still live there, would perhaps write less glibly about the end of poverty. In real human terms, it sounds ludicrous.
In intellectual terms, however, Anderson's essay is an elegant trap play, intended to roll-block those good-hearted liberals who still believe in the efficacy of the welfare state. Consider the irony: Here is a prominent conservative thinker declaring that the various welfare systems, despite their waste and confusion, actually accomplished what the liberals set out to achieve. Why don't the liberal thinkers rally 'round Dr. Anderson and celebrate?
Because they know it's fundamentally not true -- they can still see degradation of poverty in America's cities and rural outposts. What's more devastating, liberals dread the intellectual implications of Anderson's argument.
To oversimplify the liberal dilemma, Anderson has hoisted them on the original definition of "income poverty," devised by those liberal crusaders nearly a generation ago to describe the vast underclass of poor people, old and young, who lacked even the basics of subsistence -- food, shelter, clothing. The liberal strategy was to provide those basics, one way or another, through direct cash or subsidized benefits.
In terms of the original definition -- raising people above a fixed level of "income poverty" -- the progress over the last 15 years has been substantial. Particularly, if you add up all of the billions which government distributes for the benefit of the poor, then divide that money by the number of recipients, it is possible to conclude that -- gee whiz -- hardly anyone is poor any more. Any number of unbiased studies have reached a smiliar conclusion -- if poverty hasn't been eliminated, at least the poor are dramatically less poor than they used to be.
Not true, cries the bleeding heart. Anyone with open eyes and honest heart can see the staggering poverty which continues amidst our general affluence.
But if it is not true, why isn't it? That's where Dr. Anderson has the liberals trapped. To answer that question, liberals would have to concede that their orignial definition of "income poverty" did not describe accurately the inequality they were pursuing.
More terrible for them, liberals would have to argue that, whatever they meant by "eliminating poverty," it was not accomplished by their coupon programs. They would have to begin again, with a more believable definition of poverty in America, one which addresses the taboo questions of relative wealth and inequality, or which imagines totally new approaches to income redistribution.
The elimination of "income poverty" is a remarkable example of how an intellectual formulation, devised with the best of intentions to inspire government policy, can drift further and further from reality, until its own disciples are embarrassed by the outcome.
The average "poor" person does have access to federal services not previously available, but very little of the federal cash goes to the poor folks. It goes to home builders, doctors, groceryy stores. You have to be sick to collect Medicaid benefits. By the intellectual test, the sicker you get, the more benefits you derive and the less poor you become. Does that make sense to anyone?
Further, welfare recipients who move from this spiritless condition of being "kept" as government wards to the dynamic world of self-sufficient work confront a gross injustice -- tax rates which effectively take away 60 or 70 percent of their added income. Not even the highest paid corporate executive in America pays income tax at that staggering rate.
In short, the system is a mess. The entire structure ought to be reexamined critically and, ideally, replaced with something radically different.
But at this hour of history, liberal intellectuals seem too tired for such a traumatic exercise. The brain energy seems concentrated, for now, in the conservative critique. The result is stalemate, a political-intellectual argument which strikes me as fatuous, in which neither side quite says what it really thinks.
Conservatives, knowing that they cannot realistically dismantle the welfare state, pretend to celebrate its successes and propose remedial steps to improve its functioning. Ronald Reagan's welfare reform will be a promise to "reorganize" the bureaucracy and cut down on the cheaters. Liberals, unable to confront the implications of failure in their own programs, merely elaborate and expand on failed ideas. Jimmy Carter's "moderate" welfare reform will raise the rates modestly and put more families on welfare. Does anyone really believe in either solution?
Poverty is a nonissue of 1980, which is just as well, because I do not think either Reagan or Carter -- or John Anderson, for that matter -- has anything convincing to say about it. The whole game this season -- and an empty game it is -- will be in watching to see which unlucky candidate blurts out what he really thinks about the poor.