The winners at last month's Democratic mid- term show of candidates scored most of their points in the bathing suit contest rather than the talent show. Rhetoric, not issues, carried the day. Why is it that the Democrats seem so short on revolutionary ideas for rescuing the country from its current plight? Perhaps it's because no such ideas are to be had.
If you go through the catalogue of policies-- past and present--by which government has tried to address the social and economic problems of the country, and give each of them an honest review, you're likely to conclude that what the country needs isn't all that clear. The best course is probably a modest and cautious tinkering with one policy or another--and a sharp eye for changes in the larger economic and social scene that suggest that further course corrections may be necessary.
The nation's larger economic ills are simply not susceptible to any quick fix. No doubt, unemployment needn't have gotten quite so high, and the pain of economic adjustment might have been distributed more evenly across areas and people. But the country is going through a period of structural change that has its roots in major shifts in the world economy that are largely beyond the reach of domestic economic policy.
Taxation is the one area in which some rather fundamental changes may be in order. People are finally fed up with the complexity and favoritism built into the income tax code. If the Senate Finance Committee prevails in its plan to tighten up tax collections and close a few loopholes, the way may be made smoother for further steps toward a simplified, broader- based individual income tax.
Sometime in the near future, a complete overhaul of the corporate income tax may be needed. Last year's tax cut eroded the corporate tax base to the point where many highly profitable companies pay little or no taxes. The Finance Committee bill would tighten up on some of the worst loopholes, but it's hard to eliminate the opportunities for abuse. In taxing corporate income, you have to make allowances for legitimate business expenses, or low profit- margin businesses couldn't survive. Maybe it's time to start thinking about abandoning the corporate income tax altogether and replacing it by something like a flat, low-level tax on value- added at each stage of production.
"Steady as you go" is, however, the appropriate motto for would-be tax reformers. You can't overhaul the tax code in one fell swoop. The reason for this goes beyond the political courage that it takes to face down the well- heeled lobbies that protect each and every tax loophole. There are substantial economic interests vested in many tax preferences and investors need time to adjust to major shifts in the tax code.
Some thought should also be given to the working poor--that surely worthy group of people who do their best to support their families but still barely scrape by. They suffered the most from the administration's scale-back of social programs. Perhaps there are better ways to help them than through the welfare system. One might be expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, the mini-negative income tax already built into the tax code that gives a small boost to the incomes of low-earning families.
The notion of turning back some responsibilities to state and local governments also deserves to be pursued. Not the dumping of unpopular welfare programs on states and localities that the administration has proposed, but a thoughtful sorting out of those program areas, where strong local interests can be counted on to work out appropriate local solutions and where local tax bases are likely to be adequate to sustain needed activities.
Health care should be given some thought. The nation spends far more on expensive remedies for health problems than it does on more effective and less costly ways of preventing them. And too many people are still at risk for the devastating financial consequences of major illness or disability. But no massive federal intervention is called for--just some incremental changes to increase competition in the health sector. Continued efforts to raise the general level of education and living standards are even more important methods of improving health and longevity--but they don't pay off quickly.
A tentative look at the possibility of labor shortages over the next decade is probably worthwhile. Labor shortages, like capital shortages tend to solve themselves--as long as there is a healthy rate of return for business in the offing. But businesses may solve their labor problems in ways that leave large parts of the population without access to to decent jobs, and this is something that government can help to prevent.
What I'm suggesting is that the best that candidates can honestly promise is that they have some sense of where America's future lies and are willing and able to address the constantly changing facts of the larger world with flexible policies rather than a reflexive reach for for a bottle of old-time medicine. No magic elixir can revitalize an aging economy overnight. There are some modest remedies that might hasten its recovery or palliate the worst side effects of its ailments. But they are not the stuff of which a stirring campaign speech is made.