It is refreshing to see the Democratic Party bubbling with new ideas. But this new thinking seems starkly different from the party’s reform efforts of the past three decades. The wonky proposals of the Clinton-Obama era were pragmatic and incremental, and they mixed market incentives with government action. Today, we have big, stirring ideas — and that could be the problem.
In their zeal to match the sweeping rhetoric of right-wing populism, Democrats are spinning out dramatic proposals in which facts are sometimes misrepresented, the numbers occasionally don’t add up, and emotional appeal tends to trump actual policy analysis.
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was confronted recently by Anderson Cooper on CBS’s “60 Minutes” about an egregious misstatement concerning Pentagon spending, she responded, “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
Perhaps this casual attitude toward facts explains the way that she and many others on the left have misrepresented the deal that New York offered Amazon to bring a new headquarters there. She claimed New York was going to give away $3 billion to Amazon that could have been used to pay for schoolteachers and subways. But as Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) explained, “This was a deal that was going to bring $27 billion in revenue to the state and city for things like public education, mass transit, affordable housing. And that $3 billion that [Amazon would receive in] incentives was only after we were getting the jobs and getting the revenue.” Moreover, $2.5 billion of those incentives were not specially crafted for Amazon, but rather were preexisting tax credits that it would have qualified for. In return, Amazon would have directly created at least 25,000 high-quality jobs, upgraded infrastructure in Long Island City and offered new educational opportunities. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Post.)
The merits of any such incentive programs can be debated but the idea that, if New York unilaterally disarms, other cities and states will stop offering their own incentives is beyond naive. This was a chance for New York to gain leadership in the technology industry, further diversify its economy away from real estate and finance, and add new dynamism to the sometimes-forgotten borough of Queens. For all those who worried about Amazon crowding out low-income housing, a community activist smartly predicted to me what will happen to that part of Long Island City. Come the next recession, he explained, real estate developers will snap up the land, turn it into luxury condos, and take a 25-year tax break in return for reserving a smattering of apartments for the “middle class” (meaning people earning $125,000). But the thrill of denouncing “the world’s richest man” is apparently worth all this wreckage.
Or consider the race by prominent Democrats to embrace Medicare-for-all. A variety of expert studies have estimated the total increased government spending for such a program at between $2.5 trillion and $3 trillion a year. Few of the many proposals being floated would likely raise anything close to that revenue. The Medicare-for-all plan by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has zero out-of-pocket costs for patients, which would make it even more generous than plans in Europe and Canada. And if a herculean effort were made to raise revenue for Medicare-for-all, there would be few easy avenues left to fund any of the other ambitious proposals on the new Democratic wish list.
Universal health care is an important moral and political goal. But the U.S. system is insanely complex, and getting from here to single-payer would probably be so disruptive and expensive that it’s not going to happen. There is a path to universal coverage that is simpler: Switzerland has one of the best health-care systems in the world, and it’s essentially Obamacare with a real mandate. No one on the left is talking about such a model, likely because it feels too much like those incremental policies of the past.
Or consider the tax proposals being tossed around on the left, including a wealth tax championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). I understand the appeal of tapping into those vast accumulations of billionaire loot. But there is a reason nine of the 12 European countries that instituted similar taxes have repealed them in the last 25 years. They massively distort economic activity, often incentivizing people to hide assets, devalue them and create dummy corporations. Faced with a wealth tax, most rich people would likely value and transfer assets the questionable way that Fred Trump did in passing his fortune on to his children.
There are smarter, better ways to address inequality — raise the capital gains tax to the same level as income taxes; increase the estate tax; and get rid of the massive loopholes that make the U.S. tax code one of the most complex and corrupt in the world. But again, this is less stirring stuff than burning the billionaires.
Ocasio-Cortez’s comments on “60 Minutes” reminded me of a July 2016 exchange between former House speaker Newt Gingrich and CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. Camerota explained that, contrary to Gingrich’s insistence, FBI data showed that violent crime in the United States was way down. Gingrich responded that it doesn’t “feel” that way to people. “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians,” he said.
We already have one major party that now routinely twists facts, disregards evidence, ignores serious policy analysis and makes stuff up to appeal to people’s emotions and prejudices. If the Democrats start moving along this path as well, American politics will truly descend into a new dark age.