Matt Bruenig just wrote an excellent series of posts dismantling a misguided “Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream” from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution. Bruenig’s posts explain why the plan’s emphasis on education, work, and marriage will not accomplish its goals (I’ve made similar points about education and family structure before). While it’s important to note that education and work (and family strength and stability, which are critically different from family structure) have value – improving education and the availability of good jobs can boost economic mobility – the evidence is clear that we will not equalize opportunities for more than an unacceptably small subset of kids until we both reduce inequality and make sure kids’ basic needs are met.
Richard Reeves, a researcher I really like who participated in drafting this unfortunate “consensus plan,” describes it as a triumph of realism over purism. In doing so, he draws a false equivalency between what he calls “purists on both political extremes: those on the right who simply see government as the problem, and fantasize about sweeping away vast swaths of institutional architecture and funding, and those on the left who imagine that simply taking money from some and giving it to others will cure society’s ills.”
“Liberals” (or, in the parlance of the report, “progressives”) and “conservatives” are the labels DC insiders typically use to categorize people on one or the other of these false extremes, as shown below.
But the idea that these are two equivalently absurd “sides,” and that the best course of action is thus to compromise by meeting in the “middle,” is unfortunately a major impediment to good policymaking. It is harmful primarily because it fails to capture how certain views and proposals are more ethical and evidence-based than others.
For example, if our goal is to reduce poverty and boost the opportunities of poor children, evidence shows that the “purists” Reeves describes on the “left” have a much more legitimate claim than those on the “right.” Government programs like Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, work very well on these fronts, as do direct cash transfers and more robust social insurance systems around the world. Redistribution may not “cure [all of] society’s ills,” but it definitely works as intended in most cases, while gutting government programs, especially during times of economic hardship, doesn’t. It is simply incorrect to suggest otherwise, but the categorization scheme above implies that each “side” has an equally legitimate perspective.
Consider how similar reasoning could be applied to current presidential debates on immigration. Donald Trump’s platform (build a wall across the border, end birthright citizenship, and don’t let any poor people into the country, among other crazy ideas) could represent the perspective on one “side” of the political divide, while Bernie Sanders’ plan to bring 11 million people out of the shadows could represent the other. Both Trump and Sanders say they want to put “the needs of working people first – [over those of] wealthy globetrotting donors” (Trump’s words). The AEI/Brookings brand of “realism” could result in the adoption of a decent chunk of the Trump immigration agenda; it clearly isn’t an approach that makes for desirable policy.
Reeves is right that there are a “diversity of views” among those on each side of this uninformative partisan divide, and the AEI/Brookings team correctly notes that nobody “has a monopoly on the truth” – even Donald Trump occasionally has a good idea and even smart, principled politicians like Bernie Sanders sometimes get things wrong. Yet a better political categorization scheme would explicitly note that Sanders’ policy positions are far superior to Trump’s on the two criteria that matter most: ethical considerations and the degree to which proposed policy ideas are supported by available evidence. The tool below does so.
“Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis. “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right. The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.
The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner. This tool thus provides several advantages over…the traditional Left-Right spectrum. First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis. Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints. Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.
Elevating “bipartisanism,” “compromise,” and “realism” as goals might help a group come to a consensus wherein each “side” gets some things it wants. It does not often result in good policy platforms, however, and the Brookings/AEI plan is a case in point. If we want final products that are truly ethical and evidence-based, we need to reject compromise for compromise’s sake and start recognizing that some viewpoints and proposals are more legitimate than others.