Michael Gerson: Politics needs more wonks and fewer ideologues

Published: Friday, Jan. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — It is an achievement of the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements to have raised large issues of economic freedom and economic inequality. It is a paradox that their actual arguments have generally been vague, ideological and unhelpful.

Elements on the right reject the whole ideal of distributive justice — opposing most taxation as theft and embracing a utopian project involving the abolition of the modern state. Elements on the left seek a substitute for capitalism — a utopian project that has been tried and found frightening.

The political debates on free markets or the privileges of the 1 percent seldom touch on the actual struggles of citizens — say, living in the shadow of foreclosure, or attending a failing school, or surviving in a gang-occupied neighborhood. Ideology is abstract. Hardship is lived concretely.

I like a good political philosophic debate as much as the next columnist. Give me a soy latte and a libertarian, and I'm set for the night. Ideas do have consequences.

But many Americans are being overlooked in this bipartisan conspiracy of economic abstraction. A significant and growing portion of the population lives in poverty. In 2007, the rate was 12.5 percent. By 2010, it was 15.1 percent. The share of Americans in extreme poverty — with an income less than half the poverty line — is the highest in the 35 years that the Census Bureau has kept such records.

GOP candidates seldom mention the problems of the poor, for fear of being viewed as ideological weaklings. Elected Democrats are advised by their pollsters to focus on the challenges of the voter-rich middle class. No president — including Barack Obama — is naturally inclined to talk about conditions that have grown worse on his watch.

Yet a debate on poverty is needed. And it would benefit from specificity, which often challenges ideology.

Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes. But equality of opportunity is a more radical concept than we generally concede. It is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. It depends on healthy families and cohesive communities. But opportunity also depends on effective government — on public safety, public education and public health. Governmental overreach can undermine other important social institutions. Yet the retreat of government does not automatically restore them to health.

Liberals often fail to recognize that income redistribution, while preventing penury, is not identical to social equality. The main challenge of poverty is not a lack of consumption but a lack of social capital — measured in skills and values — and of opportunity. Addressing these problems is more complex than increasing marginal tax rates, particularly when revenues are used to cover the increasing costs of non-means-tested entitlement programs. The structure of the modern welfare state is not focused on empowering the poor. Instead, it has increased the percentage of government transfer payments that go to middle- and upper-income seniors.

On all sides, the poverty debate can be paralyzed by an obsession with fundamental causes. A failing community is a puzzle box of interconnected failures. Globalization and technology put downward pressure on wages and lead to stagnant labor markets. Permissive cultural norms encourage family breakdown and self-destructive behavior. Complaining about the rise of China or the decline of morality can be satisfying. But cosmic explanations can be obstacles to action.

The good news is this: During the last few decades, a focus on concrete solutions to specific problems has often yielded good results. Welfare reform decreased caseloads and child poverty while increasing employment and income for low-income families. Community policing and zero-tolerance policies reduced crime. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which used to be called food stamps — has been reformed to better fight hunger. The earned-income tax credit has encouraged work and reduced poverty.

These policies originated on the center-right and the center-left among reform-oriented conservatives and liberals who take market forces seriously. Their ambitions were less dramatic than those of tea party activists or Occupy Wall Street protesters. Their achievements were also more measurable — the improvement of millions of lives.

A number of specific challenges — from improving teacher quality to encouraging high school completion to promoting entrepreneurship to discouraging teen pregnancy — would benefit from similar creativity. But one market in America is not working properly. Our politics has a surplus of ideology and a shortage of wonkery.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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