The story of Congress’s demise, as Representative Cooper tells it, has an economic and a political component. The economic component describes a government that has promised more than it can spend; the political one blames partisanship and an inordinate focus on fund-raising at the expense of problem solving.
On the economic side, I agree with Cooper that Congress must act more intelligently regarding insurance, tax credits, and the rest. Cooper’s call for reform, however, goes against a larger set of societal expectations that encourage us to ignore debt, thereby making it less likely that we will heed his warnings.
As pensions and health plans—presented as unbreakable guarantees—began to bust budgets, a parallel breakdown of promises occurred in the financial sector. Until about three years ago, we were assured by our economic authority figures, from Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers to Warren Buffett and Charles Schwab, that the stock market was a safe and smart place to put our money. Media commentators offered middle-class Americans “common-sense” advice: saving and investing would yield a comfortable retirement. So, at least for Americans with money to invest, the message that Social Security was going bankrupt was not very scary. (Cooper is careful not to describe Social Security as bankrupt; rather he says that the totality of government commitments—including ever-rising medical costs—is unaffordable.)
Assurances of the soundness of the market did not stop even after the 2008 market crash. In 2010 two Yale professors published a book recommending that young adults from affluent families go into debt to buy stocks and then hold them for many years to prepare for retirement. James Glassman and Kevin Hassett’s 1999 book, Dow 36,000, has been discredited since the early 2000s, but that hasn’t stopped Glassman, who is currently hosting a regular show on PBS, or Hassett, a columnist for Bloomberg News. Americans have been getting false messages of security from all directions, and the senders of these messages remain active participants in our public discourse. Retirement riches from compound interest are as much of an unfunded obligation as any government program.
We’ve also been told for years that consumption is our patriotic duty, and that the best investment is buying a large house in an expensive neighborhood (or, if you have a bit less money, a small house in a not-so-great neighborhood), which will appreciate and allow you to take the next step on the ladder. Another unfunded obligation.
Ever since we were children we were taught the magic of compound interest, but our expectations have compounded ever faster in a culture in which “millionaire” has been replaced by “billionaire.” In one generation prices have increased by a factor of five, and median incomes have increased by about the same amount, while the standard for riches has increased a thousand-fold. In this broader context, the challenges to getting Congress to act more responsibly on economic issues are far greater than Cooper suggests.
Getting Congress to act responsibly on economic issues goes against what society teaches us.
On the political side, Cooper’s distaste for extreme partisanship and the state of electoral politics is understandable. Given that the Republican Congress of the George W. Bush period could not cut the budget or reform the unfunded obligations, making progress now with a divided government is hard to imagine.
Cooper’s solution is a return to the supposed pragmatism of the Tip O’Neill Congress of the 1980s. But I question his assessment of those years. Did Congress’s decisions in the 1980s to cut taxes and raise spending make today’s $50 trillion of unfunded obligations inevitable? And why didn’t the issue of unfunded obligations arise during the discussion of the budget surplus at the end of the 1990s? Can shortfalls today all be explained by the unexpected rise in health-care costs, the Bush tax cuts, and the recession? Partisanship is not the only problem.
Another factor may be the tight relationship between presidential elections and short-term changes in the economy. Years of effective research have shown political scientists that the success of presidential candidates is largely determined by the economic conditions of the moment. When there is robust improvement from year three to year four of a president’s term, his party generally wins reelection; otherwise it is in bad shape. This electoral pattern creates all sorts of perverse incentives: the president’s party is motivated to push the economy down in the middle of the term so that it will spring back in time for reelection; the other party does best by doing nothing. These incentives are even stronger if they align with the party’s economic views: in Obama’s third year, the Democrats favor further stimulus while the Republicans favor lower spending and tax cuts. But even if we stick to the problem of partisanship, Cooper’s proposals alone are unlikely to work. He recommends open disclosure of redistricting plans and open primaries as ways of reducing partisanship. Evidence, however, suggests that neither closed primaries nor gerrymandering are major factors in polarization: elections tend to be more competitive after any redistricting year. I support Cooper’s proposed reforms—I like the message they send about political priorities, and they seem like a step in the right direction—but I don’t see them having much effect on their own.
Finally, Cooper discusses campaign financing and proposes paying Congress for results. Some political scientists are skeptical about claims of the strong influence of campaign contributions, but I am inclined to agree with Cooper that it cannot be a good thing for members of Congress to be spending so much of their time and effort raising money, nor can it be good to have millions of anonymous dollars dumped into campaigns. On merit pay, Cooper asks, “What if Congress were paid on commission to cut spending, or to repeal obsolete laws?” The challenge is that spending cuts typically are attractive only to the extent that they’re directed at someone else. Cutting perennial targets such as foreign aid, public broadcasting, and the National Endowment for the Arts would be relatively easy, but won’t get us far. It’s hard to imagine a popular push to compensate members based on their successes in cutting Social Security, Medicare, or veterans’ benefits.