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Wonkitude

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In different ways and places, I’ve been doing policy analysis since 1984. I’ve invented a few things that received favorable notice, but it’s hard to prove the value of such arcane accomplishments. All I will claim here is some experience, some decades of toiling in the vineyards.

The legend of Hillary Clinton includes the belief that she is a wizard of policy analysis, in the face of which Bernie is some kind of caveman.

cavemanSome of this is founded on the Clinton campaign’s superior resources, including legions of aspiring political appointees. I don’t blame them one bit. If you want to do public service, whatever your ulterior motives, she’s the ticket. At the start, Sanders’ campaign had no money. They did have supporters among academics, but it tended to be uneven. The financial regulation bench was deep. By all appearances, some areas were undermanned. (I’ve noted previously that I aspired to a position of this type but was rejected, so take that any way you like.) Once a campaign gets rolling, there is not much opportunity for deep contemplation about policy. You pretty much dance with what you brung.

The upshot is that from a technical standpoint, Clinton should have the best policy material that money can buy. In the actual event, the vast bulk of critical policy analysis was directed at Sanders’ proposals. I’d say this has been a curious omission. After all, Clinton is the person widely favored to be president. Shouldn’t there have been more interest in her proposals? Instead the big analytical guns targeted Sanders’ platform.

Perhaps there is an archive in Clintonland of extensive plans on every sort of initiative. The web site, however, is often limited to slim pickings. About George Will (or maybe Newt Gingrich), it used to be said, “He’s a dumb person’s idea of a smart person.”) About Hillary’s platform, I’d say the policies are an uninformed person’s idea of detailed policy proposals. I don’t say ‘dumb.’ Uninformed has a different meaning.

I’ll mention two areas I know something about, to make the case that she isn’t all that.

One concerns the quest for universal health insurance coverage. Sanders’ “Medicare for All” has been slammed as prohibitively expensive. The first line of attack on the plan went something along the lines of, Bernie wants to destroy all of your health insurance coverage, then diddle around and eventually try to enact something that’s impossible to enact because Republicans in Congress. Do I have to explain why this was a flaming lie?

Then we heard an attack on a previous, outdated plan from Sanders that would let state governments set up universal coverages. This was scorned on grounds that Republican-controlled state governments would never play along. This becomes relevant below.

The next bit was Bernie will raise your taxes sky-high. The Sanders plan would have been financed by a six percent tax on payroll. Removing employer-paid health insurance premiums would be expected to feed back into wages, at least to some extent. (Economists think most of it would, though not instantly.) Would people come out ahead? This last was never raised, except in dense reports from places like the Urban Institute. In Clintonland, it was all tax tax tax.

Using employers to provide social benefits is a decidedly sub-optimal arrangement. The quality of benefits varies substantially, and in no small number of cases benefits are entirely lacking. This outcome bodes ill for economic security, much less equality. Some alternative paths towards universal coverage that have some role for employers can be observed in other countries, dare I say democratic-socialist ones. What did the wizard of policy, Hillary Clinton, offer in the way of a “road to universal coverage”?

One problem for the lay person is distinguishing an actual proposal that contemplates some kind of mechanism from a goal. “Will work to do” X, Y, or Z is not a policy. This empty commitment to a variety of noble objectives comes up a number of times on the page.

The core of the plan is support for the expansion of ObamaCare, which is just fine with me. I supported O-Care, but it is not universal coverage. The most egregious gap is due to states that have refused to take up the Medicaid expansion. Clinton would increase the matching rate (the extent to which the Federal government defrays expenses for the expansion). But the matching rate is already 90 percent. The resistance of a rogue’s gallery of Republican governors is clearly ideological, not fiscal. By what logic or evidence would a slightly higher rate make a difference? But not to worry, “she will continue to look for other ways to incentivize states.” (See empty commitments, above.)

The web site also asserts Clinton’s support for a ‘public option’ for the states, those damned Republican governors notwithstanding. And in recent weeks, she has played around with advocacy of Medicare for some (over 55, or maybe even 50, but who’s counting). The striking thing about these items for a policy analyst is that they are unencumbered by any presentation of what they would cost or how they would work, and nobody in the policy business looked askance at this loose talk. There were no breathless cost estimates of Clinton’s ideas about the public option, or Medicare for somebody. Bernie should have had it so easy.

Another example. Universal pre-K, sometimes referred to as universal child care. Evidence indicates it has great benefits for children of the poor. Naturally, Hillary “calls for universal preschool for America’s children.” I’m calling for it too, but who will answer?

First bullet, building on bipartisan efforts and expand funding. No specifics here.

Second bullet, “work to ensure every 4-year old has access to high-qualify preschool in the next ten years.” Recall objectives without mechanisms noted above. Also, what about 3-year olds? In ten years, they’ll be . . . thirteen. She will provide new Federal funding to . . . those damned Republican governors. Now a couple of those swine have indeed proven receptive to expanding child care, but a couple do not equal “universal.”

After rehashing some evidence on the value of the objectives, with which I am enthusiastically in accord, and some boilerplate on her record, we finally find another specific: doubling Head Start. I love Head Start, but I’m sorry, it’s a tiny program.

Tallulah, unimpressed.
Tallulah, unimpressed.

My purpose in all this is not to demean the ideas or proposals found at the link above. I support all of them, as far as they go. It’s one of the best things to look forward to, when she is elected. I would go further, and maybe Ms Clinton would too. I’d just suggest the wizard factor in this vein is an overstatement. As Tallulah Bankhead may or may not have said to the Algonquin Club Round Table, “There is less here than meets the eye.”

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