The Nation's Pulse

Moderation

Most Americans would settle for middle solutions to our nation's problems -- so why do these problems not lend themselves to such?

By 6.8.07

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In one of the many privileges of being married to a brilliant and accomplished woman, I get to go to luxurious and interesting places with her, and to meet other brilliant and accomplished people there.

Whatever you may think of hedge funds or private equity investment trusts, the people who operate such outfits run long on intelligence, and quite often on wit, humor, and self-deprecation, too.

One such fellow kept us in stitches at dinner one night, describing how different it was for him now that he had actually been named the boss -- as opposed to simply being the chief of staff, which was his former position.

"I used to come into the offices and the jokes would start," he said. "Now they stop. And I wonder, am I a different person than I used to be?"

He wore his hair in long ponytail, and he was indeed full of jokes.

"Back in college," he said, "you'd never tell some chick you were a finance major. That was totally uncool. Art History, French literature, anything else."

Joking aside, he said something interesting about political attitudes.

"I think most people are moderates," he said. "Most people don't advocate radical solutions. They really do want to find a moderate solution to our political problems."

I think he's right. Polls on any number of issues will reveal that most Americans aim for some sort of middle ground, often failing to achieve it, often getting wound up in contradictions (like wanting a "path to legality" for illegal immigrants and simultaneously wanting "increased enforcement" of immigration laws).

BUT HERE'S THE PROBLEM. There is no middle solution. There is no halfway, no in-between. Not to any of our policy problems.

Example? Can we agree that there are policy problems with health care? Its cost goes up at least twice as fast as the inflation rate. If you create a government-sponsored element of health care, like the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement, its cost rises even faster than that.

On the liberal side of the health-care debate, it is seen as a terrible problem that 40 million (or so) people have no health insurance. Consequently, liberals generally propose that government should take over more and more of the health care provider network, either by subsidizing the purchase of insurance or by creating a direct government insurance (single payer) program.

The history of government health care does not provide a great deal of reassurance, however. (See the UK and Canada.) Such programs may be sold as a "moderate" solution, but they are not, in fact. They represent one extreme, that of government control.

On the conservative side, cost control mechanisms have tended toward the free market. These include, conspicuously, President Bush's proposed health savings accounts. A more vigorous free-market solution might involve the elimination of regular health insurance altogether, or the elimination of health insurance from the roster of employer-provided benefits.

Under such a scheme, we would pay directly for all "normal" health care, and take out a kind of large-cap reinsurance plan to pay for catastrophic illnesses.

From one end of the spectrum to the other, these ideas would be condemned as "extreme" by their political opponents.

That's just health care. Consider Social Security, illegal immigration, terrorism, and the income tax system. Propose any solution -- any real problem-solver -- and the opposition will cry "foul" and condemn the proposal as extreme.

What does this conundrum mean? Unfortunately, the American people are a whole lot smarter and more committed to real political virtue than our representatives are.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.