Matt Miller needs to get out of Washington.
I don’t mean literally; the former Clinton White House aide already lives in Los Angeles, where he hosts a radio show and writes a syndicated column, distinguishing himself as one of the most thoughtful and original thinkers on the left. But make no mistake about it: Miller’s mind is still on the Potomac.
In his new book, The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love(Public Affairs, 283 pages, $26), Miller runs the gamut from an attempted synthesis of the political philosophies of John Rawls and Milton Friedman; to discussions with legislators, union leaders, school administrators, teachers, and other experts from across the political spectrum; to an examination of poll results and focus groups. All this is in the service of Miller’s proposal for a vast agenda of neoliberal “grand bargains” on domestic policy, to the tune of $220 billion a year — the 2% of GDP that the title refers to — of federal spending.
Make no mistake: Some of Miller’s ideas are fantastic starting points for discussion. For inner-city schools, he proposes a significant increase in teacher salaries in exchange for much greater flexibility in firing bad teachers and rewarding good ones, along with large increase in per-child spending distributed through vouchers. On health care, he proposes subsidies for health insurance as a more market-friendly alternative to fully socialized medicine.
Other ideas are less enticing. His sliding-scale wage-subsidy scheme — a hybrid between an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and a “living wage” (an attempt to avoid the job-killing effects of simply raising the minimum wage) — is hopelessly complex and economically dubious. As for a “Patriot Dollars” system of public financing for elections, where every registered voter gets $50 to donate to the candidate of his choice: Far from limiting the influence of special interest groups, this might simply create another level of interest-group driven campaigning. (More interesting is Jonathan Rauch’s idea of giving candidates a choice of either public funding or fully disclosed but otherwise unregulated private fundraising; Miller suggests shoehorning the “Patriot Dollars” concept into the public side of this two-track framework.) Revealingly, the chapters on these proposals contain much less input from experts on the right than the other chapters.
Why must these all be federal programs? It’s partially a function, no doubt, of Miller’s super-sized ambition (who wants to fix the problems of a mere state?), but since Miller is himself drawn to pseudo-medical diagnoses — Milton Friedman has a “blind spot” for the roll of luck in human affairs, which manifests itself as “anxiety”; conservatives who claim to care about children and the uninsured, but attempt to rein in the growth of government, are experiencing “cognitive dissonance” (“I know that sounds condescending,” Miller apologizes) — let’s say that Miller, the poor thing, suffers from 3rd Street Tunnel Vision.
Early in the book, Miller mocks “lofty-sounding commitments to ‘federalism’ and ‘local control'” as things Republicans “hide behind” in the education debate, and he tends to address the roll of state governments only when a Republican brings it up — Education Secretary Rod Paige raises concerns that, while the federal government has a role, state and local governments need to pay a share to prevent the teacher-pay initiative from becoming nothing but waste; Campaign Finance “reformer” Rep. Chris Shays suggests the Patriot Dollar idea be tried first as a state-level experiment. Along with the Two Percent ideas and the philosophical discussion, there are chapters on entitlement reform and the habits of the media, among other things; the lack of a serious discussion of federalist arguments is a glaring omission in a book that covers so much ground.
Miller advocates paying for his plan in part by doing some prudent rearranging of budget priorities, but also suggests raising taxes, both with partial reversal of Bush administration policy and a 60-cent gas tax hike (unsurprisingly, the focus groups hated that one). Those moves already generate or save more than his proposals would cost (at least in theory — I suspect some of his cost estimates are low). As a “bonus,” he suggests cutting the defense budget (here and elsewhere, his pronouncements on matters of war and peace are embarrassingly short on the background and perspective that marks his examination of domestic issues — he compares the cost of different countries’ militaries without regard for what they’re capable of, for example, and implies in his gas tax discussion that “wars in the Persian Gulf” are caused by petroleum consumption).
Though Miller’s Two Percent Solution is unlikely to emerge as the grand over-arching strategy he envisions, the book is nonetheless likely to be influential in some of the most important debates of the near future; the most compelling parts of the book are the discussions of his best suggestions with people on both sides, revealing the shapes those debates might take.
And if Miller never sees the federal government mobilized the way he dreams, he needn’t despair. After all, there are always the states.
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