Let’s Give ‘Em Something To Talk About. How About… Government?

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My husband sent me an interesting Democracy Journal piece by Jack Meserve arguing that Democrats lose elections because they’ve forgotten how to 1) craft simple, easily digestible policies and 2) take credit for those policies upon implementation.

Just look at the image above. When Congress passed Social Security into law, FDR’s administration created a poster announcing “a monthly check to you for the rest of your life… beginning when you are 65.”

In contrast, says Meserve, today’s Democrats either “complicate their initiatives enough to be inscrutable to anyone who doesn’t love reading hours of explainers on public policy, or else they don’t take credit for the few simple policies they do enact.”

I think Meserve’s conclusion is so important that it’s worth copying here in its entirely:

So what to do? No more savings accounts, no more cleverly hidden help that people won’t even notice, no more tax-preferenced, means-tested, government-monitored, website-reliant, bronze/gold/platinum-benefits-so-long-as-you-apply-during-open-enrollment. Just give people the stuff they need.

This shouldn’t even be a liberal-socialist divide, although it seems to have become one in recent years. When society decided citizens should be able to read, we didn’t provide tax credits for books, we created public libraries. When we decided peoples’ houses shouldn’t burn down, we didn’t provide savings accounts for private fire insurance, we hired firefighters and built fire stations. If the broad left takes power again, enough with too-clever-by-half social engineering. Help people and take credit.

Here’s the full piece, in case you want to read it later: http://democracyjournal.org/arguments/keep-it-simple-and-take-credit/.

Now for the political science part of the blog post. This whole, “let government take credit for government-provided benefits” schtick  isn’t new. Suzanne Mettler, a professor at Cornell University, wrote a whole book called The Submerged State on how politicians from both parties have increasingly hidden government-provided benefits from the American public.

From the book jacket:

In recent decades, federal policymakers have increasingly shunned the outright disbursing of benefits to individuals and families and favored instead less visible and more indirect incentives and subsidies, from tax breaks to payments for services to private companies. These submerged policies, Mettler shows, obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the market.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, it means you’re probably getting a lot of government benefits without realizing it, because they don’t come as a big, fat check to your door. They come in the form of special tax deductions, or services provided by private companies but subsidized by the feds. The “state” – a term political scientists use to mean “the government” – is hidden from view.

As a result, to quote the book jacket again,

…citizens are unaware not only of the benefits they receive, but of the massive advantages given to powerful interests, such as insurance companies and the financial industry. Neither do they realize that the policies of the submerged state shower their largest benefits on the most affluent Americans, exacerbating inequality.

How unaware are citizens of the government benefits they receive? Mettler has an answer in an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times.

A 2008 poll of 1,400 Americans by the Cornell Survey Research Institute found that when people were asked whether they had “ever used a government social program,” 57 percent said they had not. Respondents were then asked whether they had availed themselves of any of 21 different federal policies, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the home-mortgage-interest deduction and student loans. It turned out that 94 percent of those who had denied using programs had benefited from at least one; the average respondent had used four.

In case you missed that, 57% of Americans say they’ve never used a government social program, yet 94% of us actually have. That’s almost everyone.

Mettler goes on to explain that when people use government policies that are visible – policies “that require people to interact frequently or intensively with public officials to qualify for benefits, like food stamps, disability payments and subsidized housing… Medicare, Pell Grants and Social Security retirement benefits” – they’re more likely to agree that “government has provided me opportunities to improve my standard of living.” But when they use the submerged policies, they’re left “with the false impression that their economic security was owed merely to their own efforts.”

Why is this a problem? Well, one of our two major political parties is known as pro-government, while the other party is known as anti-government. When I go to vote, I’m going to choose one of those parties based, in part, on whether I think government’s got my back. And I won’t be able to make an informed decision about that if I can’t even tell when I’m benefiting from a government policy.

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