This past week, the U.S. Bishops gathered in Atlanta, with one objective being the drafting of a statement on the state of the economy. As Joan Frawley Desmond of The National Catholic Register reports, one concern several bishops had was that previous statements regarding the budget proposal of House Republicans had been overly partisan and strayed too far from a teaching of general principles and into specific policy critiques. If those concerns are shared by the broad body of bishops, it’s welcome, because within the framework of the budget proposal put forth by Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the most effective way into the 21st century economy. What’s more some of Ryan’s specific proposals are the best way to save the New Deal, the great achievment of the 20st century Democratic Party.
Ryan is the chairman of the House Budget committee and the kind of innovative thinker that usually gets good reviews at various conservative gatherings and is then ignored the minute his party has power. As the senior Republican on the Budget Committee, he had the leverage when his party took hold of the House of Representatives and when he ascended to chairmen, he could be no longer be treated like another backbencher. And it’s his proposal for Medicare that is the single best part of the budget proposals he’s been working on since taking over the committee.
The proposal is to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Instead of the government directly compensating the hospitals and doctors for services, seniors would receive a government voucher that would enable them to pick their own insurance plan. The Left—including, unfortunately, too many Catholic Democrats—has reacted as though this is tantamount to dismantling the system itself and leaving seniors in the cold.
But if giving someone a voucher and telling them they have the opportunity to own their own plan with it is being left in the cold, then let me be the first to freeze (Although at 42, I’ve still got a couple decades to wait). This is exactly the kind of idea that best serves the needs those either poor or on a more limited income.
Well-off seniors already own their own supplements and other forms of coverage that ensure access to the best medical care. Why would one supportive of Medicare’s basic principles object to those with less means being given the same opportunity?
The answer lies in a divide between those of us who support the basic principles of both the New Deal agenda of Franklin Roosevelt and later on the Medicare plan put through by Lyndon Johnson, and those who are wedded to the absolute specifics of policy—in some cases for reasons less than pure.
Let’s take a brief step back and see Medicare in its larger historical context, which is an extension of the New Deal, which in turn had Social Security as its lasting achievement. Both programs were correct responses to a society which had changed from being agrarian to being urban and industrial, meaning the elderly were far less likely to just staying on the farm as their kids took over the land and cared for the aged parents. Now the latter was more likely living on their own and unable to earn any more income. The Social Security/Medicare response was part of the move to a social insurance state, which recognized that a government role was needed.
Today the economy is changing again—or perhaps I should say it has been changing for at least three decades, and we’re still trying to get government policy to catch up. More and more people have ownership in the stock market. The market itself, in spite of recent developments, remains a tremendous source of long-term wealth development for everyone. For anyone who disputes this, I would simply ask if you’ve backed that up by cashing out your 401(k) and started to rely exclusively on the government for your retirement security. If you haven’t, then your actions suggest you agree with me.
In the arena of health care, the same principle of individual ownership should apply. The shift to a voucher program means the government still recognizes a basic obligation to help someone left behind in the economy, but does so in a way that gives them the chance to pick a plan best for them. I fail to see how the government directly paying the hospital is a fine example of social justice, but giving a voucher to the person you intend to help is somehow leaving them in the cold.
The voucher system Ryan proposes for Medicare should have its principles applied across the board. The building of public schools was at one time a noble idea to educate everyone. Now let’s extend that principle to instead spend the money on giving people a voucher and letting them make their own education decisions. Instead of deducting a portion of someone’s paycheck and sticking it in a government Social Security fund, instead give that person the chance to invest that same money in a fund with a higher rate of return. The basic principles of the New Deal remain fundamentally intact, while the implementation of those ideas is brought into the 21st century.
There was a time we might have called such thinking “progressive.” Because, you know, it’s about making progress. But the people who called themselves “progressives” today are more a left-wing cult that impose reactionary economic thinking among themselves. Furthermore, Democratic officeholders have become more concerned about the fact that a voucher system would deprive them of controlling the lives of those with less economic means—through control of their education, health care and retirement, which in turns means the loss of political issues every two years. I suppose if one party winning elections is all you care about, that’s an understandable concern. If your concern is the well-being of people in this country, then it means nothing.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was called an enemy of capitalism in 1932 when he took office and proposed an array of government interventions into the free market. I’m not breaking any new ground in saying that in fact FDR saved capitalism from its own excesses with the New Deal. Now the roles are reversed. The achievement of the New Deal—the security it gave to people—are at risk if the programs don’t adjust to changing times. And it’s Paul Ryan and his proposals that would ironically save the Democratic crown jewel from itself.