The 2020 election is still two and a half years away, but the Big Sneer is already underway. Name a potential Democratic candidate, and you know how pundits will react: the same way they reacted to Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. He/she (especially she), they’ll say, is tired, boring, annoying. Above all, they’ll complain, he/she doesn’t offer any new ideas.
Somehow it’s always Democrats who get this kind of criticism, even though every prominent Republican for the past three decades has espoused the same three bad ideas: tax cuts for the rich, slashed benefits for the poor, and more pollution. Paul Ryan 2010 was basically Newt Gingrich 1995 with a lower BMI, yet he got praised endlessly as an innovative thinker.
But let’s leave the asymmetric treatment of the parties aside, and ask a simple question: why, exactly, do we demand that politicians have new ideas?
I’m not saying that politicians shouldn’t be open to new thinking and evidence about policy. But a political party isn’t like Apple, which needs to keep coming up with glitzier products to stay ahead of Android. There are huge problems with U.S. policy on many fronts, but very few of these problems come from lack of good new ideas. They come, instead, from failure to act on what we already know – and, for the most part, have known for a long time.
Let me give two big examples: access to health care and environmental protection.
On health care, we know perfectly well how to provide more or less universal access, because every other advanced country does it.
How can a nation provide universal access to health care? There are actually three ways. You can have direct provision by a government health system, like Britain’s NHS; you can have a single-payer system of government health insurance, like Canada (or Medicare here); or you can use a combination of regulation, mandates, and subsidies to prod the private sector into covering everyone, like Switzerland.
And all three systems work! True, you can have trouble if the funding is inadequate or the rules aren’t effectively enforced, but that’s true of any policy. Universal health care is a solved problem. We don’t need new ideas to achieve that goal here – in fact, we got about halfway there under Obama, and all we need to finish the job is a progressive president and a progressive majority in Congress.
What about protecting the environment? I guess you can make the case that there were important new ideas in the 1980s. Until then, environmental policy consisted almost entirely of top-down regulation. Economists had known for generations that there was a case for exploiting market forces via things like emission taxes or tradable emission permits, but these first made it into the world of political reality with the Bush-era emissions-trading scheme used to control acid rain.
But have there been any major new ideas since then? More to the point, do we need any major new ideas? The basic tools — direct regulation in some cases, taxes or tradable licenses in others – are well understood, and have worked well in many cases. What we need is an effective political majority willing to act on what we already know.
Am I saying that there are no new ideas relevant to policy? Of course not. For example, the related discoveries that moderate increases in the minimum wage don’t seem to reduce employment and that employers often have a lot of monopsony power in labor markets suggest some new dimensions to the progressive agenda.
Nor am I saying that policy analysis and study by think tanks and academics is unnecessary. Details matter, and sometimes policy studies generate truly new ideas.
But politicians don’t need clever new ideas to make the case that they could vastly improve most Americans’ lives. In America, even more than in other countries, we have a huge backlog of good old ideas we’ve never acted on.
So why the demand for new ideas? Partly it’s because pundits are bored with conventional policy discussion – and/or don’t want to be bothered learning enough to understand actually existing policy issues, preferring sparkly new stuff they can praise simply for its newness. Partly it’s just an excuse for sneering at Democrats, which as I understand it is required by the pundit code.
But enough. I don’t care whether a politician has new ideas, and neither should you. What matters is whether a politician has good ideas.