Beloved blogger Ezra Klein has become a member of Tapped, the highly regarded group blog of The American Prospect. One of his first posts is a takedown of a too-cute, pox-on-both-your-houses Slate article by Jacob Weisberg. The Bush Administration is looking to turn the post-Katrina rebuilding into a neocon playground, just like the post-Iraq rebuilding. Weisberg writes, not about the no-bid contracts for friends of the Administration, but about the other half of that agenda, the ambitious social-economic programs that the Republicans want to enact:
The reaction from liberals to Bush's proposed War on Bayou Poverty has been outrage that Republicans would take advantage of the tragedy to advance their ideological agenda.Now, I like science as much as the next guy, but it appears to have slipped Weisberg's mind that millions of people's lives are at stake, and that, if Bush's "War on Bayou Poverty" doesn't quite work out, some of these people might mind. As Ezra says:
This is precisely the wrong response. Liberals, who have failed to muster any kind of social consensus for a major federal assault on poverty since LBJ's day, should welcome conservatives as converts to the cause. They should hold back on their specific objections—some of which are valid, some of which are not—and let Bush have his way with the reconstruction. Making New Orleans a test site for conservative social policy ideas could shake out any number of ways politically. But all of us have a stake in an experiment that tells us whether conservative anti-poverty ideas, uh, work. If the conservative war on poverty succeeds, even in partial fashion, we will all be better for its success. And if it fails, we will have learned something important about how not to fight poverty.
Unfortunately, the conservative war on poverty in New Orleans probably won't take place in any concerted way, because Republicans and Democrats are equally terrified about what might happen. Conservatives don't necessarily want their panaceas tried out, for fear their utopia might not be so dreamy after all. Liberals don't want conservative ideas tested for a different reason. They're afraid that some of them might actually work.
The people of New Orleans, we can only assume, will not be told they're participating in an economic version of the Tuskegee experiments; we'll just let them get buffeted about out of sheer respect for the scientific method. Testing hypotheses is much more important than a few thousand black folk.So, I suppose that it's possible that Democrats are opposed to Bush's ambitious rebuilding policies because they don't want to be shown up by his success, but it's also possible, as Ezra observes, that their opposition "stems from a fear that it won't work, and that scores of poor people who just had their lives demolished will now be further punished by a regionally restricted Gilded Age."
How oh how can we choose between these two hypotheses? If only some clever Slate author could think up an ingenious social experiment to put them to the test! I don't care how many people's lives we have to mess with - somebody, please, just get me the answer.
But wait! Posting at Tapped 8 minutes before Ezra is the estimable Matthew Yglesias. He brings some of that typical liberal opposition to Bush's "war on poverty" - something about how Bush is rejecting "effective ways to help the poor people displaced by Katrina ... in favor of less effective ones" - but that's just irrelevant yammering that ignores the wonderful fact that Republicans are trying to do something about poverty, and the obvious implication that we should let them do whatever they want (because hey, some of it might work, and even if it doesn't that's interesting too). But Matt also has something relevant to say. It turns out that Republicans (Ronald Reagan, even) have had some anti-poverty ideas before, and some of them have actually worked: Section 8 housing, the Earned Income Tax Credit. What's been happening to those? Well, it looks like conservatives are trying to cut them. Bush is even abandoning Section 8 vouchers, a successful part of Ronald Reagan's republican war on poverty, in favor of his new experiment, a not-particualrly-conservative trailer-based anti-poverty program (which is really not so different from some old failed experiments). But liberals, those dastardly liberals, they're loving these programs and trying to expand them! Where is your fear, you silly liberals? Cower before the Republican anti-poverty successes! Run away and hide! They will destroy you! But no, instead the Republicans seem to be hiding from any government program that succeeds at reducing poverty. Government that works? How embarrassing.
If only Ezra had waited to read Matt's post before taking on Weisberg. Because my reaction to Ezra's post quickly went from "Amen!" to "Say what?" Ezra writes:
If [liberals] did not believe conservative solutions would fail, they would be conservatives. And if either group, liberals or conservatives, are so unsure of their policies that they believe antithetical programs should be applied for the experimental value of it, they should really exit the debate with all possible speed...No, no, no! Have you no humility, no open-mindedness, no recognition of your own fallibility? The 8-minute gap, it seems, was not long enough for Ezra, as Matt's post refutes Ezra's claim before he'd even made it. No policy maker knows ahead of time exactly what will work and what won't, and sometimes effective programs come from the darndest places. Policy makers have mixed motives - on the one hand, they want to use what they see as the best policies available to help people who need them. On the other hand, they are still learning what works and what doesn't, and new theories and policy proposals are always in development. You do need to experiment, to try out new, unproven policies, in order to keep from getting stuck with the same old policies. But, as any good scientist knows, you don't experiment blindly; you use your best existing theories to test out hypotheses that have a decent chance of giving useful results. And, as any good conservative should know, whenever possible these experiments should be tried out on a small scale. That way you can see what works and what doesn't, tinker with things to make subtle improvements, and not scale them up to a point where they could do real damage until after they have a proven track record. When the stakes are high, like, say, if you're trying to help people put their lives together after a natural disaster destroys much of a major US city and causes the largest dislocation of Americans in over a century, then you might not want to reach for the policy book labeled "Speculative Ideology-Based Experiments." And when you see the President reaching for that book, then instead of sitting there with rapt attention, congratulating him just for moving, and eagerly awaiting some fresh 'sperimentin', you might be better off pointing out what we've learned from all those previous experiments. What makes you a liberal is believing in liberal goals, and believing that society's collected wisdom shows that liberals' policies are a good start at pursuing those goals.
Weisberg says that we should welcome Bush to the anti-poverty game. I'll give him a warm welcome if he shows that he'll take the game seriously, working consistently to achieve anti-poverty goals, basing his policies on the most successful experiments that society has conducted to date, developing new experiments in light of the best theories that we have to explain what works, and limiting his crazy new experiments to narrow situations where they can't cause much damage. I'm not holding my breath.