What Successful Policy Feels Like
Getting good policy passed is a victory. Given political realities, enacting even marginally adequate policy has to count as some sort of success. But it's also critical that people experience policy reforms as effective, and recognize how good policy is improving their lives. By this measure, adequate policies might not cut it. That makes me fear for our economic recovery - and for health care reform.
Economic Policy Institute President Larry Mishel made the recovery point during his address at the recent Tides Momentum Leadership Conference. Yes, Mishel argued, all economic signs show that the stimulus is in fact working. Without it, we would be worse off than we are today. The problem is that the bill was always too small to prevent widespread economic hardship. Now, with persistent high unemployment and continued economic misery, the danger is that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will not feel effective at all. Then its inability to sufficiently alleviate Americans' economic pain will discredit further efforts at reform. In Mishel's ominous words: "If this is not seen as successful it will set back our ability to have any kind of economic policy on behalf of the powerless for three decades." Paul Krugman has warned of a similar effect.
As if that weren't bad enough, the same dynamic is threatening to get underway with health care reform. Senator Baucus' highly compromised but not-so-bipartisan health care proposal would provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and cut government costs. The expansion of Medicaid alone is an important policy advance. But the problem -- aside from the minor detail that all a far better health care proposal really should be achievable-- is that I'm not sure this will feel like an advance to most Americans, especially in the short term. The sense of dread increased as I read the Senate Finance Committee press release optimistically titled "What You Get Right Away: Immediate Relief for Families and Small Businesses," only to find that there wasn't, in fact, much there for most families. Instead, for many families, health care reform might feel like a burden: a costly new requirement that they go out and purchase health care, or pay a steep fine. The less government assistance and assurance that affordable options will be available, the heavier this burden will feel. And when a public benefit is experienced as a burden by even its beneficiaries, it is conservatives who have won a victory that could indeed set us back decades.