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It's Got To Come Down To Cases, Not Rhetoric

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I'm increasingly convinced that this point is of central importance: the national debate we're about to have must come down to specifics, to cases, to the actual role of actual programs in our actual lives.

If not -- if the debate stays up at 40,000 feet-we will be stuck in miasma of ideological-tweaking generalities, with conservatives like Romney and Gingrich plucking knee-jerk heartstrings (block that metaphor!) in ways that don't merely mislead. They employ upside-down logic to avoid dealing with the real challenges we face in today's political economy.

As much astute writing has picked up in recent days, these themes are being hammered by Republican candidates on the trail. It's all this rhetoric about "entitlement" vs. "opportunity."

By rhetoric, I mean something quite specific: language that generalizes to the point where its non-specificity loses touch with the reality of underlying topic.

You will really learn nothing accurate or even true about the nation's system of so-called entitlement programs from listening to Mitt Romney, for example. It's pure rhetoric in the above sense. It plucks heartstrings with words like opportunity (good) and entitlement (bad) but we learn nothing about how we as a nation will tackle a basic problem of advanced societies: economic security for those past their working years. Or how we, again, as a society, will tackle the burden of health care. Or education. Or the environment.

Regarding retirement, to get down to an actual case, advanced societies have all implemented solutions that draw some resources from the current workforce to help provide for the current generation of retirees. There's an economic rationale: the generation that came before helped build the productive infrastructure that produces today's economic output, so it makes sense for them to benefit from it. And there's a social rationale: most of us want to provide something -- a foundation, not a mansion -- for our elderly: we respect the intergenerational contract that is Social Security.

Many of us respect the intergenerational contract going the other way in the age scale as well: we are glad to know that Head Start, for example, helps children facing steep opportunity barriers get some help. By the way, Head Start is a great example of just how bereft this Romney frame is: he seeks to portray any program that's redistributive as anti-opportunity. But the logic is totally upside down. Head Start, or for that matter, other nutritional and health programs for families in poverty, are redistributive programs that enhance opportunity in the face of steep market and social barriers.

Let me be clear: I'm not giving any of these programs a free pass. Getting down to cases mean they too need evaluation. Is Medicare cost effective (more so than private sector health coverage, but it needs improvement)? Is Social Security efficient (very much so; I challenge anyone to identify a private mechanism that is more so)? Head Start has mixed reviews in terms of long-term benefits, but early educational intervention in general scores very high in term of cost-benefits.

I recently cited George Will as weighing into this debate thusly: "I think big government harms freedom, because it is an enormous tree in the shade of which the smaller institutions of civil society cannot prosper."

Mitt's "will the United States be an entitlement society or an opportunity society?" is equally vapid and misleading. Not just a false choice, but an illogical one, like saying "we must decide whether to grow food or eat food." Government has and will always play an integral role in enhancing opportunity, in offsetting market failures that thwart opportunity, from poverty to pollution.

Progressives musn't allow this debate to float miles above the real world. It all comes down to cases, and every time someone tries to avoid this reality, I for one am going to try to make them face it.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.