Friday, July 8, 2011

Ignorance is Bliss

Here are some bits from an interesting paper entitled "Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era" by Suzanne Mettler. What I find amazing is the profound ignorance of so many Americans about government entitlements. So many are convinced that they are paying taxes and getting "no benefits" because they are ignorant of the very programs that provide them benefits:

Here is the introduction to her paper:
President Barack Obama came into office with a social welfare policy agenda that aimed to reconstitute what can be understood as the “submerged state”: a conglomeration of existing federal policies that incentivize and subsidize activities engaged in by private actors and individuals. By attempting to restructure the political economy involved in taxation, higher education policy, and health care, Obama ventured into a policy terrain that presents immense obstacles to reform itself and to the public’s perception of its success. Over time the submerged state has fostered the profitability of particular industries and induced them to increase their political capacity, which they have exercised in efforts to maintain the status quo. Yet the submerged state simultaneously eludes most ordinary citizens: they have little awareness of its policies or their upwardly redistributive effects, and few are cognizant of what is at stake in reform efforts. This article shows how, in each of the three policy areas, the contours and dynamics of the submerged state have shaped the possibilities for reform and the form it has taken, the politics surrounding it, and its prospects for success. While the Obama Administration won hard-fought legislative accomplishments in each area, political success will continue to depend on how well policy design, policy delivery and political communication reveal policy reforms to citizens, so that they better understand how reforms function and what has been achieved.
And from the conclusion of the paper:
When Obama first declared his candidacy and then as he assumed the highest office in the land, he promised that his presidency would help Americans to “reclaim the meaning of citizenship,” “restore our sense of common purpose,” and “restore the vital trust between people and their government.” While efforts to reconstitute the submerged state may have appeared distant from or antithetical to such goals, it is crucial to their achievement because to the extent it has succeeded, it diffuses the power of special interests relative to that of the public. Now, if the Obama administration can successfully reveal the remaining aspects of the submerged state to citizens through new features of policy delivery, it may help enable them to participate in a more meaningful way.
Sadly, I don't see any real success by Obama in making the "submerged state" visible. I must confess that I'm not even aware of any concerted effort by the Obama administration to make it visible. For example, if Obama wanted to make the role of government policy in people's lives he would have pushed harder for the "public option" instead of allowed control of health care to be captured by the insurance industry. In Canada it is absolutely clear that health policies and health spending is fully in the control of the government and directed through the electorate's choices in political representation. There is nothing like that in the US.

Mettler claims that Obama is strenuously making the submerged state visible:
In the realm of social welfare issues, Barack Obama set out to transform existing policies within the submerged state. He sought to harness this vast set of arrangements and to make it more inclusive and responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens, and to curtail the extent to which it channels public funds toward powerful sectors of the economy and affluent citizens. This has been an ambitious reform agenda. Such change requires the reconstitution of long-established relationships between government and economic actors.
I just don't see it.

I applaud the idea of making the role of government more visible in order to weaken special interest groups and give citizens a greater sense of the role of government in their lives, but I just don't see that he has made much real progress. I wish he had. But I just don't see it.

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