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How Conservatives Can Talk to America: The Journal "National Affairs" Points the Way

I had decided to write today about the importance of the journal National Affairs, whose third issue has just arrived at subscriber’s doors. Having had the chance this week to read many of the articles, it became quite clear to me why it is worthy of attention. Edited by the brilliant Yuval Levin, its editors and authors go out of the way to make serious and thorough arguments proposing conservative solutions and approaches to the problems our nation faces. The articles are a breath of fresh air when compared to the platitudes and repetitions of so many of the conservative talk show hosts. Their articles are written clearly, without jargon, and are easily accessible to anyone who is willing to read them.

Just as I was about to start my blog, I discovered that the Democratic policy wonk William Galston had the same idea, and weighs in on the journal’s strengths at the website of The New Republic. Galston, for those who are not familiar with him, is a Democratic activist who advised the Clinton administration, and a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution. I would describe him as on the center/right, and a committed Democrat who has for many years argued about the necessity to curb growing entitlements.

What attracted Galston in particular is the article in the journal by Donald Marron, whom he writes “makes an effective case that long-term fiscal imbalances matter—a lot.” I’ll let readers consult Galston and Marron on their own, to see what in particular Galston thinks Marron gets right. But what is important is that Galston thinks he “makes some strategic points that liberals should take seriously.” Liberals, in  other words, should not be so dismissive when conservatives make points that can be examined and turn out to be correct. Moreover, Galston is impressed that Marron realizes that not all conservative ideas have merit, and is willing to “question assumptions that guide much conservative fiscal dialogue.”  Nevertheless, writing in a liberal political journal for its audience, Galston praises Marron for “the kind of conservative thinking—empirically based and open to argument—with which liberals can and should engage.”  Galston realizes that in our nation, neither extreme of Left or Right will get everything they want. The nation has to reach what he calls a “grand bargain” if we are to move ahead. But that means, Galston warns, that liberals have to accept a diminishing of the kind of entitlements they have long desired.

The article he cites, as well as the ones I will single out, prove that conservative are able to reach those on the other side of the divide, if they cogently and seriously present their ideas, and are willing to entertain the thought that much of what they support may not be entirely valid.  I would single out what I consider one of the most important articles I have read on the health care crisis, that by Avik Roy, who is identified as an equity research analyst. Roy presents an assessment of the relationship between health care and the profit motive, and what is in effect a crisis not in health care, but in the form of health insurance that has existed for some time.

Roy’s argument is that those on the left and the right come at it from two different perspectives. “Simply put,” Roy writes, “liberals believe that health care is treated as a market commodity today but should not be, and conservatives think that health care is not treated as a market commodity but should be.” And never the twain shall meet. He continues to develop the case that in fact, health care is both a moral issue and an economic one, and that a system has to be created that develops a balance---providing health services to all including the poor, as well as a system that does not gain that end by bankrupting the country and proving impossible to work.

Roy manages to trace the development over the decades of the system that has fallen into disrepair, that of employer based fourth party insurance. At present, he notes, “conservatives say liberal programs are economically senseless, while liberals say conservative policies are morally ruthless.” To get around this impasse, Roy offers a cogent argument for the kind of health care market based policy that can work, and satisfy concerns of both liberals and conservatives. He agrees that health care must be available to the poorest of our citizens, but that it must be accepted that money is limited, and that a way must be found to rationally allocate care. His answer, which you can read, is what he calls “a free market in health care- with certain limitations.”

The second article addresses another major question, that of the housing crisis. Written by historian Vincent J. Cannato of The University of Massachusetts in Boston, he shows that today’s crisis did not develop out of thin air, but was a result of the very old ideology and belief that every American should own their own home. The result, he shows, is the growth of government policy designed to support home ownership, that has done both good but also great harm. And it also has been the policy of both Republican and Democratic administrations. It was part of Herbert Hoover’s “conservative progressivism” as well as F.D.R.’s New Deal liberalism. No one, liberal or conservative, was without blame.

Although eventually a home-owning middle class was created, Cannato shows us eventually hidden booby traps exploded, when home owners took loans readily available that they simply were not able to pay. It took decades more, but was the long-term result of policies that began decades earlier. And he is clear that not only liberals were responsible for the debacle. While he praises the late Jack Kemp for his sincere hope of building an opportunity society for the poor, the implementation of Kemp’s schemes “was largely a failure” and were not “a thoughtful response to social problems.”

Equally to blame were the policies of the Clinton administration, which partnered with lenders to make “more loans based on liberalized terms to lower-income home buyers, in exchange for better terms from Fannie and Freddie.” And he notes, Clinton’s policy, fraught with danger, was carried on and made worse by George W.  Bush. “Looking back,” Cannato writes, “it is easy to see how the policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations contributed to the inflation and the bursting of the housing bubble. But these problems were much more than 15 years in the making. Clinton and Bush were simply following out the logical trajectory of the ideology of home ownership, advancing the policies of their predecessors. Like many others before them, they assumed with little evidence that home ownership would be a panacea. They believed that government backing of the mortgage market would reduce costs and increase liquidity. And they believed that the dangers of the riskiest mortgages could be adequately spread out across the market and measured by investors. They were wrong, of course — and now all of us are paying the price.”

Like other writers in the issue, Cannato points out that both some liberals and some conservatives both have blinders on, and serve as rather thoughtless cheerleaders for inflating the  housing market. Coming from very different places, both want to oppose efforts to tighten lending policies.  Cannato offers solutions that some will argue with, ending with his argument that we should reconsider the worthiness of renting, and dispense with the old American Dream that we all deserve to be homeowners. That dream, he says, “should be tethered to reality.”

These articles, as well as the others in the issue, reveal that conservatives have a major role to play in the national  dialogue over where we must go as a nation. Kudos are therefore due to National Affairs for helping us along the way.