William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”
It turns out, as NYT columnist Ross Douthat explains, that applies well to public policy
Consider Texas and California. In the Bush years, liberal polemicists turned the president’s home state — pious, lightly regulated, stingy with public services and mad for sprawl — into a symbol of everything that was barbaric about Republican America. Meanwhile, California, always liberalism’s favourite laboratory, was passing global-warming legislation, pouring billions into stem-cell research, and seemed to be negotiating its way toward universal health care.
But flash forward to the current recession, and suddenly Texas looks like a model citizen. The Lone Star kept growing well after the country had dipped into recession. Its unemployment rate and foreclosure rate are both well below the national average. It’s one of only six states that didn’t run budget deficits in 2009.
Meanwhile, California, long a paradise for regulators and public-sector unions, has become a fiscal disaster area.
In this case, we’re talking future policy and the uneven distribution is between states.
Of course, things change, and it may be that in the long-term, California’s policies pay off, while Texas’ lack of policies don’t.
But for Obama, hoping to pass healthcare reform, climate change curbs and a major financial regulatory overhaul, it doesn’t much matter.
“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel remarked last fall. But in a crisis, all the public tends to care about are jobs and economic growth. It’s not the ideal time to pass costly social legislation that promises to reap dividends only in the long term, if at all.
That’s why Franklin Roosevelt waited until 1935, when the Great Depression seemed to be waning, to push Social Security through Congress. It’s why Lyndon Johnson established Medicare at the peak of the long post-World War II expansion. And it’s why Massachusetts’s health care plan and California’s cap on greenhouse-gas emissions both passed at the height of the recent boom, rather than the bottom.
The lesson for Obama, then: Keep focusing on the economy, jobs, jobs and more jobs. Only once we’re feeling fat and happy again will want to spend on healthcare and climate and all that stuff.
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