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Looking back to go forward
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In almost every period of our history, the national focus has been on the future. The country in recent weeks has been engaged in three unusual debates, focused not on a misty future but on a cloudy past.
Here are the old questions, full of new implications, which are being asked by policymakers and voters alike:
-- How did we get into this irrational situation with medical care, where health insurance is tied to employment?
No one designing a health-care system for a post-industrial nation of enormous wealth and with some of the most advanced medical facilities in the world would tie the health of its citizens to the employment of its citizens. And, in fact, no one did. It just developed that way.
Now, under Obamacare, many businesses are evaluating whether they ought to offer health insurance at all, instead considering whether they ought to provide a stipend for their workers to purchase their own plans in the new exchanges -- perhaps offering more choice, an important value on the right (which argues for choice in schools) and on the left (which argues for choice in abortion).
-- Did the War on Poverty really help reduce poverty?
This is one of those debates whose answers lie in the lies statistics tell. If the debaters sit on the right, they argue that the Johnson-era anti-poverty programs created a culture of dependency, undermining the dignity and family structures of the poor. If they sit on the left, they argue the programs ameliorated poverty and limited its spread.
Spending on programs employing an income test -- providing proportionately more to the poor than to others -- now represent about one out of every six dollars of federal expenditures. Those on the right argue that official statistics indicate that the number of poor has increased or at best remained constant since 1964, despite billions of dollars of spending. But Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of Notre Dame argue that poverty has fallen by 12.5 percent.
-- Was Bill Clinton an effective economic steward?
This month, the former president embarked on an effort to polish his economic record, his argument based on his claim that 7.7 million emerged from poverty during his administration -- 100 times as many, he suggested, than during the Reagan years.
This of course has spawned a long and bitter debate, with pugilists taking positions that are completely predictable and also completely self-serving. By the time the 2016 campaign begins, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and French economist Thomas Piketty, both of whose books are spawning vigorous debates this spring, won't be the only ones talking about inequality.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette,