In the years before Donald Trump, various conservatives tried to come up with new ideas for a movement that seemed exhausted and unready for new challenges. Whether we called ourselves “reform conservatives” or something else, we shared – or so we thought – a realistic assessment of what was possible within Republican politics, within the broader two-party system, within a stagnant but basically stable Western order.
Maybe that self-conscious realism was a trap. The Trump campaign (and the Bernie Sanders campaign across the aisle) suggests that there is a public appetite for ideas that are well outside the ideological boxes of post-Cold War conservatism and liberalism. The evidence emerging – read Nicholas Eberstadt’s big, depressing essay in the latest Commentary for a synthesis – suggests that the slow-burning social crisis in American life is much worse than even those of us who wrote a lot about it thought. And the chaos in the Middle East and widening fissures in European politics suggest the times might require a more substantial rethinking of U.S. foreign policy than most Washingtonians have contemplated.
This week, I read the debut issue of American Affairs, a new right-of-center policy journal for the age of Trump. Its proclaimed purpose is to advance “the discussion of new policies that are outside of the conventional dogmas,” with the strong implication being that recent efforts to propose such new policies have been too timid and constrained, and that the times demand something more adventurous and ideologically unbound.
I accept the critique. But if I may venture one in return, I found the journal’s inaugural issue not quite as daring as I had hoped.
There are interesting proposals on trade policy, and various persuasive critiques of elite institutions and assumptions. But often the newest attempt at a new right offers a rhetoric of nationalism that cashes out in policies not obviously bolder than what reform conservatism offered.
So as an experiment, I thought I’d write a few columns (an intermittent series, as events permit) floating genuinely radical visions of how policymakers might respond to our order’s slippage toward something worse than stagnation. These will not be ideas that I find entirely convincing, they will not be fully fleshed-out, and I will disavow responsibility if they’re ever put into disastrous practice. But since I strongly suspect that the Trump era will feature far less policymaking than Trump’s radical campaign promised, this seems like a good time to take the policy conversation up, up into the bright blue sky.
Let’s start this week with what one might call an emergency response to the social crisis. That crisis is apparent in the data that Eberstadt and many others have collected, showing wage stagnation in an era of unprecedented wealth, a culture of male worklessness in which older men take disability and young men live with their parents and play video games, an epidemic of opioid abuse, a historically low birthrate, a withdrawal from marriage and civic engagement and religious practice, a decline in life expectancy and a rise in suicide, and so on through a depressing litany.
From liberal technocrats talking up education to Trumpian nationalists promising better trade deals, everyone has an incrementalist approach to these problems.
But incremental ideas work slowly while the crisis compounds itself and spreads. So an emergency response would set a more ambitious goal: a swift boost in workforce participation and family formation, using a few sticks and a lot of very expensive carrots.
The carrots would include a large wage subsidy and a large per-child tax credit and a substantial corporate tax cut and an employer-side payroll tax holiday to encourage hiring. They would also include an infrastructure bill written to include a certain amount of make-work spending, and an increase in government hiring in traditionally-male fields – more military spending earmarked for recruitment, more federal cash for hiring cops.
The sticks would include cuts to disability and unemployment benefits and tighter Medicaid eligibility rules for the able-bodied – not as “pay fors,” but simply to make sustained worklessness less pleasant.
The goal would be to see whether over some period – call it a “five-year plan,” because why not? – trying very directly to pull and push people back to work could make a sustained difference in employment and family formation both.
And as for how all this would be paid for, the answer is that it wouldn’t be. Instead, the risks of inflation and the drag of deficits on growth would be accepted as necessary costs of the experiment, on the theory that a generation of worklessness and below-replacement fertility will do more damage, economic and otherwise, than adding another couple of trillion dollars to the national debt.
The scale of spending means this proposal gores more conservative oxen than liberal ones. But that’s only because I’m saving a related proposal to ban pornography and video games for a later installment in this series – which I promise will only grow more outlandish as it grows.
The writer is a columnist for The New York Times.