Commentary

Overpriced Paternalism

I’m not fond of political pandering by either party, yet was force-fed a ton of it during the Democratic Convention.

John Edwards began honorably, attributing his success to hard-working parents and that he worked his way through college: “My father worked in a mill all his life…. My mother had a number of jobs… to help pay for me go to college. I have had such incredible opportunities in my life, and I was blessed to be the first person in my family to go to college. I worked my way through, and I have had opportunities way beyond what I could have ever imagined. And the heart of this campaign — your campaign — is to make sure that everyone has those same opportunities that I had growing up.”

That jarringly inconsistent conclusion, that it should be the government’s job to provide opportunity, is obviously contradicted by his life. Everyone with ambition and caring parents always had the “same opportunities” Mr. Edwards had.

Mr. Edwards then switched themes completely, suggesting success is just a matter of luck, not personal or family effort: “We still live in two different Americas: one for people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet…. We shouldn’t have two different economies in America: one for people who are set for life, their kids and grandkids will be just fine, and then one for most Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can strengthen and lift up your families.”

It is hard to imagine a more arrogant, elitist notion than to claim “we” — meaning the government — “can strengthen and lift up your families.” Keep your grimy political hands off my family, thank you very much.

Mr. Edwards’ habit of comparing those “set for life” with those who “struggle” is equally offensive. His tiresome “two Americas” theme implies it is somehow easier to earn a high income than a lower one. If true, everyone could easily be as wealthy as Mr. Edwards and John Kerry. In reality, nearly everyone who ends up “set for life” had to struggle very hard, as Mr. Edwards did, to get to that point. Yet he nonetheless suggests voters should try to get ahead not as he did but by voting for federal handouts: “When your brother calls and says that he’s working all the time at the office and still can’t get ahead, you tell him… hope is on the way.” Hope for what? For less time at the office and a big promotion?

Mr. Kerry’s speech was more candid, openly peddling help (federal handouts) rather than mere hope (of receiving federal handouts). Most of that marathon talk, however, was devoted to proving himself a hawkish dove — promising to “bring our troops home” while nonetheless expanding their force by 40,000 — armed with “the newest weapons.”

Expanding military payrolls and weapons would cost many billions. That brings up the question John Edwards asked but never answered, “How are you going to pay for it?” Mr. Kerry redefined optimism as making things seem as bleak as possible. He said, “The number of families living in poverty has risen by 3 million in the last four years.”

Yet the latest Census Bureau poverty statistics are for 2002, so “last four years” makes no sense. The number of poor families fell from 7.2 million in 1998 to 6.4 million by 2000, but rose again to 7.2 million in 2002. How did that cyclical increase of 800,000 turn into 3 million? Mr. Kerry joked, “I’m not making this up.” Yet he often does.

“We’re told that new jobs that pay $9,000 less than the jobs that have been lost is the best we can do,” he said. Told by whom? That bogus figure came from a union-backed propaganda shop, but nobody ever said it was “the best we can do.” Mr. Kerry was making it up again, which he calls “taking the high road.” As Business Week recently noted, “Bureau of Labor Statistics… figures show that the U.S. economy created more high-paying jobs than low-paying jobs in the year that ended in June.”

The Kerry campaign appears to have embraced “family values” by redefining that phrase to mean offering voters things of value. Caring about children was thus transformed into subsidized day care. He likewise said, “You don’t value families by denying real prescription drug coverage to seniors, so big drug companies can get another windfall.” In reality, providing “real” (larger) prescription drug benefits would indeed be “another windfall” for companies that sell the drugs. And how is he going to pay for it?

Mr. Kerry promised “new incentives to revitalize manufacturing.” His Web site explains, “John Kerry and John Edwards will invest more in the research likely to create the industries and jobs of the future.” They don’t plan to “invest” their money but yours. — classic corporate welfare. How will he pay for it? His Web site explains, “He will end corporate welfare as we know it.” He must hope we don’t know it very well.

Mr. Kerry says “health care… is a right for all Americans.” One person’s right to receive a valuable service for less than cost is some other person’s obligation to pay for it. Besides, Mr. Kerry was not talking about health care but about health insurance — a plan to “save families up to $1,000 a year on their premiums.” If voters don’t notice the old retailers’ trick, “save up to 50 percent,” they might imagine they were promised $1,000 for their vote. But with 110 million U.S. households, a giveaway of “up to” $1,000 each could add “up to” $110 billion a year. How would Mr. Kerry pay for it? The Web site says by “cracking down” on “waste, greed and abuse.”

But wait. That’s not all. If you call in the next 10 minutes, Mr. Kerry promises to “cut middle class taxes.” His Web site says, “John Kerry will close corporate tax loopholes and use some of the money gained from repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans — families making over $200,000 a year — to pay for tax credits (for health insurance, tuition and day care).” Unfortunately, more than 100 percent of the hoped-for booty from higher taxes on business and investors has already been over-committed to various spending plans, like expanding the Army and investing public money in private firms. So who will pay for all those targeted tax credits? With another crackdown on greed?

After offering up his long list of lavish military spending, corporate handouts, senior drug benefits and tax credits, Mr. Kerry actually said, with his famously straight face, “We’re going to return to fiscal responsibility.” Yeah, right.

How dumb do they think we are? Pretty dumb. They’re counting on it.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.