What Does Matt Bai Want?

WHAT DOES MATT BAI WANT?….Garance Franke-Ruta noted this morning that there’s a new round of Matt Bai-bashing in the blogosphere today. This sounded exciting, but even so I clicked the link to Bai’s latest article gingerly. See, I was expecting it to be the usual 10,000-word NYT Magazine manifesto and wasn’t sure I was up to plowing through it to see what the fuss was all about.

But no. “New World Economy” turns out to be just a few hundred words. And sure enough, I can see the point of bashing this particular passage:

So what if Social Security and Medicaid functioned best in a world where most workers had company pensions and health insurance and spent their entire careers with one employer? The mere suggestion that these programs might be updated for a new, more consumer-driven economy sends Democratic leaders into fits of apoplexy.

I can’t make any sense of this. If anything, a simple, guaranteed, government retirement benefit makes more sense today than it did when lots of people had company pensions. And what does government healthcare for the poor have to do with anything? Did he mean Medicare? I’m confused.

On the other hand, his concluding passage does make sense ? but only because it seems to make exactly the opposite point of the passage above:

If you were going to sit down and create a system for our time, it probably wouldn’t look much like the one we have. Does it make sense to expect businesses to finance lavish health care plans when foreign competition is forcing companies to cut their costs? Isn’t government better equipped to insure a nomadic work force while employers take on the more manageable task of childcare ? a problem that hardly existed 50 years ago? If government were to remove the burden of health care costs from businesses, enabling them to better compete, wouldn’t it then be more reasonable to create disincentives for employers who are thinking of shipping their jobs overseas? Isn’t the very notion of a payroll tax for workers antiquated and inequitable in a society where so many Americans earn stock dividends and where a growing number are self-employed?

Ezra Klein bashes this particular passage because it demonstrates that Bai “apparently believes that the Democrats are antiquated because they don’t support government-provided health insurance and progressive taxation” ? proposals that Democrats self evidently do support. What’s with this guy?

And yet, I think I see Bai’s point. Maybe. Do Democrats support national healthcare and elimination of payroll taxes? Not that I’ve heard lately. Among actual politicians, we mostly hear small bore proposals to make modest changes to healthcare (catastrophic coverage, prescription drugs, etc.) along with timid suggestions that we should roll back Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. But bold proposals for single-payer healthcare and a serious revamping of the tax system along progressive lines? Not so much.

Now, if this really is Bai’s point, he probably should have made it clearer. Is his beef that Democrats are wedded to big government programs? Or is it just the opposite: he’s unhappy because they aren’t willing to speak up loudly in favor of the even bigger government programs we need in the bold new consumer-driven world of the 21st century?

I guess we’ll have to wait for the book. Overall, I’m not sure Bai is wrong, but the charge of incoherence seems pretty well founded. As it turns out, a few hundred extra words might have been a good idea here.