Warren’s Policy Proposals and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Elizabeth Warren deserves a lot of respect for the passion and courage she has shown in putting out so many policy proposals in her bid to become the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. On many issues, she is defining the terms for the debates that are to come.

We’re now seeing why it’s so brave to be the first one to put out proposals for public review. On some of the issues, the debate has already started and, while Warren’s intentions are admirable, the specifics of what she is proposing fall short.

Kevin Carey noted some of the problems with Warren’s free college plan here at the Washington Monthly.

The Sanders proposal would give states federal grants equal to two-thirds of the cost of bringing tuition at all public colleges and universities in the state down to zero, contingent on states matching with one-third of the necessary money. Warren’s plan is vague, but similar: the federal government would “partner with states to split the costs of tuition and fees.” Both, in other words, would force the federal government to make up the difference between the funding that states already provide and the funding necessary to make tuition free. This approach takes the vast disparities and injustices of the existing higher education funding system and permanently bake them in place, punishing the states already doing the most to support students and rewarding the ones doing the least.

Similarly, Sarah Jones documented the shortcomings of Warren’s maternal mortality plan, which is a serious issue for African American women who are three to four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth.

Warren suggested a financial bonus for hospitals that improve health outcomes for new black mothers. Hospitals that fail to do so, she added, will “have money taken away from them.”…

Racial disparities in maternal mortality outcomes don’t begin and end in delivery rooms. Nor is the mere fact of a financial bonus enough for a hospital to overcome the structural challenges posed by segregation and an inadequate social safety net. Warren’s proposal sounds like common sense — why give money to hospitals with poor outcomes? — but it may have outcomes she did not anticipate. By penalizing hospitals that fail to meet certain outcome standards, Warren’s proposal could actually reinforce the very injustice she wants to solve.

The critiques of both of these proposals come from the law of unintended consequences. It is clear that the Massachusetts senator doesn’t intend to punish the states already doing the most to support students, nor are her efforts designed to hurt women who have to rely on hospitals that are already poorly financed. But what she is proposing as solutions will have some adverse effects on the very people she is trying to help.

That is precisely what makes governing so complex and, to the extent that Democrats want to make life better for their constituents, it is why their job is more difficult than that of Republicans. Here is what Barack Obama wrote about that back in 2005.

The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives’ job.  After all, it’s easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it’s harder to craft a foreign policy that’s tough and smart.  It’s easy to dismantle government safety nets; it’s harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for.  It’s easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it’s harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion.  But that’s our job.

In an ideal world, the proposals put forth by Warren would build on the discussion between Sanders and Clinton on how to make college more affordable, and Kamala Harris’s emphasis on saving the lives of childbearing black women. We could, as Carey and Jones have done, identify both the benefits and unintended consequences of what Warren has proposed—and then work to improve on them.

But this is where horse-race politics get in the way of having a meaningful debate about ideas. Would Warren’s numbers be affected if she were to consider adapting her proposals in a way that eliminates the unintended consequences?

In the end, if elections are about “we the people” rather than allegiance to a particular personality, we would be able to engage in that kind of debate. In the process, a candidate like Warren could demonstrate her ability to listen and learn—something that is critical for a successful presidency.

Frankly, I’ve often thought that Warren’s skills are better suited to the Senate, where her wonkishness is a real asset and issues like this can get hammered out. But if she demonstrated that she could adapt with additional information,  she’d move up several notches on my list of preferred candidates.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.