‘Transformative’ Politics Are Pragmatic

Over the weekend, I saw this tweet:

Here’s the thing: in the post Smith links to, Weissman actually listed his reasons why he doesn’t like Sen. Kamala Harris’ LIFT The Middle Class Act, which creates a refundable tax credit for workers:

• It’s complicated.
• It’s extremely expensive.
• It doesn’t help the poorest of the poor.
• It doesn’t help the upper-middle class.
• It penalizes married couples, which means it violates social policy making 101.

While a more universal program might be larger, in that providing a universal benefit would result in a higher expenditure, Weissman’s complaints have little to do with the size of the program. Instead, four of the five issues have to do with the lack of universality.

It’s symptomatic of a more general problem among the center-left, which believes that political pragmatism requires two essential features. First, reasonably well-to-do people should not receive any benefits. Second, only the ‘deserving needy’ should receive the benefit, which translated, usually means those who are able to work (if you’re unable to work or find work, you’re shit out of luck). This seems pragmatic, in that only those who need and deserve assistance get it.

In reality, it is anything but. As with too many supposedly pragmatic proposals, this legislation would require an enforcement apparatus, which, as some asshole with a blog has noted many times, leads to all sorts of difficulties. Rather than just getting the benefit, you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get it, so it’s not simple to use. It’s also not universal, which means there isn’t universal buy-in (or at least, broader buy-in). Rubbing these two sunny points together, you get a program that isn’t easy to use, and doesn’t improve the lives of many people (there’s also the issue of the ‘border’–people above the threshold don’t get anything).

To use an absurd example, we could means test the public library, offer a series of different borrowing plans based on verified income and so on, or we could just… lend out the fucking books. A less absurd example would be means testing K-12 education. Never mind there’s a simple way to de facto means test things: progressive taxes.

There’s more than just wanting to nationalize the means of donut production erect large programs for their own sake. I don’t think this is as much about a desire for transformative bigitude, but a reconsideration of what pragmatic means. Bigger might be politically easier. Sometimes larger in terms of dollar amount is better.

An aside: I’m not enamored of a UBI for reasons I explain here.

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