The Politics Of Symbolism

Fulfilling their promise, democrats in the House have voted to raise the minimum wagefrom its current $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by 2009. But before you count the big gains for low-income families, consider this fact: among the poorest fifth of U.S. households (their 2005 incomes: less than $19,178), only one in seven actually has a full-time, year-round worker. About 60 percent have no worker at all, says the Census Bureau. The rest have part-time or part-year workers. A higher minimum wage won't help most of these households, which consist heavily of single parents and the elderly.

Among social scientists, it's no secret that the minimum wage is a weak weapon against poverty. Modest numbers of workers are affected; a lot are teenagers, often from middle-class homes; and many of the poor don't work. And a higher minimum may destroy some jobs. No matter. Democrats plunged ahead because raising the minimum wage is symbolically powerful. It says that you care about "economic justice."

This is, I think, a metaphor for what ails our politics: it's mostly about gestures and giveaways; it's not about hard choices.

I certainly don't exempt Republicans from this indictment. After all, the Bush administration and Republican Congresses devoted six years to cutting taxes, raising spending and ignoring budget deficits. Republicans and Democrats often differ on causes and constituencies. But they share a political culture. They are long on self-promotion and short on self-discipline. Do what sounds good and pleases partisans.

Let me engage in a fantasy. Let me assume that Democrats and Republicans actually intended to address two serious national problems: first, our huge dependence on insecure foreign oil; and second, the persistent mismatch between public resources (taxes) and public obligations (spending). What might they do? Herewith, a package of proposals:

Enact an energy tax equivalent to $2 a gallon on gasoline--introduced over six years, or about 33 cents annually. The purpose: to increase tax revenues and induce Americans to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Raise federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars from the present 27.5 miles per gallon to 40mpg by 2020 and make similar increases for light trucks and SUVs. If fuel-efficient vehicles are to be favored, they must be available.

Open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production. This would help offset declining U.S. output elsewhere.

Increase the top tax rate on dividends and capital gains (profits on stocks and other assets) from today's 15 percent to at least 25 percent.

Require Congress to cut $1 of spending for each dollar of tax increase until the budget balances. After that, tax and spending changes would have to offset each other. Higher spending would require higher taxes--and vice versa, with exceptions for recessions.

Require the Congressional Budget Office to confirm spending cuts--and if they're not made, mandate automatic cuts to all non-defense programs, including Social Securi-ty and Medicare (Social Security checks would fall, Medicare premiums would rise).

Raise the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare gradually to 70 by 2029. At 65, people would have to buy into Medi-care (that is, pay for coverage) until they reached eligibility for subsidized benefits.

A package like this would eliminate the budget deficit, probably within two or three years. It would temper our dependence on foreign oil (gasoline accounts for almost half of U.S. oil use) and let us begin to adapt to an older, healthier society (since 1970, life expectancy has increased seven years). Although it would be controversial, the package would be balanced. Budget measures would be split between tax increases and spending cuts; energy measures would be split between more production and more conservation. Finally, this approach would compel legislators to debate openly the value of higher spending versus higher taxes.

The fact that something like this won't soon be proposed--let alone passed--speaks volumes about our politics. Both parties have marketed government as a source of aid and comfort. Benefits are to be pursued, burdens shifted and choices avoided. Problems are to be blamed on scapegoats ("the liberals," "the rich"). There is little sense of common interests and shared obligations. Politicians resort to symbolic acts that seem more meaningful than they actually are: the minimum wage, for instance.

What results is a politically expedient world of make-believe that takes many sensible compromises off the table. Drilling in ANWR, for example, wouldn't ravage the environment. But for many Democrats, it's a cause célèbre. Voting to open ANWR would be politically unpardonable. Similarly, some tax increases wouldn't destroy the economy; it has operated satisfactorily at higher levels of taxation. But for many Republicans, voting for any tax increase would also be a political death sentence. We are condemned to rituals that usually get us nowhere.