Big government that even conservatives can embrace

Matthew Miller, a former adviser to the Office of Management and Budget and a commentator on National Public Radio, has set out to do something crazy: He suggests achieving “liberal” social ends by “conservative” means. And not content to focus on one area, he attempts to solve our healthcare, education, pension and wage problems all in one 293-page book.

“Another consensus builder,” you say, halfway through the prologue. “This guy’s naive.” Maybe he is, but he is also ambitious. Not content to pick legislative nits, his book is nothing less than a fundamental reimagining of the social contract.

After setting the stage with a lot of conventional wisdom (the baby boomers are retiring soon, campaign contributions influence legislation, etc.), The 2% Solution really picks up steam when Miller turns philosophical.

Like that liberal scion, philosopher John Rawls, Miller effectively asks what type of socioeconomic assistance programs we would establish if we were to start from scratch.

The author in fact spends a significant amount of time on Rawls, in a chapter titled “Taking Luck Seriously.” Rawls famously posited a pre-birth “veil of ignorance,” behind which no one knows if he will be intelligent or dull, rich or poor, well-reared or not. Rawls put forth a new concept of “justice” that establishes the basic standard of living and level of opportunity that people would accept as their minimum, not knowing how they would fare in the “pre-birth lottery.”

Far from letting Rawls go unchallenged, however, Miller interviews living libertarian legend Milton Friedman. Friedman is of course concerned with maintaining the highest possible economic production so that the pie is bigger for everyone.

Miller finds common ground between the two men — social insurance to mitigate the effects of “bad luck” but taxation lower than the point “where economic efficiency is interfered with in a way that leaves the least advantaged worse off (that is, don’t kill the golden goose).”

Now that Miller has established that taxation and government spending can be just, he sets out to determine how much to spend. He arrives at a figure of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), about $220 billion per year, and then sets about breaking it down into spending priorities.

That leads to the book’s other memorable section — a dialogue he sets up between Reps. Jim McCrery (R-La.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), two of the most ideologically opposed members on the House Ways and Means Committee.

After a lengthy discussion in McDermott’s office, Miller writes:

“Stop for a moment and look where we are. McDermott, the Democrat who favors a single-payer system, is open to tax credits [and] can live with private insurers. … McCrery, the conservative Republican, wants universal coverage, ample subsidies for those who need it, community-rated insurance policies, and a shift toward government funding of individuals (through the tax code) and away from the employer-based system that currently leaves millions insecure or out in the cold.”

With education, it’s more of the same. Society should commit to making the best teachers millionaires over their lifetimes, but only if the teachers unions stop insisting on guaranteed pay increases and a near-impossible dismissal process.

Regarding political parties, Miller keeps alluding to two truths: Democrats are willing to pony up the money to solve problems but are afraid of new ideas; Republicans have better ideas but won’t fully fund programs commensurate with the magnitude of the problems. Thus, the “grand bargain” he offers seems to be: GOP, you accept big government, and Democrats, you accept the market.

Miller’s book works well thanks to its style, an interesting marriage of philosophy and newspaper reporting. For every page he spends mulling the finer points of Rawls, he spends another quoting sources and interviewing some of the top minds in Washington.

The primary criticism of the book is that it is far easier to get members of Congress to agree on something in principle than it is on the floor. One easily can anticipate the arguments: If 2 percent works, why not 3 percent? Or 1.75 percent?

And where does the 2 percent of GDP come from? In part from diverting money from other social programs, as well as canceling the further phase-in of the Bush tax cuts and establishing a 60-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline (try getting that last one through Congress).

If Miller is naive, he is also enterprising. The book’s prologue offers advice on how to make his vision a reality on the grassroots level, and he has already set up a website, www.twopercentsolution.com. But one expects him ultimately to run into the reality that if his idea seems to0 good to be true, it is.