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Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein

There is a slow-motion collision occurring in every important area of public policy, one that will exact a great cost on the American public and our institutions. It is a collision of three forces: faux populism, uncompromising ideology and a challenging reality that demands policy solutions precluded by those first two forces.

Faux populism is saying anything to get elected without any plan or intention of making good on (or even remembering) your promises. You can promise that jobs are coming back though you've no idea how to make that happen. You can promise that your health-care plan will be cheaper and better than the current one, though you've neither an idea nor a plan to deliver on that promise. You can promise to build walls that keep "others" out and that others will pay for. You can promise to deregulate Wall Street and cut taxes with no worries about financial bubbles or fiscal constraints. You can deny globalization and promise that isolationism, tariffs and, moving abroad for a moment, leaving the European Union will be seamless and without cost.

Uncompromising ideology in this context is the practice of opposing ideas and policies based not on rational assessment but on a deeply held belief, one that may be at odds with reality.

The best example is Obamacare. The first hint that rationality had left the building was the 60-vote record by House Republicans to repeal the bill with no hope of passage. The more recent bit of evidence is that while this voting charade was underway, opponents were unable to come up with an alternative plan.

It's easy to rant and tweet against a policy you don't like. It's much harder to fix it, especially in this case, as I'll elaborate below, where any fix must either look like what we already have or must shift costs onto constituents in a way that contradicts the promise of cheaper, better health care for all.

Trade policy is another strong example of the contradictions in play. To its credit, team Trump elevated an issue that elites preferred to deny - that globalization had a real and lasting downside, one that could not be addressed by yet another trade deal. But beyond strong-arming some companies to think twice before offshoring (a legitimate but extremely limited and thus ultimately ineffective intervention), the incoming team has no plan to make a real difference in this space.

Of course, it's early and we should see what develops. But we should also not have amnesia about the campaign, when traditionally candidates trot out ideas that those who care about such things, like those of us in the policy community, can evaluate. Trump eschewed virtually any serious policy discussion. And when Trump advisers Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro (both of whom are soon likely to be administration officials) presented their plan to reduce the trade deficit, they merely eliminated it by assumption, i.e., "through a combination of increased exports and reduced imports." That's like saying I'll eliminate poverty through higher incomes, hunger through food, and cold through warmth.

Easy to promise, hard to deliver.

It is in health-care reform where I fear the collision noted above will cause the most pain, in no small part because it's so easy to dump on the current system and so challenging to improve on it.

Start with Drew Altman's recent oped on focus groups with Trump voters on what they want out of our health-care system. In contrast with today's conservative leadership, these Trump supporters "have no strong ideological views about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or future directions for health policy. What they want are pragmatic solutions to their insurance problems. The very last thing they want is higher out-of-pocket costs."

That part about costs is particularly germane and probably the main reason Republicans have never been able to come up with a replacement plan. Their stated goals are to kill Obamacare yet prevent people from losing coverage, to make coverage cheaper while holding quality constant, and to maintain protections for preexisting conditions. But to the extent they've hinted about replacement ideas, they've involved more "skin in the game," touting plans with high deductibles, high-risk pools, health savings accounts, and shopping for insurance across state lines, all of which violate their stated goals.

Not only do such approaches fail on policy grounds, they're also not "pragmatic solutions." Pooling sick people with sicker people and charging them sky-high premiums won't satisfy these voters. According to Altman, the Trump voters he spoke to "recoiled" at high-deductible plans, "calling such proposals 'not insurance at all.'"

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This isn't just politics getting ahead of policy. It's not even merely politicians lying to constituents to get their votes. What's happening here, at least for now, is the end of policy. It's the triumph of strategy over substance, of divisiveness over inclusion, of emotion over thought, of tweets over analysis. It's the end of rational, informed diagnoses of problems and crafting of solutions.

Policy didn't matter in this election. Not even facts mattered. They still don't. And none of us, either in the punditry or the public, know what to do about that or what its consequences will be. Those focus group members "expressed disbelief" that "a businessman like Trump" would screw up their health care.

Top newspapers are still adjudicating the ridiculous notion that Mexico will pay for Trump's wall. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, conservatives are pushing yet another big, trickle-down tax cut on the basis of growth effects that will never appear. When deficits soar, I predict they'll argue that we must now cut Medicare and Social Security, a good example of uncompromising ideology undermining strong, bipartisan preferences. They're gung-ho on once again deregulating Wall Street, with no apparent concern about yet another repeat of a bubble-bust cycle.

And because they have control of Congress and the White House, I'm fairly confident they'll succeed in at least some of these endeavors.

My strong prediction, and my even stronger hope, is that the end of policy plants the seeds for its return. Faux populism, uncompromising ideology, leavened with incompetence and the ignoring of what the people really want, will at some point generate deep demand for smart policies that meet the challenges so many people increasingly face, and for the political compromise required to bring such policies to fruition. But there's a world of pain between here and there.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the new book 'The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.' He wrote this for The Washington Post.

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