DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Matt Miller’s 2% Solution


Author (or Editor): 

Title: The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Public Affairs

Date: 2003

ISBN:  1-58648-289-0  

Series Name:

Physical description: paperback, 309 pages with index

Relevance to doaskdotell:  liberal v conservative, social justice

Review: (The dust jacket calls it “The 2% Solution.”

Back in the 1970s when I frequented Dan Fry’s UFO-motivated organization “Understanding,” I heard a lot about a para-democratic political process called “The Area of Mutual Agreement.”  I described it in Chapter 3 of my first Do Ask Do Tell book..

Matt Miller describes a similar idea here. His plan? “Take 2 percent of America’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and direct it toward a handful of fundamental goals on which we can all agree, whether we call ourselves Republicans, Democrats or Independents.” At the outset, I’ll say his missive has a definitely liberal and leftist twang to it, so I don’t think Libertarians are part of that short list.

Off hand, it would sound improbable that 2% would be enough. (I remember handing some cash to a clerk in a western Minnesota McDonalds, and the teenager boy said, “That’s not gonna be enough.”) Miller, however, provides some analysis on p. 195. You can expect the remedies. Roll back the tax cuts for the rich, roll back corporate welfare, etc.

His book is in three parts: (1) The Problem (2) The Two Percent Solution (3) The Two Percent Society, with a postscript, “Getting to Two.”

Actually, I’m way ahead of myself here. What is The Problem? It’s a bit general, but I think we can guess what it is.  In two words, social justice. Also social stability. He’s concerned about the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the likelihood that our health care and retirement security systems will fail complete. He’s also concerned about the disadvantage many kids are born in to.

Actually, central to his diagnosis is his concern with Luck.. We all start out at different places in line. We all know this. Philosophers and economists tend to rationalize their way around this. Miller spends quite a bit of space on the writings of Milton Friedman and John Rawls. Two books of particular importance are Capitalism and Freedom (1962, Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose D. Friedman), and John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971).  Comparing these two authors’ approach to luck would make a good essay question for an hour examination in an undergraduate philosophy course. It’s pretty intricate. But Rawls felt that luck should play out in such a way as to benefit the unlucky and that society must try to provide equality of opportunity.

All of this lends itself to a kind of intellectual or mathematical modeling. If you think of human interactions as always reducible to transactions (the ultimate Ayn Rand approach), Rawls would probably say that you have to consider the secondary allocations (that is, later accounting “proofs”) as well as the original trade transactions. These should help the poor. It’s important to note here that the character of inequality has tended to change. In the past, in equality was so largely associated with social class, family, and race. I won’t be naïve; it still is today, but personal merit and ability matter much more than they did before, and that is because technology has increased personal freedom and allowed some people to break out of familial origins. That can be both good and bad. Still, even “meritocracy” is suspect, as one’s deserts can be tainted by unfair advantages. A lot of people never “pay their dues.”

We also get to our notion of virtue, here. In some people’s minds, it’s OK if one person is “better” than another, particularly if that “betterness” is intrinsic and yet somehow validated by personal performance. (Sometimes this is justified by religious precepts.) But backtrack a bit from this. Some people used to think (and some people still do) that being from the right family or right race or religion is still an instrinsic “virtue” that justifies (or rationalizes) inequity. If “goodness” and “merit” are moral virtues, then so is equality, community, and sharing of wealth.

Now, most of Miller’s “solutions” deal with macro public policy. He likes to propose using government grants or credits to fund purchases of essentials from private institutions. That’s how he mixes democrat and republican ideologies in a practical way, but Bill Clinton and Al Gore (John Kerry less so) were pretty much going in this direction (“republicrats”). There’s something amiss about looking at making things “fair” among families and individuals, when underneath the surface there are big inequities within families, especially with respect to family responsibility, that he and many other commentators miss. But let’s run down his ideas.

On health care, for example, he wants to give people grants or tax credits to purchase health insurance from a list of private carriers. He likes community ratings, but the hooker here is that insurance would be mandatory (an idea already suggested by Ronald Bailey in Reason in Nov. 2004. (Community ratings alone backfire if healthy people cherry pick their way out.) Medicare would be fixed with a similar philosophy. Social security would be balanced by changing from wage indexing to price indexing. A problem that he should pay more attention to is birth rate demographics, as the pool of potential workers grows less rapidly than those needing health care and pensions.

On low-wage work, so well described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed, Miller proposes government grants to boost low-wages. It’s hard to say if this could be workable. Why should the government subsidize flipping burgers at McDonald’s but not my previous $10 per hour job as a debt collector (telling down-and-out debtors to go to work for McDonalds)? Perhaps a company’s wage history experience would be used, but this would be divisive (and sound like the corporate welfare that Miller despises). It would seem that Miller’s ideas (with appropriate pressure on employers) here could help keep seniors working longer and postpone their need for retirement income.  There is also the problem (not addressed much by him) that employers sometimes make it difficult for people to raise their kids or take care of their own elderly.

For campaign finance reform, Miller suggests a government handout of $50 per voter for personal campaign contributions (which sounds like an extension of the IRS $5 political party write-off)

Miller provides a lot of attention to education, as a major way to help equalize opportunity. He proposes major schemes for both vouchers and raising teachers’ compensation, along with carefully engineered teacher job performance programs.

On the surface, Miller is writing as if major social problems can be solved by “Them,” without thinking about personal commitment and sacrifice in a way that is commensurate with socially conservative thinking. And he stays away from debating “family values,” family responsibility, gay marriage, and the like. But his proposal to increase teacher wages has a subtle hidden potentiality. Partly because of offshoring, the dynamics of the job market are moving away from “individual contributor,” stay-in-your-cubicle jobs; interpersonal skills and even child care are becoming relatively much more important in the market than they were ten years ago.  When I first hear talk of teacher’s salaries, I picture myself brushing up on old skills like integration by parts and teaching calculus to gifted eleventh graders. But the real demand for teachers would be the youngest inner-city kids, when they can still be taught. By the time they are in middle school or high school, they are often already “throw away kids” in our system, even with No Child Left Behind. Special education will be in particularly high demand. The most suitable candidates for these jobs will be married, already-parents, a prospect that should please the most ardent social conservatives. This would not be good for a singleton like me. It’s interesting that the expansions of personal liberty in the past thirty years have sometimes been accompanied by incentives to ignore the personal needs of others; that could be changing now. 

Putting the problems in the context of personal responsibility would take us into disquieting directions. Logically, it would me that we should incorporate responsibility for others as a mandatory component of responsibility for self. It might also mean reducing second chances and other mechanisms to make sure that people who do “succeed” deserve their success in a credible public manner. That gets to a “pay your dues” philosophy and issues like national or community service. It might also mean realizing that sometimes things do not go one’s way despite one’s own best efforts to control his circumstances, because of the overriding needs of others. That is, some kind of implicit sacrifice. It would be good if commentators and authors like Miller could face this prospect more clearly. 

Here, I’ll mention Lawrence Davidson’s Islamic Fundamentalism: An Introduction (Westport CT, Greenwood, 2003, ISBN 0 313 32429 8; 1998, rev. 2003 with an introduction on 9/11) which seems way off subject, but Davidson provides an explanation of Islamic personal morality that is most interesting. Islam, he says, is ultimately a populist faith that recognizes the value of every person, but that value is assigned by God (Allah). Other faiths (despite the extremist rhetoric today) are tolerated and may coexist in Islamist lands. Islam recognizes individualism and private property, but one’s purposes and appropriation must come from Allah. Social justice, in Islamist view, comes from ensuring that every individual person uses his own property or assets for purposes designed by Allah—and this includes a duty to take care of others and provide alms. One is obligated to produce more through work than one consumes in order to provide for others. Therefore, hoarding of money or accumulation of wealth for its own sake (to get out of working) is discouraged or forbidden. One follows moral rules of behavior (honoring prohibitions against usury and gambling, following rules about gender roles which allow polygamy but give women certain rights—although polygamy would imply that “Allah” considers many men unworthy of even one wife than therefore deserving only of a subservient station in life), because the actions of individuals may become “predatory” and otherwise undermine the religiously based social supports of others. The rules sound patriarchal, sexist and collectivist from the viewpoint of western individualism, which can vacate the family and religious tradition and leave people stranded. According to Islam’s idea of moral balance, the community will be able to take care of everybody, even though it may not provide everyone an “equal station in life.”  It is important that the discipline must be practiced by “ordinary people” and not just “the rich.” Conservative Christianity (with “cults” ranging from Mormonism to the Amish) practices similar ideas, but is different in that “station in life” (a lifetime’s actuarial “cash value”) is eventually neutralized by salvation through Grace. Communism, on the other hand, advocates the use of force and (as an ideological matter) the holding in common of all private property, and even the “payment of dues” through “cultural revolution.” Early Christianity, remember, practiced holding property in common. It seems that many such religious cultures cannot, at the upper levels of leadership, cannot live up to their own teachings.










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