Between an Ax And a Scalpel

By Leonard Fein

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There’s a reason the Left (or the liberals or the progressives, or whatever nom de guerre you prefer) seems so bereft of a positive agenda. The Right, by and large, knows precisely what it seeks to accomplish. It seeks to dismantle government. It wants to privatize medical care, and social security, and our prisons, and even a hefty part of our military. In order to do that, it either legislates privatization or asserts spending caps that effectively destroy existing programs.

The intra-Republican debate in the House of Representatives these days is largely between those who prefer an ax and those who favor a scalpel. Mostly, the scalpelists are winning. They hope to accomplish the effective end of entitlement programs and other “safety-net” programs in stages, with each stage presented as a relatively modest reform — until we one day awake and discover that the sum of all the reforms is the end of all the programs.

In this effort, their enthusiastic ally is the president of the United States, whose astronomical deficit spending together with his obsession with tax cuts leaves almost all domestic programs, from parks to pollution, in fiscal distress.

And the Left? The Left vehemently opposes the strategy and the policies of the Right. The Left has long believed, and believes still, that government can be an engine of growth, an arbiter of conflict, an instrument of justice. That’s the easy part. The hard part, the part that stymies the Left, is figuring out exactly (or even approximately) how to use government for these purposes efficiently and effectively.

Take health care for example. Its stunning achievements notwithstanding, there is general agreement that our health care system is broken. Forty-three million Americans have no health insurance at all, which in emergencies pushes them to hospital emergency rooms, where the costs of care are the highest. Medicaid support has become a political black hole, and altogether too many people who depend on Medicaid fall into that hole. All this is known. The extravagant costs of prescriptions drugs: known. The crisis in obstetric care on account of insurance premiums: known.

What to do about all this? Not known. Putting in place a national health insurance, a version of any of the systems in place in every other industrialized nation, and favored, in one form or another, by a majority of our voters? The system doesn’t readily lend itself to such wholesale reform — and, in any case, were it once more proposed, is there any reason to believe that the insurance companies would this time idly sit by and let it happen, given the active role they played in the defeat of Hillary Clinton’s proposal back some 10 years ago? Limiting the power of the HMOs? Tinkering. Importing prescription drugs from Canada? See how long the lower prices continue once there are large-scale imports.

The Democrats may come up with a program. They did, after all, come up with Medicaid and Medicare, which changed the lives of tens of millions of us. But on any of the truly complex issues of our time, the Left is without a detailed consensus every time, without any consensus at all much of the time.

With regard to the scandal of hunger in America, we can continue to tinker with the school lunch and food stamp programs, or we can muster the nerve to ask why there is hunger in America, which brings us immediately to the underlying question: Why is there poverty in America? To which one obvious answer is that someone who works full-time at the current minimum wage of $5 and change for an hour ends up under the official poverty line — which is in any case pegged at a level that cannot support a decently dignified life.

Answer? The obvious answer is what’s called a livable wage, which has been put into place for municipal workers and even contractors in several American cities. But that which is obvious is not without its own problems. Do we really want a dramatic raise in the minimum wage at a time when low-wage jobs appear to be undergoing a mass emigration from America? Would that not lead, and quickly, to a rise in the ranks of the unemployed? Or this: Aren’t benefits, and especially health insurance benefits, more urgent than a change in the wage base? Or this: What of two-worker families, where both earn minimum wage and where, therefore, the family as a unit does in fact rise above the official poverty line? And so forth.

Besides, didn’t we just a few decades back declare war on poverty? And did we not lose that war, miserably?

All this is not to say that reform is impossible. We need only recall the enormous impact of Social Security and Medicare to recognize how effective government programs can be.

It is to say that being opposed to poverty, being rendered indignant by the data on poverty, being passionately devoted to the eradication of poverty, is not yet a policy. It is much easier to craft an agenda out of opposition to government — or, for that matter, out of opposition to opposition to government — than it is to develop a serious set of government policies that responds to our nation’s most urgent problems.

That is why, aside from a major program here or there, the Left ends up proposing smidgens of amelioration rather than comprehensive reform. “Left politics” in America is almost always about bits and pieces, not about wholes. That may be the best we can do in the real world, but it is hard to generate much enthusiasm for a politics of tweaking. The axe and the scalpel are politically far more acceptable than the trowel.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.