This is the end of the year - the time when a lot of people take stock of the ups and downs in the past year and prepare for the next one. I believe that the best way to take stock of the policies is by approximating their impacts on real people, not by filling space on some ideological pie chart. There was a lot of bru-ha-ha after the President's tax deal, with many on the Left calling him out for giving the rich an inordinate amount of benefits as a price to protect the poor and the middle class. But if we were to take stock in the last two years and what has been done, who benefited?
This is a look at who benefited, and who is poised to benefit from the laws enacted by this President. Here is the partial progress from the various actions of the President and this Democratic Congress, so far:
- 3.2 million jobs saved or created thanks to the Recovery Act,
- 6.7 million small businesses eligible for the health care tax credit under the Affordable Care Act,
- 111.4 million middle class families (95%) receiving a tax cut through the Recovery Act,
- 5.6 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who can no longer be denied coverage thanks to the $5 billion high risk pool,
- 161,000 teaching jobs saved through state aid, and
- Almost 4,000 Recovery Act projects for clean, safe energy production.
But investments in dollars haven't been all the investments made in the American people. In the most significant re-regulation of the runaway financial industry since the 1930s, an oversight board has been given the authority to liquidate banks and financial institutions that become a threat to the system. A brand new independent and powerful consumer protection bureau is being set up to look out for consumers of financial products, protect them from industry gimmicks and frauds without costing the taxpayers a dime. Who's that going to help? Ordinary Americans - your pension funds, your retirement nest eggs, and, well, your savings.
Another very crucial piece of legislation goes almost unnoticed by the political pundits, blogging heads and in general, people who decide what "news" you should read: credit card reform. It protects consumers by forcing issuers to play by the rules, giving you notice of rate increases and letting you close your account should you choose not to accept it and pay off your balance at the old rate, and forcing the issuer to apply anything you pay beyond your minimum to the highest-interest, rather than the lowest-interest, debt, among other things. Perhaps even more crucially, it cracks down on the loan sharking of the credit card industry, by prohibiting direct marketing on college campuses and "get-a-tee-shirt-and-get-into-debt" scams. Who's that going to help? Know anyone with a credit card or in credit card debt? Know anyone going to college soon?
By the way, maybe people forget by now, but can I remind everyone about the first couple of acts of this President in office? Remember the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, correcting an injustice by the Roberts Supreme Court? Remember the massive expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) - especially you people who are screaming about the public option (this is actual public health care)? Let's not forget the Congress and the President's closing acts for this year either: a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, expanding and extending middle class tax breaks (yes with a price to be paid to the rich), the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the ratification of the most significant nuclear arms treaty in a generation, and long-awaited health care help for 9/11 First Responders.
These are not just things that are the right thing to do, and they don't just help the right people in a tight economy. For those who are interested in the long-haul, progressive-conservative debate, this is an unadulterated victory for the progressive argument. Ultimately, the conservative-progressive argument does not hinge on the ideological hot button issues but on the battle between activist government and passive, laissez faire government. A lot of people tend think that the basic debate about progressive vs. conservative government is about what specific things government can or should do to help ordinary people. In actuality, the philosophical battle is much more basic than that: it is about whether government should help ordinary people at all.
The right wing point of view on this is that government should do nothing to help ordinary people; they believe it creates government dependence. Progressives, on the other hand, believe in the concept of a hand up, and in common wealth for common good. This is the base instinct that we saw during the health care debate. The problem the right had wasn't just what the government was doing to make health care more accessible and affordable, but that government was getting involved at all. On that score, the past two years have been a huge victory for activist government, and therefore, for progressive government. Yes we did all of those things imperfectly - you show me a perfect piece of legislation going through Congress the first time, and I will show you a few unicorns - but we did it nonetheless. What we established was that government was supposed to do things. To help people. And that, in and of itself, is a paradigm shift in American politics.