By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 29, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ In 1984, Charles Murray wrote “Losing Ground,” which presaged the sweeping welfare reform of a decade later. In 1994, he was co-author of the controversial book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” His new book is “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.” He is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Q: Explain what you, in your new book, call “the Plan.”
A: The Plan consists of a $10,000-a-year grant given to every adult American 21 and older who’s not incarcerated, paid monthly into a bank account, continuing until people die.
Q: At what point do people pay taxes on their $10,000.
A: I let people keep all the money they make up until $25,000 of earned income, when they have a net of $35,000, and at that point I say, “Now you are going to have to start to pay some of this back in a surtax,” and by $50,000 people are paying back half of the grant. They have a net of $5,000. And at that point the surtax stops and people continue to maintain $5,000 for the rest of the income scale.
Q: What does the Plan eliminate?
A: The Plan eliminates all transfer programs at the state, federal and local levels, which is a lot. The big items are Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, all forms of welfare programs, but that also includes corporate welfare. It includes farm subsidies. It includes every program that takes tax dollars from some Americans and gives them to other specific Americans. What I want government to focus on is public goods such as the criminal justice system and national defense.
Q: As a libertarian you say you would prefer to eliminate the welfare state without providing the $10,000 grants. Why then the Plan?
A: This book is an attempt at a grand compromise between libertarians and social democrats. The libertarian half of the bargain is to say, OK, we understand that government is going to spend huge amounts of money even though we think society would be better off if it didn’t. We will accept those huge expenditures. Your part of the bargain _ you social democrats _ is to get rid of all the apparatus of the welfare state. My objective with the Plan is to construct a system in which everyone, including the very unluckiest among us, can run their own lives.
Q: Does this cost more or less than what we’re now spending?
A: If the Plan were implemented tomorrow, which is not going to happen, it would cost $355 billion more than we’re currently spending, so I would be making government bigger. By the year 2011 the costs of the current system and the Plan would cross. By the year 2020 the Plan would cost about half a trillion dollars a year less than the current system. But I want to emphasize that the cost savings is not the point. We can take the savings and dump them into the ocean as far as I’m concerned. My argument is that this is a better way to run society.
Q: You write, “The welfare state drains too much of the life from life.” Explain.
A: The welfare state takes the elemental events associated with raising a child, paying the rent, engaging with our neighbors in solving important problems, and it transfers a lot those issues and lot of those problems downtown to bureaucracies. The welfare state says to us, “We’ll take care of that,” and guess what, if someone else says “We’ll take care of that” our human inclination is to let them. But in the process, we impoverish our own lives.
Q: You describe the Plan as politically impossible today, but politically inevitable eventually. Why?
A: It’s going to be obvious within a decade or two that there is so much money around that it’s absurd that people still are poor or don’t have medical care. And then when people look at the amounts of money the government is spending, people will have to say it can’t be that we’re not spending enough, it must be that we are spending the money badly.
I think it will become widely accepted that government basically isn’t very competent. If you have a choice between any kind of service provided by the government versus provided by a private organization, everybody knows that the people are more polite, they’re more helpful, the service is better, the products better, it’s cheaper, if you deal with private organizations instead of the government. It’s going to dawn on people that the same could be true if we gave the functions of the welfare state back to individuals and took them away from bureaucracies.
Q: Describe the Plan’s “Doolittle Effect.”
A: The Plan provides everybody with a known income stream going into a known bank account, and this is going to have some very interesting effects on unmarried young men who are now living with their girlfriends or their parents, who are not in the labor force, who are essentially goofing off. Under the Plan, mom or the girlfriend can say, “I need a portion of that money coming into your bank account every month to help pay for electricity and food.” Maybe, instead of doing that, they will go out and find a place of their own and find a job.
I call it the Doolittle effect, after Alfred Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” who was a cheerful member of the underclass, then acquired an income stream through Henry Higgins’ recommendation, and found himself rushing to get to the church on time. I think those same dynamics may very well apply to male members of the underclass in the United States.
Q: How well did you think coverage of Katrina dealt with questions of race and class?
A: The coverage of Katrina made me think that nobody in the news business has read any of the work that’s been done on the nature of poverty or the underclass in the last 25 years. The typical news report kept talking about poor people doing their best in the face of adversity, and some of them were, but there were also large numbers of others who weren’t, who were exhibiting the kinds of social dysfunction that we have come to associate with the underclass, and the news media seemed completely unable to make this distinction.