By Darian Woods
“We have a great educational system that is—it’s really a triumph of the civilization. I don’t think there’s anything comparable in history. And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.”
– Author Marilynne Robinson talking with President Barack Obama, The New York Review of Books, November 2015
When President Barack Obama visited Des Moines, Iowa on a bright Monday in September 2015, he interviewed author Marilynne Robinson for the New York Review of Books. They talked about a glass-half-empty view pervasive in American politics.
Policy analysis and advocacy should be critical. But cynicism can be a self-fulfilling trap. When I go to the USPS post office bracing myself for a fight, that’s what I get. Likewise, the massive decline in faith in government since the early ’60s means politicians skeptical of government get voted into Congress just to prove that exact point.
But there’s an innumerable list of ways the American government has made life great here.
In the spirit of Robinson and Obama’s optimistic conversation, here are five policy areas where I think America has nailed it.
1. Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a rare welfare policy that many Democrats and Republicans agree on. It is a credit at the end of the year for low-income workers, and has been especially important for families with single mothers. It works as a credit on top of earnings, giving low-income workers a refund of up to 45 cents on top of each dollar earned. For example, a working mother with three children who earned $13,900 this year is eligible for an EITC worth $6,242. This materially assists working families and has been shown to increase work among single mothers.
This election season, watch for pledges to expand the EITC for childless workers: something proposed by both Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders.
2. Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
In most countries, if your business is running out of money you face a good chance of being ousted from helping turn the business back around if you file for bankruptcy. This means managers are reluctant to file for bankruptcy, and important company knowledge can be lost.
The US is more likely than most countries to keep the original managers in charge. This second chance may help the resilience of the overall economy.
Some European countries like Germany have revised their insolvency laws to replicate the American model, attributing some of America’s faster bounce back from the Great Recession to Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws.
Planet Money has an excellent summary of Chapter 11 bankruptcy here.
3. The Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The American Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause was far ahead of its time in 1868 and provided a foundation for stronger legal protection for minorities later on.
The text is pretty simple. It says that the state cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Subsequent Supreme Court rulings have created a framework for considering discrimination, in a way that could be borrowed in any country. For example, these rulings gave us the concept of ‘suspect class’, meaning that a case involving discrimination on race, national origin or religion should be read under a stringent standard.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave minorities more power to protect basic rights. This critical piece of legislation was intended as a first step in eliminating racial, sexual, and religious discrimination. It worked to end school segregation and, alongside the Voting Rights Act of 1965, double standards in voter registration for African Americans.
Institutionalized racism remains a huge problem in the United States, as the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted. There is a long road ahead to stamp out discrimination and bigotry. But as a tool to break down the mass-scale racism explicitly endorsed by many state and local governments in the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Act eventually achieved its aims.
The effects of the Civil Rights Act extend far beyond the Act itself. The Civil Rights Act was also hugely influential the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. While many other western countries have been committed to equal protection for a long time, Europe was comparatively slower to adopt a Europe-wide law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, religious beliefs, age, disability and race. It was not until 2000 that the European Union issued the Employment Equality Directive and the Racial Equality Directive, banning discrimination on these grounds.
4. A strong culture of public policy research
America is a world leader in testing social policy. The federalist system of giving strong powers to states gives social policy researchers a natural ‘laboratory’ to compare policy. A lot of the evidence we now have on topics as diverse as charter schools and health insurance can be attributed to decentralization, strong research institutions, and a culture of policy evaluation and open data.
An example of the healthy culture of research in the United States is how data is comparatively easy to access. Contrasting America with New Zealand, Economist Eric Crampton recently praised how free and simple Census data is in the United States.
Finally, America flew to the bloody moon and back! And gave us CT scanners while they were at it. If that doesn’t get you charged up about the power of the American public sector I don’t know what will.
This nagging dissatisfaction
None of these policies are unassailable. The EITC ignores parents who cannot work and is much smaller for poor workers without children. Bankruptcy law is much less forgiving for student loans than for business owners. America continues to struggle with its views of what are acceptable and what are unacceptable forms of discrimination. And maybe space travel shouldn’t be a high priority when there are children and families struggling to make ends meet.
But, in all, I’m convinced that America is the best country in the world to study public policy. Let’s not forget what the country gets right.
“But that’s part of what makes America wonderful, is we always had this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on.”
– President Barack Obama talking with author Marilynne Robinson, The New York Review of Books, November 2015.
Darian Woods is a Master of Public Policy Candidate 2016 at UC, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
Photo Source: Pete Souza/White House