Beyond left and right

Matthew Miller’s The 2% Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love is a compelling argument for a political agenda that stresses creative cooperation. In a mere 262 pages, Miller reveals how to handle such thorny issues as Social Security, Medicare, school funding, vouchers, minimum wage and “living” wage, defense spending, universal health coverage, campaign-finance reform and the role of the press. Miller argues persuasively that all these matters can and must be addressed while the opportunity still exists.

Imagine a world with health coverage for all, refurbished schools, well-paid teachers, a $9-per-hour minimum wage and politicians who no longer grovel for money—all achieved with a smaller government. How, you ask? Deals! Big, bold compromises that benefit both sides are what Miller urgently calls for. He calls these deals “grand bargains.”

The “2 percent” in the book’s title refers to 2 percent of the gross domestic product, or $220 billion. Miller argues that redirecting this 2 percent would result in a far more just and effective society and that the time to get this ambitious plan moving is now, before problems such as Social Security defy any solution.

How do you find that kind of money in this struggling economy? “Stop—then shift,” says Miller. Stop program waste. Then, shift a portion of that money to where it will do the most good. The book reveals that 75 percent of the federal budget is locked up in just seven programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, military pensions, civil-service pensions, defense and interest on the debt. Effective trade-offs will require “grand bargains” on a large scale that progressive and conservative politicians must negotiate while managing to retain their constituencies and jobs.

There is something in here for both sides. The solution requires hooking up progressive social goals with conservative market forces to achieve maximum impact. Miller writes, “When we can have more justice and more economic growth, what are we waiting for?” We are timidly nibbling around the edges of our societal concerns, says Miller, when a 2-percent budget shift could make all the difference. In Miller’s view, “politicians will scramble to lead any parade that forms, even if it means stepping up to the truth.” This book is about forming that parade.

Miller, who hosts a public-radio program produced by KCRW in Santa Monica—Left, Right & Center, which airs on stations across the country—is a law-school graduate and syndicated columnist. He also was senior adviser to the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1995. Understandably, he sometimes writes in The 2% Solution as if he were still there. A few Ross Perot-style graphs and charts might have been a welcome enhancement, although most of the somewhat complex material is clearly written in a friendly, conversational style with plenty of quotes and anecdotes to add interest. Where else can you hear from Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bill Bennett, Bill Bradley and Pericles all within the same pages?

Though the Democratic Leadership Council previously has taken many of Miller’s positions, his fresh policy presentation in this book creates energy and direction. His two-cents-on-the-dollar angle is already creating something of a media buzz. The $220 billion question is: Can this concept percolate up from the citizen level to those who wield legislative power?