February 1, 2007

February 1, 2007 | Commentary on

Despite setbacks, conservatism has a bright future

Conservatives come in all shapes, sizes and ages. At a recent gathering of activists and thinkers, I had the pleasure of introducing my granddaughter Betsy. She's famous in our house for her smile, her charm - and her $187,000 mortgage.

No, she's not the first 3-year-old homeowner on her block. That $187,000 is how much Betsy will shell out in taxes over her lifetime simply to pay for entitlement programs aimed at her elders. She'll get nothing out of it.

That's clearly unfair, which is why audiences always gasp when I mention Betsy's mortgage. And that's exactly why I always mention Betsy's mortgage: It gives people an image they can connect to.

Nobody can really wrap their heads around the idea that Social Security's "unfunded liabilities" are going to generate "trillion-dollar deficits" "in the year 2040." The terms are simply too confusing, the numbers too large, the date too far off.

But everyone can understand a 3-year-old who's going to get stuck with the check so my generation can avoid making the difficult decisions. Betsy connects with people. And connecting is what conservatives must do in the years ahead if we want to communicate our ideas.

Let's stay with the example of Social Security.

To fix it, politicians are certain to turn to their old standby, raising taxes on "the rich." For example, they'll undoubtedly recommend increasing Social Security payroll taxes. Workers today pay Social Security payroll taxes on the first $97,500 of income, and it's easy to convince people that those who earn more than that must be "rich" and probably "aren't paying their fair share."

But as David John and Rea Hederman noted in a recent paper from The Heritage Foundation, "increasing the wage cap above $97,500 would raise the taxes of 97,065 carpenters, 110,908 policemen and policewomen, 254,992 nurses and 208,562 post-secondary teachers." And that's just for starters.

Here, we're breaking it down to the kitchen-table level, so everyday Americans can realize just how disrupting such a tax increase would be to their friends and neighbors, if not themselves. When conservative ideas are expressed that way, they're sure-fire winners.

Here's another example. A panelist at the recent National Review Conservative Summit noted that if we don't fix our entitlement system, we'll end up with "European-style growth." That's true, but it's an observation that many Americans won't grasp.

After all, we generally like Europe. Most see it as a giant historical theme-park, which would be a great place to visit and certainly no threat to our fiscal health. But European-style restrictions on our economy would threaten our way of life. In fact, if France or Germany were part of the U.S., they'd be among the five poorest states and few of us would want to live there.

Conservatives have won the battle of ideas so completely that liberals seldom even bother attempting to engage us in that arena anymore. Instead, they often rely on hot-button soundbites such as "tax the rich" to drive policy. If we can simply find better ways to express ourselves in the years ahead, conservative ideas will win the hearts and minds of a majority of Americans - as easily as Betsy's bright smile does today.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in Examiner.com