Here are, relatively uncontroversially, some problems facing America:

  • Social Security faces a long-term funding gap.
  • Health care costs are ballooning.
  • The housing market is stagnant.
  • Unemployment is high.
  • We have a large and growing national debt.
  • We have structural problems in our labor markets.
  • We are emitting too many greenhouse gases.
  • Our infrastructure is sub-par.

These problems, are of course, all related. But they are still all separate. For example, if you were to cut spending and raise taxes, you would be doing something to address the debt problem. But that might be counter-productive in solving the employment problem! And it does nothing to solve the health care problem, which is the real reason our debt is a problem over the long term. Note also that fixing Social Security’s long-term funding gap solves none of these problems, for the most part.

Proposals that solve more than one problem at once are great. This is why progressives support taxing carbon and using the money to fund infrastructure projects like mass transit. This could help solve the debt problem, the greenhouse gas problem, the umemployment problem, the infrastructure problem,and the labor market problem! Awesome! But it is also possible to take only part of that program and solve only some of the problems, which again, are related but still separate.

Not being able to balance this is a persistent problem in conservative/"centrist" proposals to solve some of these problems. For example, raising the Medicare eligibility age. This could, maybe, help solve the debt problem, but it doesn’t address the health care problem – it just moves it off the government’s books, which could actually exacerbate that problem. Similarly, reducing Social Security benefits may help square Social Security’s actuarial issues but won’t actually do anything about the long-term debt issue, which is primarily driven by health care. And slashing domestic discretionary spending to the bone actively unsolves the unemployment problem, and high unemployment is contributing to the debt problem.

I think we should try to find solutions that a) solve as many of these problems as we can, b) solve the problem they’re intended to solve, and c) don’t actively anti-solve any of the other problems. We could stimulate the economy by paying people to destroy infrastructure but while that would make a hell of a reality show it won’t help matters in the long term.