Real Debates

Social Safety Nets for a Flat Earth

09.20.12 4:30 PM ET

A spasm of computer trouble yesterday delayed finishing some thoughts on Mitt Romney's USA Today op-ed about social safety nets.

Government has a role to play here. Right now, our nation's citizens do need help from government. But it is a very different kind of help than what President Obama wants to provide.My experience has taught me that government works best when it creates the space for individuals and families to pursue success and achieve great things.

Gov. Romney here is opening the way to a better and more interesting debate than that over the moral character of the 47% who for one reason or another do not pay federal personal income tax.

In his important speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011, President Obama sketched a vision of government as the leading agent in driving economic development.

Much more than a provider of a safety net, government would spur innovation and shape the economy in ways to raise middle-class incomes. President Obama seemed to envision that the main way this would happen was via direct and indirect government investment and employment. If the government hires a company to pave a road, the government can set generous terms and conditions of employment for the people employed on that road.

Gov. Romney in USA Today spurns that view, in effect calling for a "safety net only" approach - striking an implicit note of skepticism about such projects as government support for higher education. This is a debate as old as Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay - but it's got some new resonance in the era of globalization.

Read part two here.