Three years ago in this magazine, I praised Peter Schuck's Why Government Fails So Often, calling it one of the most important books of 2014. Based on that book, I had high expectations for his latest, One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us. Though not quite as good as his 2014 book, One Nation Undecided is, nevertheless, quite good. The book gives detailed background on the facts and analysis of five controversial U.S. issues: poverty, immigration, campaign finance, affirmative action, and religious exemptions from government policies. Whatever your views on these issues, it's important to know the facts. Reading his book carefully made me, a policy wonk, realize how little I knew about four of them and that I didn't know quite as much as I thought I knew about the fifth, immigration.
In Why Government Fails, Schuck laid out in exquisite detail the ways that government fails, which led me to wonder why he considers himself a moderate rather than a libertarian or classical liberal. The fact that he's not a libertarian shows throughout his latest book. He seems overly confident about government officials' ability and willingness to craft effective policies on the five issues he addresses in this book. That being said, Schuck generally lays out the tradeoffs clearly, and sometimes both his reasoning and his conclusions will hearten a libertarian.
To his great credit, Schuck almost never pulls his punches and virtually never fights dirty. Moreover, even if all Schuck presented were the facts, a public discussion informed by those facts would be head and shoulders above what we hear and read in most forums.
Of the five issues he discusses, Schuck, the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University, devotes the most space to U.S. poverty. He points out that many important social changes since 1965 distort "and vastly overstate" the current poverty rate in America. If we include noncash government benefits such as food and housing, if we take account of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and if we use a more realistic measure of inflation than the Consumer Price Index, then we would conclude that the 2013 poverty rate was not the reported 14.5%, but, rather, 4.8%. Moreover, he notes, the official double-digit poverty rate treats cohabiting couples differently than married ones. Treating them the same "would lower the poverty rate even more."
Also, I point out in the review that in my views on immigration, I, a pro-immigration economist and an immigrant, am closer to the 19th-century Know-Nothings than I had thought, although for somewhat different reasons than theirs.