Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Did You Check the Toilet Tank

David Brooks, apparently, is looking for his "missing fifth," and the toilet tank is a common hiding place for those who find themselves in occasional desperate need for a fifth. No, seriously, Brooks is talking about the rate of unemployment among men,
One of those signs [that the country is becoming less vital and industrious] comes to us from the labor market. As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.
It's fair to ask a question that perhaps did not occur to Brooks: How many of of the jobs that disappeared between 1954 and 2011 are the sort that represent the best of American opportunity? And how many of them were mundane jobs that have been replaced by robotics and automation, or have been shifted to overseas manufacturing facilities?

Brooks also notes that the number of people on disability is rising.
Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.
The rise in disability claims is a genuine problem - but it's hardly a surprise that disability claims go up when the job market tanks and millions of workers find themselves unable to find a job even after a year or more of searching.

Brooks really offers nothing in the way of ideas to resolve the problem. His suggestions:
  1. "[E]xpanding community colleges and online learning" - Where's the evidence that retraining older workers through community colleges and "online learning" results in significant numbers of marginalized workers returning to the work force - and when it does work, is it not fair to note that the typical retrained worker takes a significant pay cut and perhaps never recovers his former level of income?

  2. "[C]hanging the corporate tax code and labor market rules to stimulate investment" - What changes does Brooks propose (other than, of course, the implicit "cut corporate taxes and kill unions") that would increase job prospects for marginalized workers? Where's the evidence that corporate tax cuts will increase jobs? (Having successfully reduced its tax rate to 0%, is GE producing exponential numbers of jobs?) If Brooks is suggesting going after unions... you know, so that older, higher paid, "unproductive" workers can be the first to be laid off in an economic downturn... wouldn't that in fact worsen the problem, pushing more marginal workers into chronic unemployment and depressing wages? (You can argue that marginal and bad workers shouldn't be protected from being laid off by virtue of seniority, but that's a question apart from what Brooks is suggesting>)

  3. [A]dopting German-style labor market practices like apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses." - With the money for these programs coming from where? And who would be charged with designing and implementing these programs, or trying to prognosticate the areas in which new workers should be trained or subsidized?

Even if we were to regard Brooks' tepid ideas as likely to succeed, given that Brooks is a Republican, he should take responsibility for the fact that his party of choice would reject most of his ideas, and would enact tax and anti-union policies in a manner that would most likely worsen the job situation.
Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding. Attempts to take money from health care to open it up for other uses are being crushed.
I think it is fair to note that health care dollars don't simply go up in smoke - if you pull billions of dollars out of the health care system you will cause clinics and hospitals to close and will see medical workers laid off. But for goodness sake, Brooks is complaining that there are too many disabled workers while simultaneously suggesting that part of the solution is to reduce the amount of health care available to those workers, as well as to those who might become disabled?

Brooks is, lamentably, dishonest in his characterization of the health care debate:
There are basically two ways to cut back on the government health care spending. From the top, a body of experts can be empowered to make rationing decisions. This is the approach favored by President Obama and in use in many countries around the world. Alternatively, at the bottom, costs can be shifted to beneficiaries with premium supports to help them handle the burden. Different versions of this approach are embodied in the Dutch system, the prescription drug benefit and Representative Paul Ryan’s budget.

We’ll probably need a mixture of these approaches to figure out what works. Instead, Republicans decry the technocratic rationing model as “death panels.” Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.”
It's not demagoguery to observe that Ryan's plan eliminates Medicare and replaces it with a voucher program that, even if offered under the same name, bears no resemblance to the current system. By way of example, Brooks might consider what would happen if Paul Krugman started ghost writing his columns - but that they continued to be published under the byline of "David Brooks". Sure, the quality would increase, but they would not actually be David Brooks columns. Or consider the cry, "The King is dead, long live the King" - the new king is not the old king. This isn't complicated stuff.
Let’s be clear about the effect of this mendacity: We’re locking in the nation’s wealth into the Medicare program and closing off any possibility that we might do something significant to reinvigorate the missing fifth.
Pots and kettles. Yes, David, let's be honest. Right now, we could take a look at the models of health care offered throughout the developed world, pick one that produces similar or better outcomes in most cases, and implement that system in this nation - and we would see immediate, massive cost savings. We have the greatest market participation of any developed nation, and we have by far the most expensive health care system in the world - but we're not seeing a good return on that additional investment. Where can I find a David Brooks column acknowledging that fact, that undeniable truth, rather than the suggestion that the only choices we have are rationing and imposing significantly higher costs on consumers?

Brooks also seems to be confusing the cart with the horse. Demagoguery about the unaffordability of providing the general public with quality health care doesn't have quite the same salience when the economy is booming, and at least from where I'm sitting it seems that health insurance coverage has already moved significantly in the direction Brooks desires - significantly higher consumer costs, deductibles and copays - as compared to what was available during the various economic booms between the 1950's and the present. And seriously, Brooks is holding up the deficit-financed "Medicare Part D" prescription benefit as good Republican policy in action? How about that....

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