Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Ross Douthat's Class Warfare

Ross Douthat recognizes that the middle class is in decline:
OVER the last 30 years, the U.S. economy has generated more large fortunes and more stress for the middle class. While the rich have grown extraordinarily rich, median wages have barely increased, the costs of health care and higher education have jumped, and socioeconomic mobility has lagged behind that of other developed nations. Americans have never begrudged the wealthy their success, as long as they had a chance to rise higher than their parents, and perhaps get rich themselves. But our era of diminished expectations is putting that in doubt.
In other words, Douthat is stating that, starting right around the time Ronald Reagan was elected and gave us the gift of trickle-down economics, our nation went down a path that was extremely beneficial to the wealthy and increasingly difficult for everybody else, and that thirty years later the "American Dream" is in doubt. So let's see what he proposes as a solution.
The public-sector workplace has become a kind of artificial Eden, whose fortunate inhabitants enjoy solid pay and 1950s-style job security and retirement benefits, all of it paid for by their less-fortunate private-sector peers. Some on the left have convinced themselves that this “success” can lay the foundation for a broader middle-class revival. But if a bloated public sector were the blueprint for a thriving middle-class society, then the whole world would be beating a path to Greece’s door.
Somebody paid him to write that prattle?

Does Douthat actually know anybody who works in the public sector? Those I know who work in the public sector aren't enjoying the "artificial Eden" he describes. Like those who came before them, they trade lower wages for better job security and better benefits. And although this may shock Douthat, they too pay taxes.

Given enough time and data I expect that you can cherry-pick individuals, or even find small isolated groups of workers, who enjoy an "artificial Eden" of the type Douthat suggests exists for all public sector workers, and no doubt you'll find some people in any given government agency who should have been forced out years ago, but between lazy supervisors and job protections continue to collect a paycheck. But the exception does not prove the rule.

But more than that, didn't he just get through telling us about how wonderful things were back in the 1950-'s, when socioeconomic mobility was high, ordinary workers were well-paid, and we had a robust middle class? Does he truly think that the best way back to the "American Dream" is to sniff at it as being a dream for an "artificial Eden" and destroying what he perceives to be its last vestiges? Well, yes, he does. The Eden he has in mind is apparently the one we've been building in recent decades, with entrenched, generational wealth for a select few and lowered standards of living for everybody else.

Douthat presents a hollow man argument, "Some on the left have convinced themselves that this 'success' can lay the foundation for a broader middle-class revival". Who says that? Anybody? It's always easier to defeat an argument if you fabricate something silly, attribute it to the other side, and bat it down. But it's not honest. It's similarly dishonest to pretend that the crisis in Greece is driven by "a bloated public sector". Its crisis was brought on by excessive debt, that was in turn brought on by extraordinarily (and transparently) dishonest accounting by both its government and large financial institutions, and its inappropriate admission into the Euro zone - something that I suspect gave companies like Goldman Sachs comfort that other Euro zone nations would bail them out if the house of cards collapsed.

Douthat looks back on thirty years of Republican attacks on Social Security and Medicare, successful Republican attacks on both public and private sector unions, Republican-led tax reforms that provided massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and an associated devastation of the middle class, and tells us,
The story of the last three decades, in other words, is not the story of a benevolent government starved of funds by selfish rich people and fanatical Republicans. It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.
Who are you going to believe - Ross Douthat or your lying eyes. Douthat whines in his column that massive taxes on the richest 1% of Americans won't balance the budget (again hollow-manning, as nobody has suggested either the magnitude of taxes Douthat implies or that higher taxes would solve the nation's problems), but let's imagine his alternate universe in which instead of taxing the wealthiest Americans we strip away from "affluent seniors" (whatever percentage that is - safe bet he's talking about well over 1%) the retirement benefits and health insurance they paid for over the course of their working lives, stop all federal contributions to public education, and ban all public sector unions. How much closer does Douthat believe we'll be to a balanced budget? To an equitable society? To a restoration of the "American Dream"? To a rich man's fantasy?


  1. Whether or not Douthat has figured it out, those who feed him his lined know what they're doing in attacking "middle class entitlements". It's easy to slash Medicare benefits, impose "welfare" reforms, etc., because you can convince the majority of Americans that they principally benefit the "undeserving poor". If you severely limit or end the benefits of Medicare and Social Security to the middle class, you will erode its popular support and, yay! More money for rich people!

    Douthat's suggestion that we somehow means test Medicare isn't likely to be a cost saver, as the real cost is in inpatient and hospital care and end of life care. If he's given the issue any thought at all, he has to be aware of that, and how his proposed reform could actually increase those costs by keeping seniors away from preventive care and early treatment. So if he has thought about it, the unavoidable conclusion is that he's on the side of those who want to destroy Medicare, not those who would make it more stable.

    Douthat could look around the world, or even around the country, for programs that allow for more affordable senior health care, even with greater universality. If you don't yet "get" his agenda, the fact that he is blind and deaf to anything other than spending cuts gives away his game.

  2. With a columnist like Douthat, it was only a matter of time before he caved in to temptation. Writing columns like this (stenography to groups like the AEI) propels him down a path toward six figure "speaker fees". Douthat may profess Catholicism, but preaching Matthew 19:24 won't make you rich.