Monday, April 29, 2013

Robert Samuelson Sinks Into The End Of Entitlement

Just when one thinks one has seen the worst out of our favorite non-economist wannabe economic journalist, Robert J. Samuelson sinks lower with a column in today's Washington Post entitled, "The end of entitlement: Americans' lofty expectations get a reality check."  Dean Baker has already slammed the basic premise of this piece, that the poor and middle class should just suck it up that they are not going to get "secure jobs...homeownership...ever-more protective government...fixed tax burdens...a college education," because taxes cannot be raised on the rich, .  Dean criticizes several of RJS's arguments, including his contrasting job growth during 1980-2007 with it since then while failing to note the inadequate use of stimulus policies since then, and also his failure to note that in spite RJS's incessant whining about people failing to pay for their "entitlements," the payroll tax was only 6% and was 15.53% in 1990, along with some other points as well.

I am going to pile on also, while making some modifications of Dean's arguments in particular details, although none of these details will let Samuelson off the hook in the least.  I note that he is continuing to pound on points he has been making forever, citing a book of his from 1995, _The Good Life and its Discontents_, arguing even back then just prior to the main takeoff of the Clinton boom, that people were delusionally expecting "perfection" rather than mere "progress," although by now he seems to think that people should not even expect any progress either.

Now, let me say that at some level RJS is right, but in this he is trivial and out of date.  Basically, the US economy has not performed since 1973 as well during any period as it did between 1945 and 1973, with the possible exception of that late 1990s Clinton boom (which Dean would say was due to the bubble, although I think there was more substance to that boom than just that).  After bad economic performance in the 1970s after the first oil price shock, the 1980s brought some uptick of optimism during the Reagan years, although careful examination of economic performance in the 80s suggests that the performance was not much better than the 70s.  In fact, the economy has been gradually declerating more or less since 1973, with an occasional upward blip, with the Great Recession simply pounding this poor performance very hard.  Indeed, while Samuelson particularly whomps on Social Security, its future in terms of demography was understood back in 1983 when the Greenspan Commission recommended the changes that would increase fica taxes and reduce the benefits for the baby boomers that are still coming into the system (another round of age eligibilities still to kick in).  But this is not enough for that scourge of entitlements, RJS (who, of course, barely mentions the much more serious matter of rapidly rising medical care costs in all this).

One further point I would like to make on this is that in fact Samuelson fails to recognize that with respect to Social Security in particular, the public has a far more pessimistic view than is realistic, even in the face of the ongoing Great Recession (which will come to an end at some point eventually).  As it is, RJS along with most of the Very Serious People have been going on and on so long and loudly about how the Social Security Administration will "go bankrupt" if nothing is done that we even have Obama caving to this constant drip drip to pose a cut in the form of the chained CPI-W, even as virtually everybody canned this proposal, with even Republicans threatening to run against this from the left, and, more to the point, the majority of young people do not believe that they will get any Social Security benefits at all.  I mean, "bankruptcy"!  That must mean the end of the system.  In fact, such a bankruptcy would leave recipients better off in real terms if it were to happen than current recipients (see discussion of "Rosser's Equation"), but Samuelson and others are not remotely about to sort this out and make clear that things are not nearly as bad as so many think.

In any case, Samuelson's bottom line on Social Security is not that people have been told overly scary stories, but instead, "Sooner or later, the programs called 'entitlements,' including Social Security, will be trimmed because they're expensive and some recipients are less deserving than others."  Would those latter be the well-off?  If so, why not just raise the income cap on fica and have done with all this moaning and false whining?  And, of course, he fails to note that the program was already trimmed back in 1983, that trimming still coming into place.

Another point is one where I think that Dean is not quite right for once.  This involves Samuelson at least partly blaming our supposedly mounting problems on "lifestyle choices," particularly a rising rate of single-parent households.  Dean makes the point that it was the 1970s when there was a high rate of increase of such households, and then makes the completely valid point that such nations as Sweden and Germany have high rates of single-parent households while not having the rising poverty rates that we are seeing in the US.

However, in fact there has been a renewed increase of births outside of marriage in the US, with such births now more than 50% for mothers under 30.  Furthermore, the highest rate of increase in such rates has been among white women with some college education, .  However, besides failing to notice the point made by Dean about performance in other countries, Samuelson also fails to notice the point made by even conservatives such as Charles Murray that what is going on here is not some explosion of irresponsible immorality by white women, what is going on is a collapse of available jobs for working class white males, mimicking what happened earlier for black males.  It is well known that a collapse of male employment tends to lead to a breakdown of families,with mothers having to support their children on their own with little increase in government assistance for them.

Finally, RJS accurately notes that big companies are "squeezing fringe benefits."  He accurately declares that "the private safety net has shrunk," with both health plans and especially pension plans experiencing this shrinkage.  However, somehow his response to this is that rather than having the government step in to offset at least some of this shrinkage, particularly on the pension front, he instead is beating his drum yet again for cuts in Social Security benefits.  I am sorry, but does this man even read what he writes, much less think about it?  The evidence is clear that he does not.

Barkley Rosser

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