Best of FF: Two Cheers for the Welfare State

December 31st, 2011 at 12:00 am David Frum | 78 Comments |

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As 2011 comes to a close, FrumForum plans to re-run some of our best featured pieces from the year. In ‘Two Cheers for the Welfare State’ David Frum responded to Yuval Levin’s essay in National Affairs about America’s welfare state.

Don’t miss Yuval Levin’s piece in the current National Affairs, “Beyond the Welfare State.”

The piece is interesting and important for many reasons, but not least because of its author’s background: a prominent Bush domestic policy staffer, Levin has spent a lot of time pondering the question: “What is/was compassionate conservatism?”

Based on his new essay, the answer seems to be: compassionate conservatism is kaput.

Instead of the old emphasis on government aid to faith-based charities – government tax support for the poor – and the expansion of government health insurance for the elderly, Levin’s new vision endorses the Paul Ryan idea of radical reductions in government’s social insurance function.

“Beyond the Welfare State” urges a new approach to conservative domestic policy based on 5 key ideas:

1) Lower and flatter tax rates – likely meaning a further tax cut from today’s top rate, along the lines proposed by the Ryan budget plan, with elimination of most deductions, credits, and tax expenditures.

2) Means-testing of all government programs, including retirement security for those under-55s. Again this follows the ideas in the Ryan budget plan, whereby most under 55s will over time lose their claim on most government assistance.

3) Means-tested subsidies to support health insurance for those who cannot afford the full cost, within a marketplace regulated by the states.

4) Radical reductions in domestic discretionary spending.

5) Radical reductions in the administrative power of the state – including its monetary policies, which would adhere instead to fixed and predictable rules.

Levin acknowledges that this program will be politically unpalatable:

It will require extraordinary sacrifices from today’s young Americans, who will need to continue paying the taxes necessary to support the retirements of their parents and grandparents while denying themselves the same level of benefits so their children and grandchildren can thrive.

And since these “extraordinary sacrifices” are joined to a tax cut for high-bracket taxpayers, it’s not difficult to imagine how the plan might meet resistance.

But let’s leave the politics aside and consider the merits:

What to think about such a program as the basis for a new kind of conservatism? What would it accomplish, where would it put us?

Yuval Levin founds his case against the welfare state on this description of the national mood:

It is becoming increasingly clear that we in America are living through a period of transition. One chapter of our national life is closing, and another is about to begin. We can sense this in the tense volatility of our electoral politics, as dramatic “change elections” follow closely upon one another. We can feel it in the unseemly mood of decline that has infected our public life — leaving our usually cheerful nation fretful about global competition and unsure if the next generation will be able to live as well as the present one. Perhaps above all, we can discern it in an overwhelming sense of exhaustion emanating from many of our public institutions — our creaking mid-century transportation infrastructure, our overburdened regulatory agencies struggling to keep pace with a dynamic economy, our massive entitlement system edging toward insolvency.

But these are mostly symptoms of our mounting unease. The most significant cause runs deeper. We have the feeling that profound and unsettling change is afoot because the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt, and it is not yet clear just what will take its place.

Supposing the first paragraph to be a valid description, is the second paragraph the most plausible explanation? I’ve met plenty of anxious people over the past three years. Many were beyond anxious: terrified and desperate. And what was the cause of their “unease”? Not the impending bankruptcy of Medicare. I know people who have seen their family incomes drop 80% or 90% over the past 3 years. I’m not going to mention names here, but if I did, I’d venture that Yuval Levin would recognize some of them. I know people who have been out of work for months. I don’t personally know anybody who has been foreclosed upon, but that is the accident of living in an area lightly touched by the mortgage disaster. So if somebody asked me, “What is the most significant cause of our mounting national unease?” I’d answer: “We have the feeling that profound and unsettling change is afoot because we are living through the worst economic downturn since World War II.”

And once you say that, your mind travels in a very different direction from that indicated by Yuval Levin’s essay, or at least my mind does.

Where did this crisis come from? Why was it not prevented? How can we minimize the suffering consequent to the crisis? How can we accelerate recovery from the crisis?

Perhaps I am speaking only for myself, but when I ponder those questions, I come to feel that the libertarian ideal championed these days by so many conservatives has become at least as drained as the social democratic idea.

I don’t believe that Yuval Levin, whom I know to be a compassionate person, deplores the existence of unemployment insurance and the ability of Congress to extend insurance payments during a serious crisis.

Are we sorry that the stimulus plan included aid to assist the unemployed with their COBRA payments to continue their health insurance?

Do we condemn food stamps?

Is it a national weakness that the now-substantial government/education/health/military sectors of the economy continued to provide some source of stable demand, unlike the situation in 1931?

When we think of the most immediately urgent failures of government, do we really think of the failure of government to adequately fund the Medicare needs in the next decade – or of the failure of government to act to prevent systematic misrepresentations by rating agencies in the past decade?

Do we truly regret that the Federal Reserve had discretionary power to create new money after October 2008? Wouldn’t it make more sense to regret that the Federal Reserve did not use its discretionary power to crack down on predatory lending activity in 2003?

If anything, as we review the record of the past three years, I’m moved to revise my own opinions of a lifetime and adapt the words of Yuval Levin’s mentor, Irving Kristol to say: “two cheers for the welfare state.”

I doubt that Yuval Levin would disagree with very much of what I wrote in the second post in this series. I expect that most Republican politicians and voters would agree too, in actions if not in words.

Republicans have repeatedly voted to extend unemployment insurance. Paul Ryan’s plan preserves Social Security. Yuval Levin’s own 5 principles for reform contemplate a healthcare system in which “the poor and the old would still have heavily subsidized coverage and much of the middle class would still have moderately subsidized coverage.”

So is this perhaps just a discussion of more vs. less? In the 1990s, federal spending as a share of GDP was reduced below 20% of national income. The crisis and the Obama response have pushed spending up to 25%. Could we translate Yuval Levin’s essay as a call to return to the old proportion?

Yes and no. Yes he’s certainly calling for spending less. (In that, I agree with him – although I doubt we’ll get back below 20% anytime soon).

But Yuval Levin is engaged in something more than hype when he says that his plan goes “beyond the welfare state.” Here’s the key line:

essentially all government benefits — including benefits for the elderly — should be means-tested …. Americans below 55 or so … should expect public help only if they are in need once they retire. Means-testing should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work. And private retirement savings should be strongly encouraged and incentivized, so that people who have the means would build private nest eggs with less reliance on government.

In other words: You might get some degree of state help if you need it. But you had better not count on it. And it will be delivered in ways that will open larger and larger differences between those who receive state aid and those who do not. In short: Medicaid for the old.

In other words, what we are contemplating here is not the end of the “welfare state” as most Americans use the term, a state that aids poor people. What is contemplated is the end of social insurance, at least as it applies to healthcare for retirees: a state to which all contribute on more or less equal terms and from which all draw benefits on more or less equal terms.

Interestingly, it was neoconservative thinkers like Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and others who most searchingly indicted the kind of welfare state presented in Yuval Levin’s argument.

They noted that welfare programs aimed at the poor alone create three kinds of problems:

1) They intensify poverty because they impose huge costs on the exit from poverty.

Imagine a world in which everyone who earns less than $20,000 a year qualifies for Medicaid and nobody who earns more than $20,000 does so. What incentives do we present to the person now earning $19,999? One more dollar, and boom, there go your medical benefits.

This problem can be mitigated by phasing out benefits gradually – but that gets very expensive. (e.g., Today, we have states where people qualify for some Medicaid benefits all the way up to 400% of the poverty level.) Except when times are very flush, governments end up living with a situation in which it becomes simply irrational for poor people to work harder to escape poverty. The barriers to poverty exit are surely one reason that poverty rates have remained stuck at around 13% since 1965 even in boom times.

2) Welfare programs aimed at the poor compel governments to police the behavior of the poor.

Yuval Levin’s 5th principle argues: “we should reduce the reach of the administrative state, paring back all but essential regulations and protections and adopting over time an ethic of keeping the playing field level rather than micromanaging market forces, and of preferring set rules (in regulation, in monetary policy, and elsewhere) to administrative discretion.” Hear, hear. [Bolding added.]

Yet programs for the poor-only demand higher levels of administrative discretion. It’s easy to determine who qualifies for Social Security old-age pensions, not so easy to determine who qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Since qualification is uncertain, fraud is tempting – and fraud must be policed.

3) Welfare programs for the poor alone induce the poor to think of themselves as a community apart from the rest of society. It’s not just a matter of dependency, which is a severe and inescapable cost of any government program. (See e.g. the American grain farmer.) Worse is the development of alienated subcultures and anti-social folkways: the adversary culture as it has been called.

For these reasons and others, Irving Kristol always favorably contrasted Social Security and Medicare to means-tested programs for the poor.

I’m writing a lot about Yuval Levin’s National Affairs article precisely because it is so rich and thought-provoking. And it poses this challenge to conservatives who can’t follow Yuval Levin in the direction he indicates: If not the Ryan vision of the future, what then should be the conservative response to the fiscal crisis of the American state?

I’ve been thinking very hard about this question for a long time. I’m not done thinking about it either. But here’s my own current working answer. It has 5 points.

1.) Don’t panic.

Doom is not hurtling rapidly upon the United States. The reason the budget looks so very bad is the Great Recession. As the recession ends, the budget picture will improve. Deficits will not vanish on their own, but they will shrink. The long-term debt outlook will remain ugly, but it will also remain long-term.

Conservatives often say: “We do not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” Let’s go to the tape. In 2007, the US government had receipts of $2.568 trillion. In 2009, it had revenues of $2.104 trillion. The disappearance of $460+ billion of income sure looks like a revenue problem to me.

You see equal or even more extreme collapses in revenues at the state and local level.

Yet the economy will recover. The wars in the Middle East will end. Fewer people will require assistance. When that happens, the fiscal gap to bridge will shrink of itself.

2.) Fix healthcare.

The US does not have a (serious) spending problem. It has a (serious) healthcare problem. The problem affects both public sector and private sector. No administration will get public spending under control until such time as a cost-control revolution is unleashed on the healthcare sector is.

This cost-control revolution need not compromise patient outcomes. Most other democracies spend much LESS on healthcare than the US while gaining significantly BETTER outcomes. Runner-up Switzerland spends 4 points of GDP less than the US (equivalent to getting the US defense budget for free), even as the average Swiss lives almost 3 1/2 years longer than the average American.

But the cost-control revolution will mean that the traditional practices of healthcare providers will come under extreme pressure – just as the retail revolution led by Wal-Mart put pressure on the practices of other stores.

Republicans and conservatives are deeply internally conflicted about healthcare. Conservatives can denounce attempts to save money within Medicare as “death panels” – even as they endorse Paul Ryan’s plan to cut Medicare spending by 70 percentage points below the level necessary to provide tomorrow’s seniors with the same benefits as today’s.

This issue has to be resolved, and if you want taxes low and incomes rising, it must be resolved in the direction of efficiency and cost-saving.

3.) Public Insurance, Private Provision

What Yuval Levin is criticizing is not the welfare state. It’s the social insurance state: a state that taxes all to provide benefits available to all.

That does not mean all of us receive benefits all the time. We collect unemployment insurance only when we lose our jobs, Medicare only after turning 65, ditto Social Security.

Nor do all receive equal benefits. People who pay more into Social Security receive more. The sicker elderly receive more from Medicare than the healthier elderly.

Still, the system is defined by its universality and comprehensiveness.

Yuval Levin proposes to rescind that definition. We’ll move into a future where state aid is recognized as something to be received only by the dependent few, not the providing many.

I’ve raised some qualms about such a future. Here’s one more. America being as it is, such a future will inevitably be color coded. Not everybody in the receiving group will be darker-skinned, not everybody in the paying group will be lighter-skinned, but the tendency will be there. Even today, when government social spending goes overwhelmingly to white over-65s (the US spends 3x as much on social services for the elderly as for the young, and the over-65s are more than 85% white), the talk about “takers vs makers” cannot escape a racial tinge. Imagine how politics will be argued 10 years from now, if we do things Yuval Levin’s way, in a country where the recipients of most Medicare benefits are disproportionately black and poor – and where today’s better-educated white 30-somethings will be paying heavy taxes through their peak earning years for benefits they themselves will never see. That will give Rush Limbaugh a lot of minority targets to fulminate against in his declining years.

Yet it’s possible to imagine a universal social insurance state that is both less expensive and less statist than the social insurance state of today. If we can unleash the dynamics of competition on American healthcare, there is no reason that Medicare must forever continue to cost more per recipient. If we’re wasting one health dollar in four right now, as the international comparisons suggest, then there is scope actually to reduce Medicare costs per recipient.

As John Stuart Mill pointed out 150 years ago in the context of schooling, state financing need not mean state provision. Chile and Singapore manage it for pensions and health care through a combination of forced individual saving and subsidies for those in need.

In the US context, Yuval Levin’s own preferred financing form – a universal health care tax credit – if made generous enough, could form the basis for such a system. Or it could be done in the way Mitt Romney outlined in Massachusetts: mandates plus subsidies.

The point is: you can have social insurance, even universal social insurance, without government administration. You can avoid dependency without consigning millions to go without coverage – or alternatively subjecting even more millions to the stigma of being branded recipients of health welfare, shabby exceptions to the normal expectation that all must provide for themselves. In the context of health care, after all, very few will be able to provide for themselves. Means-testing Medicare will not mean very much less dependency. It will mean a lot more contempt for the very many Americans who will find themselves as dependent as ever.

4.) Pay attention to revenues.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has a funny line about wanting a tax code that looks like somebody designed it on purpose. It’s a project worth considering.

Back in the 1980s, the top rate of tax was pulled down to 28% by the systematic elimination of deductions and credits. Within a decade, the top rate had climbed back to almost 40% – and new credits and deductions proliferated. A bad trade.

If a 25% top rate is wanted – and it certainly seems a good idea to me – isn’t the way to finance it the same way as was done in 1986? If base broadening alone does not do the job (and it will not), then find other revenues in ways that are socially useful: higher taxes on energy to spur efficiency, higher excise taxes on alcohol and corn-based sweeteners, a VAT if need be. (I’m surprised that we have got this far in the debate without any political figure proposing to legalize marijuana and then tax it heavily. I suppose that’s because the legalizers tend to be the same libertarians who oppose all taxes.)

But if you’re looking for a grand bargain, and if you’re a conservative seeking to hold down top tax rates, you don’t want a two-way bargain, Medicare vs. income tax cuts. You want a multi-point bargain that includes revenue increases so keenly desired by liberals that liberals will overlook those revenues’ non-progressiveness.

5.) Growth Acceleration

Brink Lindsey makes the important point that the US economy compensated for low per-capita productivity growth in the 1970s and 1980s by adding many more workers to the population. The baby boomers come of age, and American women hugely increased their labor force participation.

Some suggest that the trick can be repeated in the years ahead by increasing immigration even above current very high rates. This seems to me a very bad idea. Remember, the problem that we are trying to address is the fiscal crisis of the state. It is not a very good scheme to address a fiscal crisis by importing millions of very poor people who will need much more state aid than they – and very likely their children and grandchildren – will ever pay in taxes.

What we need to do instead is seek every way over the medium term to restore very high rates of growth of per-person productivity – so that slower population growth can nevertheless still translate into strong economic growth.

For example: There remains important work to do on the trade front. The US still collects surprisingly high tariffs on cheap goods, from tableware to sneakers. Abolish them all.

For example: Traffic congestion represents an important economic cost. Americans in most metropolitan areas waste an hour or more a day traveling to and from work. Al Gore was right back in 2000 to worry about traffic as a political issue, and it needs to return to the agenda again, with special emphasis on road improvements and telecommuting.

Recessions are periods in which firms correct inefficiencies. They can be the same for governments and societies.

In the interval since I started writing this response to Yuval Levin’s important piece in National Affairs, the Ryan budget plan has been approved by the House of Representatives on a near-total party line vote. Ideas like those endorsed by Yuval Levin are now the formal position of the Republican party. My guess is that the party’s presidential nominee will attempt to tip-toe away from that position in 2012, but who knows? Anyway, it will not matter. President Obama’s billion-dollar campaign will ensure that Republicans are thoroughly identified with it.

So Yuval Levin’s proposition is the proposition that Republicans will take to the country. Perhaps that is as it should be. Since the economic and electoral disasters of 2006-2009, Republicans have veered in a sharply libertarian direction. Why not put that new direction to the test of democracy? Perhaps Paul Ryan is right, and Americans (or anyway: voting Americans) have abruptly changed their minds during this economic crisis about their expectations from government.

I’ll admit: I’ve also changed my mind during this crisis, but in the opposite direction.

There’s an interesting rotation of ideologies here between Yuval Levin and me. Yuval Levin is one of the brightest rising stars in the intellectual tradition of Irving Kristol. Kristol famously championed a conservative welfare state, and especially programs of social insurance for the elderly.

I, on the other hand, got my political start urging a doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years. On the eve of the last Republican congressional triumph, 1994, I published a book urging ideas very similar to those now being urged by Yuval Levin and Paul Ryan and many others.

I won’t try here to explain why the conservative mainstream has turned so sharply to the right, although I have my theories.

As for my own turn away, that I can explain:

The radical free-market economics I embraced in the late 1970s offered a trade:

Yes, there would be less social provision. In return, Americans would receive an economy that was simultaneously more dynamic and also more stable.

There would be less inflation (because the Federal Reserve would have one job: price stability).

There would be fewer and milder recessions (because the Federal Reserve would no longer have to extinguish the inflation it did not create).

The financial sector could finance faster growth with less risk (because risks would be cushioned by diversification rather than prohibited by regulation).

Economic growth would accelerate (because the reduced tax burden would induce entrepreneurial innovation).

Faster growth would raise incomes for all (because a rising tide lifts all boats).

More opportunity in the private economy would abundantly offset the curbing of welfare benefits (because the best social program is always a job).

More opportunity would end the caste-like isolation of the poorest of the poor by drawing them out of the underclass into paid employment (because all human beings respond more or less rationally to positive incentives).

This was the trade, and it was engineered jointly by Republicans and Democrats: in fact some of the most important elements of the trade were adopted during the Clinton years.

Some of the terms of that trade were honored. From 1983 through 2008, the US enjoyed a quarter-century of economic expansion, punctuated by only two relatively mild recessions. In the late 1980s, the country was hit by the savings & loan crisis, the worst financial crisis to that point since the 1930s – and although the S&L crisis did deliver a blow, the country rapidly recovered and came up smiling. New industries were born, new jobs created on an epic scale, incomes did improve, and the urban poor were drawn into the working economy.

But of course, other terms of the trade were not honored.

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find worksomewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the US for every unfilled job. Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. But some of the most dismal outcomes were endured by workers in their 50s, laid off from middle-class jobs likely never to see middle-class employment again.

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Which does not mean that I have become suddenly indifferent to the growth of government. Not at all. Paul Ryan is absolutely right that the present trend is unsustainable and must be corrected. The free marketeers of the 1980s were right that taxes on enterprise must be restrained to leave room for private-sector-led expansion. Over-generous social insurance has all kinds of negative consequences. Private saving must be encouraged. Work must pay better than idleness. The job of designing the right kind of social insurance state is hugely important and hugely difficult, and the conservative sensibility – with its respect for markets and less sentimental view of human nature – is the right sensibility for that job.

Yet that same conservative sensibility is also properly distrustful of the fantasy that society can be remade according to a preconceived plan. We have to start from where we are, and we have to take people as we find them. Ronald Reagan liked to quote a line of Tom Paine’s, “We have it in our power to make the world new again.” George Will – although a great Reagan admirer – correctly complained at the time, “No, we don’t.”

I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

Those are words I would not have written 15 years ago. I write them now, conscious that I am very far from the first person to write them. Irving Kristol made the point most memorably at the very onset of the conservative ascendancy:

The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy — as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.

Conservatism’s task is to shape that social insurance state, not repeal it.

Yuval Levin knew this truth when I did not. I’ll preserve it here in safe keeping for him and all his friends until they are ready to remember it again.

Originally Published on April 16th 2011.

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78 Comments so far ↓

  • SFTor1

    The foundation of American competitiveness is a healthy and educated work force. The U.S. is now lagging behind other countries on those metrics.

    How do Republicans suggest we regain the competitive edge unless the State makes substantial investments in these areas?

    And could someone please enlighten me where the growth has been in the Federal Government, that is, in the civilian sector of the Federal Government? Here are the numbers I have:

    Federal employees, 1960: 1,807,958.
    Population, 1960:    180,671,158. % of pop.: 1.00%

    Federal employees, 2005: 1,871,920.
    Population, 2005:       280,218,971. % of pop: 0.6%

    Federal spending over the years has held fairly steady at 23%. Once we are done with the wars of choice that were started in the Bush years, where is this tremendous growth in Federal spending that needs so desperately to be reined in?

    As far as I can tell, the revenue shortfall comes from tax relief for the rich through lower top rates and lower taxes on capital gains. Now that we have clear evidence that these lower tax rates do nothing for the economy, why can we not agree to increase these rates?

  • Rich T Bikkies

    David, this is one of your best. You’ve put a lot of thought into it. I can’t wait to see the better minds than mine on this blog getting to work on it.

    But it all sounds a bit moderate-Democratic to me. Why don’t you stop wasting years of your life and breaking your heart trying to reform the Republican party, stop being tribal, and switch to Democrat? Is it just that you’ve made too many Democratic enemies in your activist years with the Republicans – or some other baggage like that?

    • joemarier

      The question facing center-left parties is how to champion greater social insurance, in the context of an entrepenurial, individualistic state. It’s a subtle difference in perspective, but a significant one.

    • FSC

      RTB – if I may disagree – the US desperately needs a Republican party that seeks to govern for the benefit of ALL the people rather than focusing only on its own provincial interests. And the Republican party desperately needs voices like Frum’s.

      Stay where you are, DF (and please, contra what you told the British interviewer (iirc), tell us you wouldn’t actually have voted for Christine O’Donnell, even hypothetically … please!)

    • Emma

      It is one of his best … yet it has a conspicuous hole in the very center of it, as Frum acknowledges — i.e., the question of why the conservative mainstream took a sharp turn to the right while Frum gravitated to the left. Frum declines to share his views on that at the moment, but he gives us a generous hint: “America being as it is, such a future will inevitably be color coded.” Bingo! There it is. The heart, soul, and intellect of contemporary conservatism revealed.

      • paul_gs

        =”America being as it is, such a future will inevitably be color coded.” Bingo! There it is. The heart, soul, and intellect of contemporary conservatism revealed.”=

        Emma, you have completely misconstrued (and I think you have done so deliberately) what David has said in his article. Go back and read it again.

      • Holmes

        Emma has it exactly right. The conservative movement has never been a positive force in American society. Wherever there has been widespread discrimination, bigotry, and persecution, one usually finds conservatives leading the charge. Why the anyone-but-Mitt fervor? Because conservatives are not sure he will wear the white sheet.

        paul_gs: think a bit harder about what Frum is trying to say.

        • Hunter1

          + 1

        • paul_gs

          Wherever there has been widespread discrimination, bigotry, and persecution, one usually finds conservatives leading the charge.

          What an absurd exaggeration Holmes. There is only one party in the US that has ever officially been a white supremacist party. Remember which one?

        • TastyBanana

          Oh please, stop it with that tired old fallacy. The Democrats of that era were conservatives, and Republicans were progressives. That’s right. The Republican party supported civil rights legislation, which the Southern Democrats unanimously opposed.

          “Though the “Solid South” had been a longtime Democratic Party stronghold due to the Democratic Party’s defense of slavery prior to the American Civil War and segregation for a century thereafter, many white Southern Democrats stopped supporting the party following the civil rights plank of the Democratic campaign in 1948 (triggering the Dixicrats), the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and desegregation.”

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy

        • jakester

          and those were all conservatives

  • Nanotek

    ” Irving Kristol made the point most memorably at the very onset of the conservative ascendancy: The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy — as Bismarck knew… ”

    The problem with quoting Irving Kristol is, by most measures of caution, one needs to determine the truth (reliability) of his purported advice.

    “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.” Origin of the Specious, Reason Magazine (July 1997)

  • zaybu

    The real failure is the failure of applying one particular economic policy: after an economic downturn and the government has accumulated a debt, in the next upturn, that debt must be paid off. Since WW2, we have consistently failed to do so. The last time we had a chance of paying off the sovereign debt was right after the end of the Clinton administration, when we were getting surpluses. Instead, under the new Bush administration in 2000, that surplus was squandered by giving tax cuts, and then with two wars and an expansion of medicaid unpaid for, the debt soared to astronomical high. When the following downturn hit us in December 2007, we were already in bad shape to deal with it, with the debt at 70% of GDP. As a result of fighting this last downturn, today, the debt is hovering around 100% of GDP, and we still have a very fragile economy with unemployment rate at 8.6%. The lesson is clear: when we do get out of this economic mess, when the economy is sailing healthily high then we must pay off the debt — no more bailouts, no new programs, no more tax cuts — PAY THE DEBT.

    • valkayec

      As Keynes wrote, when the economy is good, pay off debt and build a surplus to allow for more options and action when the economy is bad.

      • nhthinker

        Keynes did not understand that over time that most democratic governments would become too immoral to build a sufficient surplus in good times and thus too many are doomed to overspend until they go bankrupt.

        • jakester

          Yup lets all get on our knees and follow the next evangelical political movement, that will make us all moral and solvent again

        • paul_gs

          Well said nhthinker. Look at the mess European countries have gotten themselves into following Keynes right over the cliff!

        • zaybu

          @ nhthinker,

          Let’s remind ourselves: Democracy means that the people elected that government. The responsibility is ours, not Keynes. Enuff of blaming everyone else.

  • nhthinker

    Morality used to be a weekly or daily message to most Americans. Now more Americans get overwhelmed by consumerism/materialism with little balance. Low-consequences humanism treating symptoms has replaced use of shame as a deterrent.

    On average, American families are much weaker than they once were and the social response is to spend on symptoms instead of instilling morality that leads to social efficiency. Heck, the modern Chinese system instills much more morality and efficiency than much of the modern American system.

    It will be an interesting year. The European Union is the quintessential democratic based set of welfare states. If the EU continues to decline this coming year as it has done this past year, then the whole concept of whether democratic welfare states can remain self-sufficient for more than a century will become a hotly debated question. If Europe continues to decline, the US politics may swing toward more pay-as-you-go mentality, but we are probably doomed to follow Europe over the financial cliff in the long run.

    • Dex

      And the society that listened to that weekly moral message was more immoral than the one we have now.

      • nhthinker

        What proof of that do you have?

        Is Greek society more moral because they overspent on social welfare?

        • Dex

          We no longer condone the immoral and shameful practice of treating racial minorities as second-class citizens. That is my proof.

        • paul_gs

          It is always a bit fatuous to claim we are more moral then the preceding generation.

          Our wholesale casual termination of healthy pregnancies year after year goes down in my books as a huge tragedy and crime. And the diminution of stable family structures over several decades also stands as a great reversal in society over previous generations.

        • Dex

          White supremacy, abortion, divorce – only one of these three things is immoral.

        • paul_gs

          All three are or can be immoral. Abortion remains the most unethical though.

  • Graychin

    Mr. Frum, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this thoughtful essay. You are the rare conservative whose ideology does not rise to the level of dogma, who is willing to accept and evaluate evidence that contradicts ideology, and to actually change his mind when facts trump ideology.

    From reading this website I have learned this about you: you were a liberal young man who became a doctrinaire conservative after reading The Gulag Archipelago at a very young age. Since then, little by little, you have been moving away gradually from the beliefs that you adopted as a result of that reading. You were disillusioned by the bitter partisanship of the WSJ editorial page for which you wrote. Your “right man” turned out to be wrong – very wrong. Although you still cling bitterly to the political party of your younger, more callow days, your grip seems to be weakening.

    In my comments I have mocked people who became lifelong libertarians after reading Ayn Rand in adolescence. I have said that when a book changes someone’s life at age 14, he really should re-evaluate that life-changing moment from time to time to make sure he got it right – a bit of maturity is a very good thing that brings wisdom to the young. I might say the same of someone whose life was changed by a reading of The Gulag Archipelago.

    In any case, we progressives will continue to cheer for you as your mind struggles to escape from the Dark Side. Someday I hope to read more from you about what is good for America and her people, and less about what is good for Movement Conservatism and the Republican Party. Perhaps you can agree that those two interests frequently do not coincide. Country first – remember?

    • margoharris1

      +1

    • jakester

      The Gulag Archipelago was a real adolescent eye opener for me too. I still believe the Commies, in a fashion, were worse than the Nazis. The Nazis were upfront about being total pigs while the Commies adopted then tarnished so many good concepts to serve a bad cause.

      • Graychin

        Being horrified by Stalinism is hardly a sensible reason to become a Republican ideologue.

  • Sinan

    This is what political discourse should be about and it should play a more dominant role in our national politics. But it doesn’t and it won’t so while DF waxes poetic about the new conservative platform, mind numbingly stupid voters and candidates are running this nation into the ground. I want to make one observation which should be front and center in any discussion about the new world order. Money is an illusion and a tool which we all agree to use in order to satisfy our needs, wants and desires. It is no different than a ball of clay which can be shaped into any form whatsoever. If we really want to move to the next level of human achievement, we are going to need to get a handle on money and the creation and manipulation of money. There is a book out there that should be read by everyone in the USA interested in politics. It is called “Debt, the first 5000 years”. A real eye opener.

  • margoharris1

    Although there are a lot of things in Frum’s analysis that I could comment on the “means” testing is one I am particularly against. Once we make these social safety net programs only for the poor they will be destroyed and dismantled without any compunction. Once it is for the poor and “undeserving” that will be the end of them. They need to be available for everyone to keep them important and justifiable. IMO

    • LauraNo

      +1
      The only thing saving Medicare presently is the fact it serves mostly white, middle-class people. Who will fight vehemently to keep it, until the day it is perceived to be for the poor and/or minorities at which point they will cut off their nose to spite their face.

      • paul_gs

        Of course it mostly serves white folks, they are the majority of the population. And the rest of your comment makes no sense whatsover, except to fabricate a gratuitous attempt at labelling others (but of course, never yourself) racist.

        • roman1969

          I am not sure what “fabricate a gratuitous attempt” means exactly but I think you are missing the point (purposely or not) of what margoharris and laurano are trying to say. They mean that a program that helps only old, sick and poor will be much more vulnerable to cuts if the program doesn’t benefit everybody. It makes perfect sense to me. Of course, those programs would be vulnerable as it is nobody will dare say- make cuts to medicare and ss. They have convinced me that “means-testing” is not the way to go. Side note-I love it when white people throw around the ‘racist’ term right away if they feel slighted- while people of color are always just “playing the race card” when they bring up race.

        • paul_gs

          The only whites throwing around the racist label (and constantly and gratuitously at that) are white progressives.

        • jakester

          Paul,
          I don’t think her argument rests on racism. Her point is valid, The middle class will fight for a program that they will or at least can benefit from themselves a lot more than one aimed at the distant poor or a minority group. That seems eminently logical since many more people will fight for things that benefit themselves, families, friends and neighbors than some distant different group.

          As well as your quip that only progressives throw the racist label around was belied by yourself in the same thread as well as the fools who latched on to Herman Cain.

  • margoharris1

    Although there are a lot of things in Frum’s analysis that I could comment on the “means” testing is one I am particularly against. Once we make these social safety net programs only for the poor they will be destroyed and dismantled without any compunction. Once it is for the poor and “undeserving” that will be the end of them. They need to be available for everyone to keep them important and justifiable. IMO

    • paul_gs

      We do lots of means testing in Canada for various programs. It is the only way to direct the appropriate aid to the people who need it and to keep the costs of programs reasonable.

      Health care is the exception but most every other program offered has certain eligibility requirements. How can a government offer everything to everybody?

      • Hunter1

        Government can when the “everybody” who receive the benefits are the very same people who pay for the benefits (e.g., social security, medicare, unemployment compensation).

        Particularly offensive are the complaints about social security. For decades the contributions of employers and employees into social security have produced net surpluses (i.e., revenues exceeded payouts and administrative costs) that were then swept-up into the general fund. Now, after just one year (one year!) of benefits exceeding contributions, conservatives are looking for an opportunity to gut the program. Their latest attempt to scam us is “means testing.”

      • Jack E. Lope

        Means testing creates a very-high marginal “tax” rate – if we define “tax” loosely enough to include the reduction of government benefits. Frum’s example of the person earning $19,999 who will lose medical coverage at $20,000 is extreme, but illustrates the point – that last dollar might be taxed at 75,000% to 380,000% – far from the flat tax that is among the other principles put forward by Levin.

        (I came up with 75,000% by taking that dollar and dividing it into the $750 fine/tax for an individual not having medical coverage. That fine/tax is probably lower for someone making so little money, but it is also doubled if they have dependents. I came up with the 380,000% with a sloppy internet search that led me to an estimate of $3,800 per year to cover an individual with no known health problems. Your fine or premium may vary.)

        Means testing of other social benefits also has high penalties, and it is difficult to reconcile calls for a flat tax with means testing that leads to higher effective tax rates than everyone else. Shall the marginal tax rate for people on the verge of rising out of poverty be higher than everyone else’s?

  • pnwguy

    David:

    Apart from your myopia about most all things regarding Israel, I find you to be a fairly open thinker. It’s one reason I like visiting this site regularly. You are willing to challenge both your party’s and your own beliefs, with the light of reason. That has become increasing rare in public life, and especially now with the GOP.

    I get the feeling that though you have considerable wealth at your disposal, you have a genuine interest in helping those less fortunate – at least those who aren’t poor because their own dysfunctional behaviors. And you think that collectively through government policy, the poor and middle class “matter” and their plight should be a pro-active concern of government. That sure puts you outside of the mainstream of the Republicans these days.

    Oddly, of the GOP candidates in the current presidential circus, only Santorum seems to mentioning the issues of economic mobility, the loss of middle class jobs, and other pertinent issues that broad spectrum of American society faces. Of course, his social policies are so abhorrent to most that he snuffs out much credibility. But please, David, don’t let the Republicans ignore this issue in 2012. Keep the issue as one to be addressed with real policy answers, not the fairy tale dogma that is the party line these days. Stand tough and keep using your soapbox to get some answers on the record.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    Frum wrote: “Those are words I would not have written 15 years ago.”

    As I’ve written many times before, there’s a big difference between getting it right and getting it right the first time. While I’m happy that Frum now recognizes the errors of his ways, I’m frustrated and angry that he and his fellow GOPers had to first break the country before Frum could recognize just how foolish their policies were.

    Frum also wrote: “Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans.”

    Actually, middle-class incomes did not improve at all from the start of the Reagan presidency until now, except for during the Clinton years. It is grossly misleading to suggest that GOP policies had been a success up until the financial meltdown in 2008. GOP policies have been a bust for the middle class ever since Reagan.

    There were many Democrats and others on the Left who argued during the Reagan and both Bush presidencies that many of the GOP’s policies were destructive to the middle class and to the country as a whole. Maybe we ought to now heed the advice of those who’ve been right all along before we follow the advice of someone who only recently became capable of recognizing how catastrophic GOP policies have been.

    • nhthinker

      European middle-incomers are having the same problem…even though Europe has implemented all of Frum’s and the liberals goals in social welfare.
      Does Frum or the liberals have an explanation of why Europe does not work for the middle-class?

      http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/business/worldbusiness/01middle.html?pagewanted=all

      For Europe’s Middle-Class, Stagnant Wages Stunt Lifestyle

      • SpartacusIsNotDead

        Thanks for the link. Even though this 2008 article provided only anecdotes and no actual statistics, it was still quite interesting and thought-provoking. Many of us on the Left do hold the belief that middle-class income earners in Western Europe have fared better over the past 30 years than those in the U.S., but I’ve never actually seen any statistical data that corroborate that belief.

        I tried to find articles that would provide actual statistical comparisons and the only thing that I could find quickly is this data on Bruce Bartlett’s site, which is two years more recent than the NYT link:

        http://capitalgainsandgames.com/blog/bruce-bartlett/1390/purchasing-power-parity

        Based on the data on Bartlett’s site, it seems fairly clear that middle-income growth since 1980 has been significantly greater in Western Europe than in the U.S.

        I guess Frum and the liberals don’t need to explain the anecdotes from your 2008 article after all.

        • nhthinker

          Bartlett’s article does not even mention the middle class.

          Chaitt does not either, but his article is more illuminating.
          The US created and absorbed a 30% increase in population since 1980- Europe- practically zero.

          There is nothing in any of the articles that provides any evidence contrary to the original NYT article I quoted…In fact, Chaitt point about the lack of population growth in Europe seems to reenforce the idea of Europe’s middle class feeling squeezed.

          We could compare the number of Europeans that immigrated to the US as compared to the number that went the other way as a measure of whether European social democracies are the Nirvana that liberals like to delude about.

        • SpartacusIsNotDead

          nhthinker wrote: “Bartlett’s article does not even mention the middle class.”

          From the link on Bartlett’s cite:

          “From what I’ve seen of the responses, Drum, Chait, Krugman, Western European income per capita grew just about as fast as American since 1980, but I would guess that American hours worked grew much faster, thus we had slower growth in income per hour than Western Europe, maybe much slower. ”

          The faster growth in income per hour, combined with the lower degree of income inequality (also cited in the link), strongly leads to the conclusion that the median income rose much higher in Western Europe than in the U.S. Consequently, there doesn’t seem to be any question about whose middle class fared better, which may be why you then turned to a comparison of immigration rates, which again undermines your argument.

          There is no doubt that the U.S. has a much higher level of immigration. However, the higher level of immigration is a product of the comparative ease with which someone can immigrate into the U.S., both legally and illegally, as compared to Western Europe. There certainly is no evidence that Western Europe suffers from a lack of immigrants who desire to move there. It’s just harder to immigrate to Western Europe than to the U.S.

          Moreover, there are many studies that draw (or attempt to draw) a link between high levels of immigration to the U.S. and stagnant middle-class incomes. If I’m not mistaken, I believe this is one of the main GOP arguments against illegal immigration and immigration of low-income workers.

        • SpartacusIsNotDead

          nhthinker also wrote: “We could compare the number of Europeans that immigrated to the US as compared to the number that went the other way as a measure of whether European social democracies are the Nirvana that liberals like to delude about.”

          I don’t know if you intended it or not, but this statement sounds like just an ordinary case of resentment. Other than conservative talk-radio hosts and disgruntled poor and middle-class whites, I’ve never heard anyone refer to European social democracies as Nirvana. Neither I nor all the Liberals with whom I drink lattes think of those societies as Nirvana. We do, however, recognize that there are other places in the world that do some things better, much, much better, than the U.S. This is not some unfounded wish that we hold; it seems to be a fact that is backed up by the empirical data.

          There are, of course, some things that the U.S. does better than any other place, but advancing the middle-class over the past 30 years simply isn’t one of them. I find it strange that many people on the Right refuse to accept that despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary.

        • nhthinker

          “We could compare the number of Europeans that immigrated to the US as compared to the number that went the other way as a measure of whether European social democracies are the Nirvana that liberals like to delude about.”

          I don’t know if you intended it or not, but this statement sounds like just an ordinary case of resentment.

          How in god’s name does that sound like “resentment”? There are plenty of latte sipping pro-European Socialists on this side of the pond that advocate that Europe is better while plenty of Europeans are still immigrating to the US (both legally and illegally). If it sounds like anything, that would be ridicule or contempt, but not resentment. Resentment would imply that I had a desire for something that you have. (Now I can understand how the hubris of an elitist might cause the misinterpretation of ridicule for resentment: so my apologies if I hit a blind spot.)

          And again- Bartlett’s article did NOT mention Europe’s middle class- a point you failed to acknowledge. If you do have any actual data about Europe’s middle class as opposed to your personal interpretations of aggregate data on all income classes then, please, provide it for all of us… Without that, I’ll prefer to treat the NYT version of the characterization of the European middle class as more instructive than yours.

          And in fact, you never even attempted to answer my sole question:
          “Does Frum or the liberals have an explanation of why Europe does not work for the middle-class?”

        • Jack E. Lope

          I am neither Frum nor teh libruls, but the neocon/neoliberal monetary policies that came with the European Monetary Union have had an effect in Europe similar to the tight-money policies in these United States.

          Now, what’s nhthinker’s explanation for the relative lack-of-wage-stagnation during the Clinton Administration, followed by a return-to-Republican trend thereafter?

      • Jack E. Lope

        The linked article reminds me: what ever happened to “the wave of inflation sweeping the globe” that it mentioned?

        That article was published in May 2008, three months before a godless-communist Muslim anticolonial was nominated as the Democratic Party candidate for President.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    nhthinker, what is your interpretation of the two points that Bartlett’s site makes (namely, that income per hour grew faster in Western Europe and income inequality is greater in Western Europe)? Do not those two facts lead to the inescapable conclusion that the median income also grew faster in Western Europe?

    Maybe I’m wrong and that’s not the inescapable conclusion so could you give me the more appropriate conclusion?

    As for your question, I answered it by disproving its premise. Of course, if you can come to a different, more reasonable conclusion from the data at Bartlett’s site, then I would have to revisit your question.

    • SpartacusIsNotDead

      Correction: Income inequality is greater in the U.S. than in Western Europe.

  • nhthinker

    Part of Manzi’s response to Chait:

    http://theamericanscene.com/2010/01/06/more-reactions-to-keeping-america-s-edge

    I’ll start with the change in U.S and European shares of global GDP, using Mr. Chait’s preferred (and entirely reasonable) definitions: a common start date of 1980, and the EU15 as a proxy for Western Europe. According to the US Economic Research Service Macroeconomic Dataset; GDP Shares by Country and Region Data Table; 11/4/09 update, the U.S. share of global GDP was 26.2% in 1980, and grew very slightly to 26.7% in 2009. This is a net share change of +2% (1 – 26.7/26.2) for the U.S. over this period. Germany, as another example, had a global share of 8.2% in 1980, which declined to 5.85% in 2009. This is a net share change of -29% for Germany over this period.

    According to this data source, the net share changes from 1980 to 2009 are:
    [b]
    U.S. +2%

    EU15 -22%
    Of which,
    Germany -29%
    France -20%
    Italy -32%[/b]

    Now I’ll show almost the same analysis with a different data source – the OECD Publication The World Economy: Historical Statistics – that only has data through 2006. (In general, these calculations show slightly worse performance for both the U.S. and Europe as compared to the rest of the world, but almost identical U.S. vs. Europe performance). This table will show the change in share of global GDP between 1980 and 2006 for a core group of 12 European economies identified by the publication, plus each of the “big three” continental social democracies individually, plus the U.S.

    Net share changes from 1980 to 2006 are:

    [b]U.S. -7%

    Euro 12 -29%
    Of which,
    Germany -37%
    France -28%
    Italy -34%[/b]

    However you slice it, the same observation holds true: European countries as a whole, and especially the major “social market” economies of Germany, France and Italy, have lost 20% – 30% of their share of global GDP versus the U.S.
    ——————

    So your assertion that the middle class is better because you quote an average rising is somehow “proof” that supposedly invalidates the NYT article? (Bartlett nor Klugman nor Chait were quoting medians- only averages) Seemingly it was you and you alone that fabricated conclusions about the medians.

    • indy

      That’s because you didn’t account for changes in population there brainiac. When normalized, the PPP adjusted GDP growth per capita is similar between the EU-15 and the US since 1980. Pretty much exactly what you would expect from similar cultures with similar technology bases.

      The key to answering the question about the middle class is how did that growth get divided up among the various income groups? I have no idea about the EU-15, but given what I know about the US since then, I’d blindly bet they aren’t at all similar.

    • indy

      Forgot to post the data:

    • SpartacusIsNotDead

      nhtinker wrote: “Seemingly it was you and you alone that fabricated conclusions about the medians.”

      I didn’t think it would be necessary for me to explain this in such detail, but I see that I was wrong. First of all, as Indy ably demonstrated, GDP did not grow faster in the U.S.

      Secondly, your entire post focuses exclusively on GDP growth while ignoring the distribution within society of that additional GDP. That is why I asked you what conclusion you draw from BOTH of the points on Bartlett’s site. The original issue was not whose GDP grew faster, but whose middle class fared better over the last 30 years.

      In order to determine whose middle class benefited the most from growth in GDP it is necessary to examine how that additional GDP was distributed. Your post ignored the entire question of income inequality, which according to Bartlett’s site is worse in the U.S. than in Western Europe. Since income is distributed more evenly in Western Europe than in the U.S. more of the additional GDP went to the larger middle class than to the smaller group of wealthy people. And, since more of the additional GDP in Western Europe went to the larger middle class than to the smaller group of wealthy people, the median income in Western Europe necessarily rose faster than did the median income in the U.S. And, if the median income in Western Europe rose faster then, by definition, the middle class in Europe fared better than did the middle class in the U.S.

      • nhthinker

        The entire point was about whether the middle class was doing well in the EU.
        You then fabricated assertions about the medians that you have yet to retract or provide evidence for.
        And you have continued to ignore being called on it. Your assertion that because income inequality is less that you can make deterministic projections about the median is pure folly.

        The data also shows that the US provided more opportunity for immigrants and offspring than the EU counterparts and you have yet to show a single bit of data that goes counter to the original NYT article I referenced.

        And as to: “First of all, as Indy ably demonstrated, GDP did not grow faster in the U.S.”: that is CLEARLY a false statement. GDP per capita was about the same but the US was clearing chosen as a more inviting location for GDP growth, additional offspring and additional immigration. (I.e., the Land of opportunity).

        But thanks for playing.

        • SpartacusIsNotDead

          So at this point I’m not sure if you are truly having difficulty keeping up with the conversation or if pride and tribalism prevent you from conceding the point. On one hand, your moniker and grammatically correct sentences lead me to believe you’ve followed the logic, but your pride and tribalism prevent you from conceding. Yet, Indy derisively called you “brainiac” and I recall many posts in which Otto and others have criticized your intellect so I’m not sure you have followed the logic, but I’ll try one more time.

          The issue was whose middle class has fared better over the past 30 years. You provided a link that gave a couple of anecdotes about a few middle-class Europeans who were struggling. I never claimed NO middle-class Europeans were struggling, but I posited that statistical data would show that the European middle-class as a whole had done better than the U.S. middle class. I provided a link that showed that (1) Euro GDP per capita grew faster (a point that was corroborated by the data Indy provided), and (2) Euro income is distributed more evenly than U.S. income. I then walked you through the logic that leads to the inescapable conclusion that more growth combined with more evenly distributed income necessarily means a higher median income, which in turn, necessarily means middle-class incomes grew faster in Europe than in the U.S.

          Your argument that middle-class incomes rose faster in the U.S. than Europe is based on the claim that (1) the data from Indy, Bartlett, Krugman et al is wrong, and (2) more people want to immigrate to the U.S. than to Europe. According to you, income distribution is apparently completely irrelevant to middle-class incomes. I’m hopeful that if you slow down and think this through again you will come to the same conclusion I did.

          If you still come to a different conclusion then I would politely ask that you ask a local 10th grader to help you understand what is going on here.

        • nhthinker

          Your ad hominem attacks reveal you really have no way to support your contentions.
          And also, I never claimed that middle class US wages rose faster.

          It was you that made claims that the NYT article was actually not indicative of the EU middle class in general and to do it, you made claims about the income medians in Europe using two facts:
          1) less income skew (between the highest and the lowest: but not revealing of the quintile distribution)
          2) consistent growth in GDP per capita

          Hypothetically: What if almost ALL gains in income were distributed in the top two quintiles of EU population? If that were the case, then the median real income in the EU could have actually gone down while the GDP per capita actually went up.
          You have not presented any data that would disprove that type of change in income distribution.

          Seemingly, you were never trained in making logical analysis of data, or your mind is just too muddled by your politics to be rational.

        • Jack E. Lope

          In the future, to be fair, you should set the goalposts at the beginning of play. And leave them there.

          The dismissive “But thanks for playing” undercuts your ability to use “Your ad hominem attacks reveal you really have no way to support your contentions”.

          Particularly when that very same post end on this high ground:
          “Seemingly, you were never trained in making logical analysis of data, or your mind is just too muddled by your politics to be rational”.

        • nhthinker

          So you are silent on whether you agree or disagree that Spartacus used irrational logic with regard to the data and medians and are complaining that I interspersed ad hominem attacks (only in retaliation) with rational argument on how he was misusing the data?

          OK, I guess I can accept that I shouldn’t use ad hominem attacks even when someone else is using them. I should just repeated explain their errors in continuously simpler postings until they recognize it. I should not mete out any retaliatory sarcasm.

          As to my “Seemingly…” statement, honestly, do you have a relatistic alternative explanation of why Spartacus did not recognize his mistake after I pointed it out to him multiple times?)

          As to moving the goalposts- I asked one question and referred to the NYT article. I then focused on Spartacus’s irrational argument about medians that he tried to use to discount the anecdotal evidence in the NYT article. That is not moving the goal posts: at least, not to rational people.

  • defmn

    As a Canadian I will refrain from commenting on the Republican/Democrat cat fight since my interest in American politics is fairly limited.

    I am intrigued, however, by the “left/right” dichotomy. A subject currently enjoying a great deal of press in Canada as well.

    The design of the modern liberal democracy was based upon two principles – freedom and equality. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that while the right prefers freedom the left leans towards equality. This is obviously the short version but it is not at all unreasonable to view the differences between Canada and the U.S.A. as one country continually choosing freedom and the other choosing equality when these two principles collide – as they very often do.

    The easiest way to sort through current events – generally referred to as politics – is to understand that all disagreements in democracy are one of three kinds. They are either about equality, or freedom, or about the relationship between freedom and equality.

    A healthy democracy is the one that finds the correct balance and manages to maintain it. It is a mythical creature – akin to Plato’s ideas – but it is in this light that it is easy to see that always choosing freedom over equality is just as dangerous to a democracy as always choosing equality over freedom. The former leads to oligarchy which is where the USA has been headed for some time and the latter leads to tyranny since at some point the strong will refuse to bow down to the lowest common denominator which is, of course, the practical end point of equality.

    All of this preamble is meant as a backdrop for explaining political conversions. At a certain point the ideologies of the left and/or right move the balance too far out of whack. At that point reasonable people see that their efforts have been ‘too successful’ and ‘change sides’ in order to try and find that mythical centre. Believing that a conservative cannot support social programmes is simply incorrect. It betrays a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word.

    • Jack E. Lope

      Thank you! If I had followed in the footsteps of my Father and his Father, I would be a left-leaning Republican at this advanced stage of my life. However, since the mid-1970s, I have seen the discourse move so far right that there is no such thing as a Left in the GOP.

      Some time in the last 30-or-so years, the GOP stopped being about governance. I think Gerald Ford was the last Republican President to take the job seriously.

  • indy

    The design of the modern liberal democracy was based upon two principles – freedom and equality.

    Depends on what you mean by equality. When I use it, I generally mean ‘equality in opportunity’ and ‘equality in the application of law’. When defined this way, the two principles are not at all in opposition, but are complimentary.

    • zaybu

      @indy

      You’re assuming that everyone was born with the same physical and mental capabilities from an equally socio-economic background. That isn’t the case in the real world.

      • indy

        Huh? How am I assuming that? The only way that ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are in opposition is if you assume that ‘equality’ means enforcing equality in outcomes. ‘All men are created equal’ is not the same thing as all men will grow to be equal.

        • Xunzi Washington

          Indy –

          While I agree with your general point about equality of opportunity, assuring this equality is surely in tension with negative freedoms. After all, you do have to tax people to assure that resources are redirected at the institutions required to level out equality of opportunity. After all, that’s the libertarian’s fundamental gripe. I don’t agree with the libertarian that freedom is always the trump card (as in this case I believe it is not) but surely they are right that (negative) freedom and equality of opportunity are in tension. I think the only way to you can claim that they are not would be to claim that “freedom” includes positive (second generation) freedoms. But these are the very things that libertarians think don’t exist.

        • indy

          Ah. OK. Yes, in the abstract that is surely true. I was confining myself to considerations of the words as they might apply under the Constitution. Freedom in that context has a much narrower definition.

        • indy

          Also, I should clarify: I didn’t mean ‘equality of opportunity’ in the sense of always devoting the exact same societal resources to every person irrespective of ability (which, I’m afraid I actually think is wasteful—I’m completely fine with competing for them), but ‘equal opportunity’ in the Jeffersonian sense of no special privileges for any group or groups.

        • zaybu

          indy: “‘equal opportunity’ in the Jeffersonian sense of no special privileges for any group or groups.”

          Yes, in Jefferson’s times, what prevailed in those days was the European style of a ruling class – aristocrats and their place in society for being born into that priliveged class. And so the founding fathers were weary to develop a society along those lines. But also, we need to remind ourselves that those with physical or mental disabilities were hidden in the closet in those days, and were certainly not in Jefferson’s mind when the constitution was written. Today’s government’s role in our everyday life is far more complex than Jefferson ever imagined. Not everyone is able to compete equally under the presumed “equality in opportunity”. Not everyone will benefit equally from the wealth that the country will produce. And certainly, not every millionaire made it on his/her own. “Giving back to society” is as equally important as “making it big”.

        • defmn

          I don’t think anybody believes that everybody is equal in any real sense although that is the claim in Hobbes’ Leviathan – the book that wrote the book on the modern liberal democracy.

          Without getting into that, however, it is fairly easy to see how a failure by government to intrude into the personal lives of its citizenry to some degree – taxation being the easy example – results in natural differences of talent as well as starting points creating economic disparities that are dangerous to the illusion of the common good.

          As the middle class shrinks so does democracy. I don’t think you can have it any other way. Extreme wealth is as dangerous to democracy as extreme poverty is if those conditions affect too large a percentage of the population.

  • Rob_654

    The Republican Party is the Party that champions Christianity and the Lord Jesus – all they have to do on each bullet point is ask “What would Jesus do?” and answer it honestly and they will have their answer.

    Of course the problem for Republicans is that what Jesus would do is in direct opposition to what Republican doctrine holds for solving most problems.

    • anniemargret

      As the old saying goes…”the only thing wrong with Christianity is the Christians.’

      Never in my entire life have I seen a more politicized religion, nothing to what I remotely learned as a child growing up within the Church. Christ’s teachings have fallen on deaf ears, when the Republicans started to believe that God Himself is a Republican.

      No amount of shame will force this issue to go back to its pristine innocent roots of truth – the truth removed from political deceit and manipulation.

      • Jack E. Lope

        I think the God Who Is Republican must be an Old-Testament God. As you notice, pre-Christ.

        I get in trouble with my belief that All Religions Are Valid And True For Their Believers.

        Thus, according to my system, there really is a Valhalla for Vikings, Hindus can reach Moksha, Zoroastrians will eventually reach Paradise, Buddhists can achieve Nirvana, Catholics may end up in Limbo, Jainists can be free of destructive Karmas, Pharisees and Unitarian Universalists can get to Heaven and Evangelical Christians can go to Hell.

  • AnBr

    A couple of points in the discussion.
    zaybu // Dec 31, 2011 at 10:25 am

    The real failure is the failure of applying one particular economic policy: after an economic downturn and the government has accumulated a debt, in the next upturn, that debt must be paid off. Since WW2, we have consistently failed to do so.

    As a percentage of GDP, we were paying down the huge debt incurred from The Great Depression and World War II, right up to the early eighties when they decided debt did not matter and deficit spending exploded with Reaganomics. As you noted, it didn’t start to get under control again until Clinton.

    defmn // Jan 1, 2012 at 11:47 am

    It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that while the right prefers freedom the left leans towards equality.

    While mostly true about equality, it depends on which rights you are talking about. Even with the most ardent chest thumping of support of the Tenth Amendment by the right includes wanting states to have the right to limit certain rights of its citizens.

    • zaybu

      “As a percentage of GDP, we were paying down the huge debt incurred from The Great Depression and World War II,”

      Well, we never did pay the debt, it just grew smaller and smaller in terms of percentage as the economy grew bigger and bigger. That was alright for a while, but then you need to look at the scenario when the economy is no longer outpacing the debt, and that started out as you pointed out correctly with the Reagan administration.

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