March 19, 2005

Column 2005-3-19 Commentary

It appears that David Brooks was too lazy to come up with a new column topic for this column, so he just read the criticisms of his previous column, figured out a way to circumvent them, and rewrote it. The last column was too obviously partial to the Republicans, so Brooks works harder on hiding his partisanship. The last column lamented the failure of Social Security reform, but Social Security really isn't a problem that requires immediate intervention, so Brooks instead talks about the coming crisis in entitlements. Finally, the solution to the problem that Brooks obviously favored in the last column, privatizing Social Security, would not actually help, so this time Brooks doesn't even propose a solution, settling for a prophecy that someone who has a solution will eventually show up. The result is one of Brooks's sneakiest columns, where it is very important that the reader not simply analyze what Brooks does say but also keep a close watch on what he does not say.

For example, Brooks talks of two waves combining to cause vast problems for America, the two waves being entitlement spending and political polarization. While political polarization is certainly a fact of politics at the moment, it is hardly of the importance of the coming growth in entitlement spending. Rapidly increasing health care costs are going to be a fact for some time to come due to steady increases in life expectancy and constant increases in what medicine can treat (or at least, so we predict by extrapolation). Political polarization is a function of the views of the voters and could change at any time. Brooks may seriously believe that the current atmosphere of polarization is unlikely to change anytime soon, but the real reason for his making it one of the two waves is that he can shift some of the blame for the partisan deadlock afflicting politics today on to the Democrats from the Republicans and still appear even-handed. What he does not say, of course, is why there is so much polarization in politics, because he does not want to admit that it is the result of a decade-long Republican effort. He does not talk about the scorched-earth tactics of the Republicans who refused to even consider a compromise on Clinton's health-care plan. He ignores the anti-Clinton witch hunt of 1996-2000. He does not mention the profoundly un-democratic fashion in which the House Republicans run the House of Representatives. He leaves out the Republicans' unprecedented mid-decade redistricting efforts in Texas, Colorado, and now Georgia. No mention is made of how Bush consistently refused to hold up his end of deals with Democrats on bills such as No Child Left Behind, or of the Republicans' bitter attacks on those who actually make deals with them. Instead, he simply presents political polarization as a fait accompli, and then proceeds to chide both parties for being so polarized, allowing him to appear evenhanded even as he heaps far more blame on the Democrats than they deserve. In exactly the same manner, Brooks decries "the emergence of rigid donor and activist bases in each party that use their power to inflict Stalinist party-line orthodoxy on potentially independent leaders," but again fails to give the whole story. In reality, such a rigid base is a very recent development in the Democratic party and has arisen as a response to the effectiveness of the Republican establishment (which Brooks describes with remarkable accuracy). This can be seen most easily in the Republican party's dealings with what's left of its moderate wing, as exemplified by the constant attacks on Arlen Specter over the past year. Brooks's cries of polarization are simply attempts to deflect attention from the fact that the Republicans are not even trying to be bipartisan any more, and the Democrats are naturally reacting by becoming more insular.

The two examples of polarization he gives reinforce this point. First, he cites the Social Security debate again, calling it a "straightforward problem compared to Medicare" and wondering why Congress is deadlocked. Well, we've covered this ground a few times before, but once again, it's deadlocked because the Republicans refuse to consider any idea without private Social Security accounts, even though that would amount to phasing Social Security out and would not even solve the problem they claim to be worried about, as well as being massively unpopular. To blame the lack of progress with Social Security reform on political polarization is deeply misleading, giving as it does the effect of making it appear that the Democrats are just as responsible as the Republicans. His other example is the looming fight over judges, where again the accusation of polarization is used to suggest that blame should be assigned equally to both sides of the aisle. In fact, a glance at the records of the three judges that the Republicans are currently trying to get through the Senate suggests that the Democrats are perfectly correct to try to filibuster them and the blame here should accrue only to Republicans who are trying to push unqualified partisan hacks through to top judicial positions (and these judges were the ones who were thought to have the most bipartisan support).

But the most blatant example of how Brooks's faux evenhandedness really serves only to disguise his partisanship comes when he examines how both the Democrats and the Republicans will become obsolete as the coming entitlement crisis challenges their raisons d'etre. According to Brooks, the goal of the Democratic party is to pass "domestic programs that address national needs - like covering the uninsured." I guess I must just have missed John Kerry's fiery speech calling for national health insurance and making that the centerpiece of his campaign. Obviously, this is a massive oversimplification. Similarly, Brooks claims that Republicans "owe their recent victories to the popularity of tax cuts", and that this is "a core reason for being." Again, a massive oversimplification, and one that ought to make the reader suspicious. Why on earth would Brooks peddle oversimplifications so ridiculous that even he knows they are wrong? The answer is, again, to appear to be evenhandedly attacking both parties for fiscal irresponsibility, and thus to hide the sizable role that the Republican fiscal irresponsbility of the past four years has played in exacerbating the entitlements crisis. Once again, let me direct you to the following table of tax revenues as a percentage of GDP, where you can observe that 2004's tax revenues were the lowest percent of GDP since 1959, and 4.6 points lower than the 2000 value. It should also be noted that the war on Iraq has cost over $150 billion, and is almost certain to cost at least as much more before it is over. What does this have to do with the rapidly spiraling cost of entitlements? Well, one way in which Clinton hoped to address the problem was to save money by running surpluses. The saved money could be kept to help at least cushion the impact of increasing Medicare spending. Some of you may even recall Gore talking about a lockbox in the 2000 campaign, which meant that surpluses of the Medicare trust fund would be saved rather than spent, and running surpluses reduces the pressure to spend this money (and the surpluses from the Social Security trust fund as well). Furthermore, spending on interest on the federal debt is one of the major drivers of federal spending. In fact, according to this 2002 CBO fiscal policy paper, by 2075 interest spending would actually outstrip Medicare as a percentage of GDP. Since then, projections of Medicare spending have gone up considerably, but Bush has also cut taxes further, and the report assumes that revenues will stay at a steady 19% of GDP, when they have actually fallen to 16.3% of GDP. Thus, interest payments on the federal debt would present a fiscal challenge very close to that of Medicare by 2075. Therefore, a logical approach for the government to take would be to run surpluses in an attempt to at least prevent the debt from growing, and if possible to pay it down, and so reduce some of the funding pressure on future governments which will have to deal with Medicare expenses at a level at least five times today's. Alternatively, the government could take the Republican party approach and piss the surplus away with tax cuts so as to make the argument for getting rid of Medicare when it gets more expensive easier to make (see here for examples of Republicans realizing that the tax cut orthodoxy might not always be the best policy).

It should also be noted that Brooks's constant references to entitlements is, at the very least, intellecually dishonest, as the entitlement crisis is really a Medicare crisis, and to a slightly lesser extent a Medicaid crisis. Brooks talks about entitlements because the Republicans are determined to get rid of all of them, and so try to hide the fact that Social Security is really in relatively good shape (compared to Medicare and Medicaid) by combining all three programs into a single entity, "entitlements", which is in serious fiscal difficulty. For a nice illustration of this, see Chart D in this official summary of the 2004 Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds report. Medicare is projected to be 14% of GDP by 2078, more than twice Social Security's 6.6%. This represents an increase of 11.3% of GDP for Medicare and an increase of 2.3% of GDP for Social Security. Obviously, Medicare cost increases (and also Medicaid cost increases, which according to the above-cited CBO report are expected to increase more than fourfold to 5.3% of GDP) are driving the increase in entitlement spending, with Social Security, despite the all the sound and fury that has been expended on it over the past few months, really not being all that important. This, if nothing else, should convince all political observers that the Republican party is determined to destroy Social Security: if they were really worried about entitlement spending, they would be talking about Medicare, and certainly would not recently have passed a major increase in Medicare spending.

Interestingly, though, Brooks has no solution to propose. He talks vaguely of an "anti-politician" emerging to "crash through the current alignments and bust heads", of current politicians deciding to "reorient their careers" (whatever that means), and of Americans growing "even more disenchanted with the political status quo", but he has no ideas on how to deal with Medicare and Medicaid, or at least none he'd like to share. Or, more likely, none he really wants to think about. For the fact is that there are only two real options: either the steady advances of medicine will be available in the future only to the rich until they are no longer even close to cutting edge, or the government will have to raise taxes considerably so it can afford to pay for ever-improving medical treatments for the middle class and poor. Given that the non-rich outnumber the rich, and the idea of creating a medically-advantaged and longer-lived overclass is probably not one that the American people are likely to support en masse, the second option is almost certain to be the one that is chosen, likely through a series of small tax increases, especially on corporations and the rich. It is possible, of course, that medical advances and increases in longevity will slow down considerably, or even come to a stop, but most likely any such development would be associated with other changes which would render the argument over how large Medicare should be moot. Brooks is probably not too dumb to figure this out for himself, and naturally this revolts him to his Republican hack's tax-cut-loving core. So he consoles himself with visions of a Schwarzenegger or a Perot riding in a white horse to slash the size or government. More likely, though, is the arrival of another Roosevelt to preside over a new New Deal. At this point, even corporations like GM are calling on the government to take on more of the costs of health care, as these costs put them at a disadvantage compared to European and Japanese auto makers that don't have to pay for health care. Brooks does not propose a solution because even he can see what's coming, and he's hoping that if he doesn't think about it, it won't happen.

I can't think of a clever, or even not-so-clever, way to tie in a call for Brooks to be fired with the topic of this column. Jeez, won't the Times just fire him already? What exactly are they waiting for?