Monday, June 04, 2018

Why doesn't the US get anything done anymore?

It's easy to lament apparent stasis in this country. We used to be able to build the interstate system and go to the moon. Nowadays, in my own 'hood, it took us 24 years to replace a bridge (the Bay one) proved unsound by an earthquake in 1989. We seem to have lost our get-up-and-go.

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University libertarian economist and all-round public intellectual, has explanations, outlined in The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. Since the guy knows something about everything and offers -- highly selective -- facts to buttress his assertions, the book is good mental exercise.

Essentially his thesis is that our society is too comfortable, averse to change, unwilling to experiment, stuck. Well maybe. There is data to show that people don't move as much as they did in earlier epochs, that many measures of economic growth and perhaps living standards have been flat for decades (except for the one percent), that government has a hard time accomplishing much.

But I remain unconvinced that Cowen has been willing to look at all the implications of the trends which distress him. I'll just throw some shade at a few points.
  • Perhaps students out of high school and college don't leave their parents' households these days because we've made college debt unaffordable. That could be solved with free college if we really believed that young people and the country would benefit from college. That's how we got free public primary school education -- at one time we decided we needed it and made it happen.
  • Maybe it is time to develop an economic framework that does not assume unlimited growth? In our bodies, unlimited cell growth is called cancer. It kills. Might Cowen's precious free market economy not be the eschaton, but rather a primitive way of organizing human societies that is ecologically unsustainable and which our successors will overcome? We don't now know how to better produce and allocate resources, but neoliberal capitalism is a human invention, not a social framework imposed by a Creator. We might just figure out how to do better.
  • Cowen convincingly reports that only 10 percent of government spending is really subject to Congressional allocation. The rest goes either to benefits we've decided make for a decent community -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, etc. -- or what we call Defense which means war fighting capacity. Horrors -- if we try to do anything that challenges "complacent" fiddling at the margins, we'll create an unsustainable national debt. That's just bullshit. He never once points out that government income is elastic: we decide its size by deciding how much to tax. There's money in this country, lots of it in the possession of people who already have enough for a good life. Taxes can redistribute considerable amounts without serious harms. In fact, whenever even the center left, the Democratic Party, has political power, we do redistribute wealth moderately and the debt is lowered. Thinking about the country's budget situation without taking the power to tax into account is intellectual malpractice.
Cowen is a smart, glib, guy who has a way with disparate information, but I can't call him wise. This is a not a book to take on faith, but I did find it good intellectual exercise, as, I suspect, did Cowen.

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