On April 17, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote on the opinion page of the August New York Times:
Historically, the most successful welfare states (think Scandinavia) have depended on ethnic solidarity to sustain their tax-and-transfer programs. But the working-age America of the future will be far more diverse than the retired cohort it’s laboring to support. Asking a population that’s increasingly brown and beige to accept punishing tax rates while white seniors receive roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they paid in (the projected ratio in the 2030s) promises to polarize the country along racial as well as generational lines.
There’s no reason to think that this supposed northern latitude dependence on “ethnic solidarity” is anything other than a figment of Douthat’s confused mind, but it is a way of leading into his erroneous and demagogic thesis. Take the business about the beneficiaries of Medicare being “white.” As one of darker hue in the program, I can refute that. The many elderly single or widowed African American women, who retired with little or no savings income and whose numbers grow each day, might find the assertion insulting. Actually, black and brown people are more likely than others to need Medicare.
And, if there is any reason to anticipate polarization along racial or generational lines it might be found in resentment among future African American and Latino working people retiring – as they do everyday – without Medicare (or Social Security) as a result of decisions hatched in 2011 by special “deficit” commissions meeting in secret, or by some all-male, all-white and all-prosperous “gang” of six politicians.
As far as “punishing tax rates” are concerned, Douthat got it all wrong. The figures he cites in the column are wrong and nobody is proposing any significant tax increases on the wages that most black and brown working people receive now or in the future.
“Douthat overstated the median income for a family of four by more than 25 percent,” wrote economist Dean Baker April 17. “But hey, it's for a good cause, he wants to keep taxes low.”
About Douthat’s “bizarre racial politics,” Baker wrote, “Given the wealthy's control over the media and its ability to promulgate untrue information, they may be able to direct racial hostility against retirees getting Social Security checks of $1,100 a month and who have access to decent health care. However, the more obvious direction of resentment would be against the wealthy who have rigged the deck to ensure that such a large share of the country's output comes to them.”
At Solon.com, columnist Joan Walsh called it “Ross Douthat's racial paranoia,” noting that his column “is often such a dizzying combination of purported rigorous logic and proud conservative bias as to be unreadable,” but “Every once in a while, though, he gives you a scary but important peek into the conservative psyche.” Referring to the word that began this column, she wrote April 18, “There's so much bias wrapped up in that paragraph, it's hard to unpack.”
“I think President Obama is smart to begin to talk more about our social compact with one another, as he did in his budget speech last Wednesday,” wrote Walsh. “Douthat seems to be saying we can't have a real social compact in a multiracial society; it only works in monochromatic Nordic societies. I think it would be the ultimate example of American exceptionalism to prove him wrong.”
True, but it’s not a done deal. I too found President Obama words on preserving Medicare and Medicaid and strengthening Social Security to be somewhat reassuring. However, those who would decimate these vital social programs in the name of deficit reduction haven’t given up. They plot at night while most of us are asleep.
This is what the President said February 25:
“We’ll have to bring down health care costs further, including in programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficits. I believe we should strengthen Social Security for future generations, and I think we can do that without slashing benefits or putting current retirees at risk.”
Not much wrong with that, assuming he means bringing down the expense of Medicare and Medicaid and not the programs themselves and that “I think” is not an expression of doubt. The real problem here is the way they do things in Washington these days and the way the White House has handled some important matters recently. The question is whether standing up for these programs is something Obama and his party is willing to go to the mat for or is the statement merely a negotiating position.
Here is what Obama said April 13:
Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.
… This is who we are. This is the America I know. We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments in our people and our country. To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t.
Strong words. But there is still the threat of a deal. With public opinion across the political spectrum clearly opposed to slashing the healthcare and retirement programs, any negotiated settlement would be undemocratic. But that doesn’t seem to deter the plotters. From the beginning their strategy has been to force through a “bipartisan plan” that will allow both sides immunity from attack from the other for undermining Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Last week, economist Robert Reich warned against the push to achieve the “middle ground” between the Ryan Republican plan and the Administration’s approach. ‘”We continue to hear that the Great Budget Debate has two sides: The President and the Democrats want to cut the budget deficit mainly by increasing taxes on the rich and reducing military spending, but not by privatizing Medicare,” he wrote. “On the other side are Paul Ryan, Republicans, and the right, who want cut the deficit by privatizing Medicare and slicing programs that benefit poorer Americans, while lowering taxes on the rich.
“The Republican plan shouldn’t be considered one side of a great debate,” continued Reich. “It shouldn’t be considered at all. Americans don’t want it. Which is why I get worried when I hear about so-called ‘bipartisan’ groups on Capitol Hill seeking a grand compromise, such as the Senate’s so-called ‘Gang of Six.’”
To the consternation of many Senate Democrats, one of those pushing the notion of splitting the difference in the search of a ‘middle ground” is Sen. Dick Durbin (D. Ill), a member of the ill-fated Simpson Bowles deficit commission and a “gang” member.
A deal is still what the powerful elite wants and expect to engineer. Douthat’s comment indicates how far some of them will sink to achieve it and Durbin’s equivocations are indicative of the lingering threat. As does what George Packer described in a recent New Yorker as Obama’s record of “giving things up before sitting down at the table.”
Keep in mind that this back room wheeling and dealing isn’t about a ten or 20 cent an hour raise or a percentage point tax increase. The negotiators themselves admit it’s about renegotiating the “social contract,” about curtailing or eliminating social gains it took centuries to achieve and ushering in a new era wherein the lives of working people become more precarious and the wealth of the well-to-do more secure. That it hasn’t happened yet is primarily the result of people pushing back. Keep on pushing.