Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stubborn Facts

Gene Sperling, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, got in some hot water over the weekend for suggesting that entitlement cuts were on the table in a budget deal. He’s walked back his remarks since and, to be fair, it’s always hard to figure out what Sperling means. On the other hand, for several years his boss has snuck plugs for cutting benefits into any number of speeches, even Convention stem winders where they never fail to break the rhetorical momentum. It’s hardly unreasonable to assume that the administration not only buys into Centrist commonsense on this issue, but thinks that it’s worth alienating the Democratic base to try to act on it. If that’s true, Obama and his people have a lot of company, much of it not on the right. The necessity of reigning in Social Security and Medicare is always treated as something all reasonable people agree about by the reporters and talking heads of CNN and the Washington Post and other moderate media outlets.

If economics were a science like physics or astronomy or biology, it could be that the imperative need to cut entitlements was a natural fact like heliocentrism or the evolution of living things that only schizophrenics, hayseeds, and religious fanatics still dispute. Economics, however, has an irreducible normative component. You can’t define good policy without stating, or more often, implying but carefully not saying, for whom the policy is good. It is this issue upon which the desirability of entitlement cuts depends, not some fact of nature or mathematical theorem. The arithmetic becomes relevant on the other side of the political question of who matters. So what does seem to be true is this: we can't maintain and increase the current high levels of income and wealth inequality without cutting entitlement benefits. If the government of the United States were conducted on the basis of promoting the general good, on the other hand, one would come to very different conclusions about entitlements. There is no serious problem with Social Security—nobody should have to live on cat food because of Alan Simpson’s innumeracy— and what gets featured as a problem with Medicare is really a problem with an absurd health care system that costs far more than it has to.

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