Tag Archives: New York Times

The liberal critics of Big Government

What does it mean to be a “progressive” or “liberal” in America today? More than anything else, perhaps, it implies a determination to defend the signature achievements of the New Deal/Great Society eras: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and a collection of related programs. And that’s just the problem, say their critics on the right: for progressives, government is the answer for everything. But are conservatives the only ones concerned about the growth of the administrative state—of bureaucracy? Should progressives be worried as well?

We’re used to conservatives, from Ron Paul to Rush Limbaugh, complaining about Big Government. Believe it or not, however, there was a time when liberals—social scientists, lawyers, some members of the Roosevelt administration, even the philosopher John Rawls—worried about the consequences of a liberal state built on regulation and government services and the people’s loyalty to the institutions responsible for them. Anne Kornhauser’s new book, Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press), reintroduces the liberal critics of Big Government, arguing that their concerns are still relevant today, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency refocused concern on the surveillance bureaucracy.

Discussing the implications of her book for today, Kornhauser, a historian at City College of New York, ticks off a number of other areas where the New Deal institutions and their progeny are not fulfilling their expected role, including health care and regulation of the financial services sector along with national security. Continue reading The liberal critics of Big Government

Mario Cuomo was not a “liberal beacon”

The former New York governor, who was laid to rest yesterday, is being mourned as a “forceful defender of liberalism.” In reality, he was a creator of the Democratic center-right and consistent supporter of anti-entitlement crusades.

For anyone who’s followed American politics closely for the past 40 years or so, the headlines following his death were enough to set your teeth on edge: “Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon” (New York Times); “Three-Time Governor; Liberal Leader” (Wall Street Journal). This image of the late politician is even enshrined in Wikipedia: “Cuomo was known for his liberal views and public speeches.”

None of this has much to do with the truth, or Cuomo’s place in history. Indeed, the notion that he was any kind of liberal stems almost entirely from a single speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The substance of his career tells a different story. So let’s look at the facts.

Continue reading Mario Cuomo was not a “liberal beacon”

“Octomom” and the racial double standard

Social Security’s right-wing critics like to argue that a program guaranteeing a minimal income in old age undermines the family by discouraging working people from having children—and that the resulting decline in the birthrate undermines Social Security. Yet, the right also likes to vilify people of color who have too many children. Could it be that we’ve got a double standard here?

Remember when Nadya Suleman was always in the news ? Perhaps you remember her by her media epithet: Octomom.

Suleman was the 33-year-old Los Angeles mother of six who, in 2009, gave birth to octuplets after receiving fertility treatments, allegedly to qualify for more government assistance and launch a reality-TV career. Single and unemployed, “Octomom” became the focus of bobble-head media outrage in the early years of the Great Recession, a ready target for pundits looking for a way—any way—to deflect attention from the sins of the Wall Street elite. To the reliably quotable Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, Suleman was “dizzy, selfish,” the living symbol of America’s national decline. Her statements that she never meant to give birth to octuplets—plausible though they were—somehow never seemed to convince mainstream journalists in possession of what they thought was a story.

What does all this have to do with Social Security? We’ll get to that shortly. But first, an update on one of the more remarkable media circuses of the past few years.

Continue reading “Octomom” and the racial double standard

A momentous—and ominous—week for Social Security

The last week of June saw the effective end of DOMA and passage of a landmark Senate immigration reform bill. Both will widen access to Social Security, although the exact extent is still unknown. But it also saw the Supreme Court wipe out the enforcement mechanism for the landmark Voting Rights Act. The latter, unfortunately, will have a powerful if indirect effect on the future of Social Security, making last week less of a cause for celebration than it might have initially appeared.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the operative provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, opening the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was an astonishing and welcome development for equal rights and social justice in America. It also represents the first major expansion of Social Security in 40 years. There are well over 130,000 same-sex marriages in the U.S. today—over 115,000 with children—and that number will no doubt burgeon as more non-traditional couples add the prospect of Social Security, Medicare, and other federal benefits into their personal finance calculations.

The just-passed Senate immigration reform bill represents, at least potentially, an even greater expansion, enabling millions of undocumented workers to start accumulating benefits under Social Security. There are a lot of ifs here: Continue reading A momentous—and ominous—week for Social Security

The Nobody-But-Ourselves-to-Blame Trip

If Americans can’t retire in comfort and relative security, who’s at fault? Increasingly, we’re being conditioned to point the finger at ourselves. It’s a brilliantly underhanded way to keep us from questioning the downsizing of successful, collective programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Every so often, the mainstream media anoints a new public intellectual—the big thinker who explains it all to us in newspaper or Internet columns, bestselling books, or on the Sunday morning chat shows. Sometimes they’re genuinely quite smart and insightful (Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell), sometimes otherwise (David Brooks, anybody?).

The hottest new public intellectual may be Evgeny Morozov, a not-yet-30 scholar who has published two well-received debunking books, The Net Delusion, about the notion that the Internet promotes democracy; and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, a broader-ranging attack on the belief that smart technologies and Big Data are the ultimate problem solvers.

Both books are needed antidotes to the grandiose claims being made for technology, and To Save Everything, in particular, is of vital importance to anyone concerned about the direction of public discourse on the looming retirement crisis in America. If you only have a few minutes, Continue reading The Nobody-But-Ourselves-to-Blame Trip

Of Groupthink, Financial Bubbles, and Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong got away with ringleading what now looks like a vast doping conspiracy, in part because the sports media refused to investigate what was right under their noses. Why? Because they were too invested in the heroic image that congealed around the Tour de France winner. In much the same way, groupthink in the financial media has repeatedly led our most prominent journalists to valorize hucksters and ignore scandals until they blow up into full-scale catastrophes.

Today’s New York Times includes a fine column by David Carr, taking the mainstream sports media to task as not-to-silent partners in the selling of the Lance Armstrong Legend. Carr gives the sports desk a good spanking. But the problem he describes is actually much bigger, extending deep into the business and economic coverage that is arguably the most critically important information we get from the media nowadays

Let’s review a bit of history. Continue reading Of Groupthink, Financial Bubbles, and Lance Armstrong

Why You Should Celebrate Social Security’s Birthday on Aug. 14

Social Security’s 77th birthday comes up on Tues., August 14. The Alliance for Retired American is planning events all over the country to celebrate (see details below!). As well it might – Social Security’s benefit checks keep 20 million people out of poverty every year and are helping to prop up consumer spending while the rest of us dig ourselves out of debt. Some people, however, would prefer you stayed home.

I recently spoke with a prominent, U.S.-based money manager for an unrelated project. First, he lambasted the Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates too low, “monetizing the debt,” and preventing a much needed dose of government austerity. Then he told me why Continue reading Why You Should Celebrate Social Security’s Birthday on Aug. 14

What’s the Matter with Chisago County?

The solid middle class citizens of our economically beset nation are sorry that their growing dependence on government handouts is bankrupting the federal government. If they could possibly send the money back, they would. But they can’t, and so the poor get less. That seems to be the message of a major New York Times feature on the American social safety net. Reading between the lines, it tells us something quite different, and more interesting.

The New York Times ran an informative, engrossing, and very long front-page feature last Sunday on who gets the most from the social safety net. The basic, though muddled, message was that middle class households are sopping up more of what were intended to be anti-poverty programs. In so doing, they’ve become a danger to the nation’s future solvency. But they need the money and don’t know how to stop.

The article misrepresents these programs in a variety of ways – quite a few, in fact. For one thing, it lumps in Social Security and parts of Medicare, which are fully paid for by workers’ contributions, with programs like school lunches, food stamps, and Medicaid, Continue reading What’s the Matter with Chisago County?

Times’s Leonhardt misrepresents Social Security, Medicare

David Leonhardt, along with Matt Bai, is part of the New York Times’ center-right Washington tag team. So it’s no surprise when he mourns Congress’s failure to “rein in” entitlements. But every so often he goes a bit too far.

In today’s column, he makes the legitimate point that cutting discretionary spending as part of what’s become a bipartisan drive to reduce the deficit, isn’t such a good idea.

Discretionary spending let the Defense Department build the Internet. It let the National Institutes of Health finance life-saving research. It has helped make possible the semiconductor, the broadband network, the highway system and airports.

True enough. The private sector has never been the fount of creativity that free-marketeers would have us believe. But Leonhardt goes too far when he lumps in defenders of Social Security and Medicare with Republican foot-in-the-door opponents of tax hikes. Continue reading Times’s Leonhardt misrepresents Social Security, Medicare

Social Security: It’s All in the Adjectives

People who want to cut Social Security benefits to lower future budget deficits are “reasonable” and “serious.” Moreover, economists have reached a “consensus” that this should be done. People who oppose balancing the budget on the back of Social Security recipients are “denialists” whose views are “maddening,” “crackpot,” “strident.”

The cartoonist R. Crumb once advised a young protege that to be good at the craft, he needed to draw his subject accurately – but then exaggerate it just a little bit. In polemical writing, adjectives are that little bit of exaggeration. Sprinkled sparingly through an otherwise competently argued piece, they create a slightly distorted view of the writer’s opponents without making the writer sound too angry or confrontational. The cumulative effect is stark: those on the same side as the writer are intelligent and reasonable. Those on the other side are not.

The adjectives applied to defenders of Social Security, quoted above, aren’t from Fox News, the Cato Institute, or a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. They are drawn from Continue reading Social Security: It’s All in the Adjectives