Ross Douthat offers a withering account of America's government in its work for the less fortunate over the past 30 years. I agree that reforms are needed and that soak-the-rich taxes don't perfectly translate to reduced inequality, but Douthat's recommendations are undercut by his refusal to acknowledge the good that government does with the revenue it collects.
Douthat breaks down the government into a three-headed monster just begging to be drowned in a bathtub. The first target, public-sector job security and retirement benefits, used to be something expected by all workers until cheap labor and automation devolved what most employees could hope for into a limited 401K and a minimal chance for a stable career.
By drawing the direct line from reasonable middle-class benefits to the bloat and corruption of Greece, Douthat turns any worker's worthy aspiration into rot and privilege that threaten to crush America's future. At the same time, Douthat doesn't mention the explosion of CEO salaries from 28 times that of the average worker in 1970 to 158 times the average worker's pay in 2005.
True, decent public sector jobs aren't bringing the impoverished and the megarich much closer together, but they do prop up millions of families who would otherwise fall out of the middle class. The same can't be said for golden parachutes worn by Wall Street titans. Some retirement benefits are excessive, but they can't all be found in the public sector.
Douthat's next barb strikes at Medicare, as part of a welfare system that doesn't redistribute "from the idle rich to the working poor; it goes from young to old, working-age savings to retiree consumption, middle-class parents to empty-nest seniors."
Douthat's right that rising health care costs overwhelm the meager federal benefits given to low-income families, but that's due in no small part to the war waged against "welfare queens" and "socialist medicine" by his conservative colleagues. When compared to other developed nations with a less-rabid right, America spends far more on health care and provides far fewer benefits to young and old alike.
By saying that government benefits should be limited to the impoverished, Douthat ignores the fact that governments can and do provide (though not always) better and broader services than the private sector. Medicare, for example, covers treatment for seniors at lower prices than its private counterparts.
Raising the eligibilty age or rendering the well-off ineligible would only increase the money that America pours into its inefficient private health care system. Medicare's costs may keep rising, but shifting that responsibility to individual citizens does nothing to solve the actual problem--rising health care costs. It just undermines Americans' and America's ability to stave off medical bankruptcy.
Finally, Douthat cuts the legs out from under American public education. "[E]ven though government spending on K-to-12 education has more than doubled since the 1970s, test scores have flatlined and the United States has fallen behind its developed-world rivals."
Douthat takes advantage of his readers by using incomplete statistics and then assigning blame where the numbers offer no definitive culprits. Firstly, the Department of Education is proud of how much it spends on education. There are many good reasons why it should be.
American public education has taken up greater responsibilities in the past several decades and these burdens have costs, but that hardly means such money was wasted. The end of segregation meant that all students, not just whites, would attend decent schools. The recognition that some students need special care rather than exile turned retardation into special education. (I have an autistic cousin who may not break SAT records, but his quality of life has been immeasurably improved by the dedication and friendship of his teachers in Madison, WI, public schools.) Not only did textbooks become more expensive, they were joined by computers and other multi-media equipment to make students fit for their information society.
At the same time, public education faced several challenges to quality that would threaten any institution. The majority of teachers have always been women, but until the 1970s they didn't have many better alternatives. Since then, women have found higher salaries and richer lives, but persistently low teacher pay crippled public education's ability to attract and retain classroom talent.
Douthat also ignores substantial changes in a public school student body that has grown considerably more diverse and enjoys many more distractions. How many pupils were taking standardized tests with English as their second language in the 1970s? Back then, how many students lived with both parents under the same roof and with at least one who didn't have to be at work when they got home?
Surely the fact that the average adolescent between 9 and 18 years of age consumed around 8 hours of electronic media a day in 2010 while less than a third of children reported watching more than 5 hours of TV in a 1971 survey has some impact on study habits. Also, it's worth noting that children sleep less and eat more, drifting between lethargy and sugar highs as their teachers attempt to hold their attention.
The story Douthat paints of the last three decades is one of "a public sector that has consistently done less with more," while ignoring the worth that living wages entail and a corporate sector that has created fewer jobs with higher CEO salaries.
Douthat decries "a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies rather than the broader middle class," but he ignores that conservatives frayed America's economic fabric and social safety net until the middle class fell through the gaps.
Douthat doesn't long for "the kind of reverse class warfare currently being championed by the not-Romney candidates in the Republican field," but he's found the wrong targets and annointed the wrong champion.
Douthat is determined to find a narrative that makes a GOP victory in 2012 look like anything less than a tragedy, but any op-ed that ends with a paean to Mitt Romney as potential champion of the commom man should make its readers suspect all the words that lead up to that conclusion.