First, Charles M. Blow's op-ed in today's New York Times.
Second, a position put forth by Demos on the future of old-age pensions (what an ugly term . . . I'm channeling the terminology The Economist likes to use).
It was one line in Blow's piece that jostled loose my thinking: "Republicans who said their position on economic issues was conservative — the Republican Trojan Horse for a retrograde social agenda." Increasingly, I notice that the political commentary I read likes to point to some grand agenda on the part of the other side. George Will certainly does this in his right-of-center commentary at the Washington Post. By instinct, I typically chuckle when someone like Will says "Aha! There they go pursuing that liberal agenda" and I cringe or fume when someone like Blow talks of the "retrograde" conservative agenda.
I'm now starting to think beyond those initial reactions.
Both sides are point out something that is essentially true, and the more commentary I read, the more it prompts me to think about the essence of most debates on the economy and the security of people in it.
Cost is a concern of anyone in economic life. And I speak of cost in very broad terms. Who will foot the bill for, well, life? Who will foot the bill for retirement? Who will foot the bill for health care? Who will foot the bill for education? Who will foot the bill for roads and highways? Who will foot the bill for revitalizing the disappointing downtown of my town? The things in life that are worthwhile have costs that are real and have to be paid by someone or something.
And so we debate. Should cost and risk be borne by government and taxpayers or by firms and wealthy interests? Should cost and risk be borne by individuals or by the collective society? And when we decide it should be borne by society, which part of society should bear it? Each position has its drawbacks and benefits.
For some reason, in these issues I think about a relatively narrow instance of a meat processing plant nearby (stick with me for a moment). Some time ago, a court ruled that workers had to be paid by their employer for the approximately 30 minutes it takes to don the protective gear they need to do their job. It was an interesting tale in employer vs. employee responsibility. It's the law (and good policy) to wear things that protect life and limb in a dangerous trade. Who pays for the time to don that gear? Is it on the clock or not? Who bears the cost: the firm or the individual?
In response to Blow and Will, I might say that it's fine if the other side is pursuing a deeper agenda about who bears the cost and risk. It's helpful for us to think about what that side would ultimately prefer as the way for Americans to live, work, earn, and learn. Maybe slippery slopes lead to realities that aren't as frightening as columnists lead us to believe. Maybe we should be humble about the agendas which we abhor or to which we adhere.
As for Demos . . . I don't know what I think about a government-run retirement Plan B. I see the merits of it. I also see potential for cronyism and for moral hazard. I was glad to have heard one of that plan's authors on Fresh Air a few weeks back. His chief criticism of 401(k) plans was that saver bore the whole risk for their retirement funding. I'm glad I didn't just react and turn him off . . . I'm glad I heard his principled indignation against that reality, not because I ultimately believed with him, but because I could walk away from it and think, "You know, he has a point."