Category Archives: Robert Samuelson

The new morality

Here's Robert Samuelson on the idea of public benefits:

People who wonder what America's budget problem is ultimately about should look to Europe. In the streets of Dublin, Athens and London, angry citizens are protesting government plans to cut programs and raise taxes. The social contract is being broken. People are furious; they feel betrayed.

Modern democracies have created a new morality. Government benefits, once conferred, cannot be revoked. People expect them and consider them property rights. Just as government cannot randomly confiscate property, it cannot withdraw benefits without violating a moral code. The old-fashioned idea that government policies should serve the "national interest" has given way to inertia and squatters' rights.

To be precise, that wouldn't be a "new morality," that would be a new moral obligation (or duty) under the existing morality (or moralities).  But it really isn't that anyway, as those obligations form part of the social contract–people pay taxes, make laws, establish government programs, etc., and expect (rightly, under the old morality) their needs to be met accordingly.  When abrupt changes to this contract are made, people will expect some kind of justification.  No sane person could call these things a new morality.

By the way, we should also remind ourselves that people violating the principles of the old morality helped bring about economic catastrophe.   

But while we are talking about morality, and fiscal responsibility, let's go back to Robert Samuelson, in 2003:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but "can we afford it?" is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

Just to be clear.  He didn't go on to critique that morality–about the economic upset and sacrifice.  How much has that war cost us now?


Too much of our critical political discourse depends on one single virtue: consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, a man who writes articles (I am not exaggerating) in praise of Hitler–is a kind of pundit saint.  Since consistency matters, and consistency depends on memory–or rather, detecting someone's inconsistency depends on remembering what she's said in the past, let's have some fun with our favorite son on an economist, Robert Samuelson.  Samuelson, is like the captain bringdown of the Post editorial page.  He's got a droopy mustache, a dour expression, and he poo-poos just about everyone who tries to do something about something–environmentalists are dumb and self-indulgent for buying Priuses!. 

For a while–for those who remember–Samuelson been poo-pooing Obama's "self-indulgence" on health insurance reform.  A more competent rhetorical analyst, by the way, might have fun with the way he always goes ad hominem on Obama–treating his own impoverished and uncharitable image of Obama rather than Obama's stated positions (he even admitted once that this was his own problem).  But it's worthwhile to poke fun at Samuelson's priorities.  Way back before we spent 700 plus billion dollars in Iraq, chasing what turned out to be an easily uncovered deception, here is what Samuelon wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but "can we afford it?" is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

Pocket change.  In reflecting on this piece (called "A War We Can Afford") Samuelson wrote:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security.

When it comes things that are actually real, on the other hand, Samuelson is skeptical:

When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody's Investors Service — the bond rating agency — published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama's health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.

900 billion?  That figure is almost exactly what we've spent in seven years of war.  Weird.  But this time cost is all that matters. 

What’s best for America’s security

I thnk I've said that I hate to repeat myself, but I'll say it again: when it comes to two-trillion dollar wars of choice, for Robert Samuelson, no amount of spending is too much:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security.

When it comes to health care reform, for Robert Samuelson, no amount of spending is too little:

The remaining uninsured may also exceed estimates. Under the Senate bill, they would total 24 million in 2019, reckons Richard Foster, chief actuary of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. But a wild card is immigration. From 1999 to 2008, about 60 percent of the increase in the uninsured occurred among Hispanics. That was related to immigrants and their children (many American-born). Most illegal immigrants aren't covered by Obama's proposal. If we don't curb immigration of the poor and unskilled — people who can't afford insurance — Obama's program will be less effective and more expensive than estimated. Hardly anyone mentions immigrants' impact, because it seems insensitive.

Meanwhile, the health-care proposals would impose substantial costs. Remember: The country already faces huge increases in federal spending and taxes or deficits because an aging population will receive more Social Security and Medicare. Projections the Congressional Budget Office made in 2007 suggested that federal spending might rise almost 50 percent by 2030 as a share of the economy (gross domestic product). Since that estimate, the recession and massive deficits have further bloated the national debt.

Obama's plan might add almost an additional $1 trillion in spending over a decade — and more later. Even if this is fully covered, as Obama contends, by higher taxes and cuts in Medicare reimbursements, this revenue could have been used to cut the existing deficits. But the odds are that the new spending isn't fully covered, because Congress might reverse some Medicare reductions before they take effect. Projected savings seem "unrealistic," says Foster. Similarly, the legislation creates a voluntary long-term care insurance program that's supposedly paid by private premiums. Foster suspects it's "unsustainable," suggesting a need for big federal subsidies.

There is no question the current health care legislation falls far short of resolving the issue (no one can claim that it has).  It certainly falls far short of what I had hoped for.  But, gee, if we can afford to blow money on a war of choice, why not treat ourselves and our fellow citizens to a little doctor visit once and a while.

As for the point about America's security, this is one way to put it.

A minor spot in our debates

The Post has two people who write on the economy, George Will and Robert Samuelson.  Both of them are conservatives.  Both of them stink at it.  Not long ago Samuelson argued that investing in rail transit would be a waste of money, because it serves so little of the country.  He forgot to mention such notions as population density, etc.  

Today he writes about health care.  In classic Samuelson fashion, he argues that controlling costs is somehow logically impossible:

Americans generally want three things from their health-care system. First, they think that everyone has a moral right to needed care; that suggests universal insurance. Second, they want choice; they want to select their doctors — and want doctors to determine treatment. Finally, people want costs controlled; health care shouldn't consume all private compensation or taxes.

Appealing to these expectations, Obama told Americans what they want to hear. People with insurance won't be required to change plans or doctors; they'll enjoy more security because insurance companies won't be permitted to deny coverage based on "pre-existing conditions" or cancel policies when people get sick. All Americans will be required to have insurance, but those who can't afford it will get subsidies.

As for costs, not to worry. "Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan," Obama said. He pledged to "not sign a plan that adds one dime to our [budget] deficits — either now or in the future." If you believe Obama, what's not to like? Universal insurance. Continued choice. Lower costs.

The problem is that you can't entirely believe Obama. If he were candid — if we were candid — we'd all acknowledge that the goals of our ideal health-care system collide. Perhaps we can have any two, but not all three.

Baring the fictional–yes fictional–scenario where you get to chose your own doctor and your own care (your insurance company does so long as you "qualify," which means so long as you don't get sick), every other industrialized democracy in the world has solved this problem.  They get more than we do for half of the cost.  That's just true folks.  As Obama has argued over and over, one problem we suffer from here in our capitalist paradise is a lack of competition in health insurance.  There is simply no incentive to deliver it cheaper.  So you can have all three indeed.  We should have all three.  If we can't get all three, we will suck.

For contrast, here is something Nicholas Kristof got right:

After Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans, eight years ago on Friday, we went to war and spent hundreds of billions of dollars ensuring that this would not happen again. Yet every two months, that many people die because of our failure to provide universal insurance — and yet many members of Congress want us to do nothing?

Here, by the way, is Samuelson's view on the affordability of the Iraq war:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security. 

He is referring to a 2002 column where he argued we could "afford" the Iraq war, a war which, by the way, would cost more than any health care fix (I can't find the original article on the Post's website).  And indeed, who can disagree with this closing remark on that column?

But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It's not that the costs are unimportant; it's simply that they're overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever's necessary. If we decide to do less because that's the most sensible policy, we shouldn't delude ourselves that any "savings" will rescue us from our long-term budget predicament, which involves the huge costs of federal retirement programs. Just because the war is unpopular doesn't mean it's the source of all our problems. 

A minor spot, unless it's health care.

Morally hazardrous

Health care is the topic of the day.  People seem to agree that 46 million people don't have any at all.  People also tend to forget that having health insurance is not necessarily protection against going into bankruptcy.  For that matter, having health insurance for many does not entail they will get better care than those without, or any care at all.  It is generally agreed, however, that Americans spend more and get less per dollar than their counterparts in other developed nations.  That doesn't worry Robert Samuelson, however.  Nor does he bother to mention that astounding fact.  He writes:

How much healthier today's uninsured would be with that coverage is unclear. They already receive health care — $116 billion worth in 2008, estimates Families USA, an advocacy group. Some is paid by the uninsured themselves (37 percent), some by government and charities (26 percent). The remaining "uncompensated care" is either absorbed by doctors and hospitals or shifted to higher private insurance premiums. Some uninsured would benefit from coverage, but others wouldn't. Either they're healthy (40 percent are between ages 18 and 34) or would get ineffective care

The claim–how much healthier would the uninsured be–is quickly replaced by financial observations on how much care they do receive and who pays (and, oddly, whether this care would be any good).  That, I think, is misleading.  Certainly, uninsured teenagers who never have accidents and don't get sick wouldn't benefit at all from health care, but we're not talking about health care, we're talking about health insurance.  Not having health insurance is different from not having access to health care.  Most Americans, as John Stossel once pointed out (see "Is America Still Number One?"–the answer, would you believe it, was "yes"), have access to the best health care in the world (!!!).  Too bad, however, the question regarded whether they or anyone could pay for it.  To that, the answer is "obviously not."   

Aside from the red-herring like shift in topics, Samuelson abuses the quantifier "some."  Indeed, some–those who don't get hurt–would not benefit from coverage.  For the past three years I was one who benefited not from coverage.  Yet about a week ago, fate had it that I would begin to need to benefit.  You never really know when that will be.  A friend of mine in graduate school was young, healthy and uninsured.  A headache one day cost him 25,000 dollars.  

Mission accomplished

Robert Samuelson, opinion writer for the Post, thinks the Press has been too kind to Obama.  They are, he claims, "infatuated" with him; they have, as it were, a crush on Obama.  What is the evidence for this claim?  Why, studies, of course:

Obama has inspired a collective fawning. What started in the campaign (the chief victim was Hillary Clinton, not John McCain) has continued, as a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows. It concludes: "President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House."

The study examined 1,261 stories by The Post, the New York Times, ABC, CBS and NBC, Newsweek magazine and the "NewsHour" on PBS. Favorable articles (42 percent) were double the unfavorable (20 percent), while the rest were "neutral" or "mixed." Obama's treatment contrasts sharply with coverage in the first two months of the Bush (22 percent of stories favorable) and Clinton (27 percent) presidencies.

Unlike George Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama received favorable coverage in both news columns and opinion pages. The nature of stories also changed. "Roughly twice as much of the coverage of Obama (44 percent) has concerned his personal and leadership qualities than was the case for Bush (22 percent) or Clinton (26 percent)," the report said. "Less of the coverage, meanwhile, has focused on his policy agenda."

Gee.  None of this supports Samuelson's claim that there is "collective fawning" or "infatuation" on the part of the media for Obama.  Besides, he's not even mildly suspicious of the metrics of the study.  What does it mean, for instance, that an article is "favorable"?   Does it advocate Obama's position (whatever that may be) or does it just report that that position enjoys broad support?  Newspapers are filled with all kinds of articles (many of them are of the inside baseball variety); lumping them all together under the simple "favorable/unfavorable" metric is bound to obfuscate questions of bias rather than clarify them.  More importantly, however, increasing "unfavorable" does not entail that the press has grown any more critical or skeptical.  Knee-jerk skepticism in the name of balance is (ironically) worse than none at all.  Finally, its seems wrong to presume, as Samuelson has, that there is some ideal position for the favorable/unfavorable ratings.  Perhaps this is where it ought to be.  But that's another matter.  

Back in my day

Maybe we could call this the "grandpa argument": to anyone complaining of a misfortune, you reply by recounting misfortunes much worse.  So if someone says it's hot, tell him about when you forgot to turn on your air conditioning.  When someone says school is hard, tell them about when you went to school and had to run both ways uphill in the snow with bricks.

Robert Samuelson offers us a nice example of this.  He writes:

The specter of depression stalks America. You hear the word repeatedly. Are we in a depression? If not, are we headed for one? The answer to the first question is no; the answer to the second is "almost certainly not." The use of "depression" to describe the economy is a case of rhetorical overkill that speaks volumes about today's widespread pessimism and anxiety. A short history lesson shows why

I haven't heard the word "depression" at all (and my quick and informal Google search did not produce anything serious).  I've certainly heard the word "recession," which is a much different thing.  So who is Samuelson talking about?  He doesn't really say.  And this isn't just a lead in.  He's serious.  He concludes:

We are relearning an old lesson: The business cycle isn't dead. Prosperity's pleasures breed complacency and inspire mistakes that, in time, boomerang on financial markets, job creation and production. Just as expansions ultimately tend to self-destruct, so downswings tend to generate self-correcting forces. People pay down debts; pent-up demand develops; surviving companies expand. The Great Depression was an exception. The present economy would have to get much, much, much worse before it warranted the same appraisal.

So there you have it.  Samuelson has conjured up a non-existent opponent, and soundly defeated him.  Now the funny thing is this.  Normally one makes such arguments in order to defeat much stronger ones–or so goes the strategy of the straw man.  Samuelson, however, doesn't seem to suggest that much.  So, while today may be no Great Depression, it doesn't mean that it's not a "recession" (which is another, more interesting question Samuelson might have spent more time addressing).

Captivating rhetoric

To many pundits the challenge of the Obama campaign consists in the separation of "lofty rhetoric" from substance (by the way, the search string "'lofty rhetoric' + Obama" yielded 6,880 hits on Google, go figure).  Such a task, however, seems an odd challenge for people whose job description ought to presume an ability to separate real arguments from their window dressing.  A pundit ought to be able to leap a speech in a single bound.  But no.  For some of them, well three of them so far this week, Obama seems a powerful intoxicant.  Today it's Robert Samuelson's turn.  He begins his "Obama is a mirage" discussion with the now canonical admission that he too was beguiled by his honeyed words:

It's hard not to be dazzled by Barack Obama. At the 2004 Democratic convention, he visited with Newsweek reporters and editors, including me. I came away deeply impressed by his intelligence, his forceful language and his apparent willingness to take positions that seemed to rise above narrow partisanship. Obama has become the Democratic presidential front-runner precisely because countless millions have formed a similar opinion. It is, I now think, mistaken.

There is something about Obama that drives these guys to autobiography:

As a journalist, I harbor serious doubt about each of the most likely nominees. But with Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, I feel that I'm dealing with known quantities. They've been in the public arena for years; their views, values and temperaments have received enormous scrutiny. By contrast, newcomer Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.

Whatever you might call him, Samuelson is not a journalist.  He writes on the opinion page, which makes him a pundit, a completely different activity from journalism.  Besides, the following paragraph smacks not of journalism–which would involve an impersonal and objective analysis of facts–but of self-centered opinion offering.  On top of that, how does being a journalist somehow imply "serious doubts" about each of the candidates?    

Besides that, Samuelson offers up the rather strange charge that a "huge and deceptive gap" separates Obama's "captivating oratory" from his "actual views."  Let's sit here for a second and try to figure out what that means.  

It could mean that (1) Obama is a liar, because what he says differs from his actual beliefs.  His beliefs, in other words, are other than what he says they are. 

Or perhaps it means that (2) Obama's captivating rhetoric does not match his views, because his views are not captivating–they're perhaps a little boring or ordinary.  Worse than this, Obama somehow knows this and he works to cover it up.  That's an odd charge.  Actual views are likely not to be "captivating."  Being "captivating" is an attribute rather of rhetoric or art.  The ideas may be plausible or sound or true or some other such thing.  But captivating?  Nope.

So which is it?  I can't really tell.  Because Samuelson's point is too confused to evaluate.   He writes:

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative — to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery — can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy. "It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white," he says. Along with millions of others, I find this a powerful appeal.

But on inspection, the metaphor is a mirage. Repudiating racism is not a magic cure-all for the nation's ills. The task requires independent ideas, and Obama has few. If you examine his agenda, it is completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems.

Samuelson's reading of the "Obama subtext" is baffling.  In the first place, the subtext is an aesthetic category used by critics in their evaluation of literary (or other) works–it isn't a position Obama is actually advocating.  Besides, the remark following that isn't even about race.  All of this is followed by the even more bizarre claim that the "metaphor is a mirage."  It's a mirage, because it turns out, because Samuelson doesn't find Obama's ideas compelling.

That's different.  If Obama's ideas aren't compelling, then perhaps Samuelson could write an article about how they're not.  Taking Obama to task because his ideas do not match the various adjectives Samuelson and other equally vacuous pundits use to describe them doesn't establish anything other than they have the wrong method of evaluation.

And by the way–by all means.  Let's have the discussion of Obama's ideas without the tiresome preamble about how much you had a crush on him.  That's your fault.

Now to be fair, Samuelson goes on to point out his problems with Obama's views.  But he concludes:

The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media — preoccupied with the political "horse race" — have treated his invocation of "change" as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's major problems when, so far, he isn't.

Again with the categories.  Stick with the agenda.  Obama has been forthright enough for you to discover his "real" positions on things.  It's not so hard.  After all, you're a "journalist."


Robert Samuelson, a kind of Captain Bringdown of economics columnists, argues that we cannot have an honest debate about health care so long as it is about expanding coverage. He writes:

>The politics of health care rests on a mass illusion:

I know what you’re thinking. The illusion is that way too much of the money Americans spend on “health care” pays for needless bureaucracy, so that’s what we need to cut, right?


He continues:

>Most Americans think that someone else pays for their care. Workers with employer-provided insurance believe that their companies pay. Retirees and the poor think that the government, through Medicare (retirees) and Medicaid (the poor), pays. No one has an interest in controlling spending, because everyone believes that it burdens someone else. Naturally, the health-industrial complex — doctors, hospitals, drug companies — has no interest. Higher health spending raises their incomes and profits.

The problem is that people need health coverage. Perhaps they should need it less.

In all seriousness, while serious discussions of cost are always appropriate (I could make a living making that argument: here’s the formula: none of the candidates seriously want to address issue x, which is serious because of y, therefore z), Samuelson has to be aware of the rather obvious and well documented problem of how health insurance bureaucracy consumes a giant share of health care spending. Can’t we cut that first?

Morality tales

Sometimes you read the same column over and over again. Today provides one example. A still very confused Robert Samuelson writes:

>But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: We simply don’t have a solution for this problem. As we debate it, journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale — as Newsweek did — in which anyone who questions its gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed as a fool, a crank or an industry stooge. Dissent is, or should be, the lifeblood of a free society.

A little context. Newsweek featured a story about industry-funded global warming deniers–the oil and auto-industry types that claim the global warming “consensus” isn’t all that, or that “consensus” shouldn’t be the basis of such judgments, or worse, that the whole thing is a hoax dreamed up by Al Gore for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.:

>Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. “They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry,” says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration. “Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That’s had a huge impact on both the public and Congress.”

The article concerns the ridiculous amount of coverage the naysayers have gotten–especially in light of the strength of their view. But Samuelson seems to think this amounts to squelching dissent. Worse than this, he thinks global warming is an undeniable scientific fact. But he also seems to think that people who deny undeniable scientific facts ought to have equal time or consideration when it comes to public discourse–for every global warming story, perhaps, we ought to have a global warming denier present the “con” position. For every story about DNA, then, perhaps we ought to have someone represent the homuncular theory of human reproduction–dissent is the lifeblood of a democracy after all.

Few scientists would want to squelch dissent about any topic. But many would rather the media played things differently, that it represented scientific authorities (and cranks) in their proper context. Dissenters–such as science fiction novelists–perhaps ought not to get any coverage in a story about a scientific fact. But unfortunately that’s not the case. And the net result of the controversy style of press coverage is the confused mind of Robert Samuelson. While he thinks global warming is a reality we should do something about, he doubts whether anything can be done to stop it. Even he ought to realize that that is a separate question from whether it occurs.

Besides, this–like any other scientific question–is a fundamentally moral question. Do I believe things that have basis in reality, or do I deny them in the face of all evidence?