George Will’s Misinterpretation

March 17, 2014

In his Washington Post opinion of March 14 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-democrats-policies-make-income-inequality-worse/2014/03/14/97d5074e-aada-11e3-adbc-888c8010c799_story.html?hpid=z2), George Will, no friend of Democrats or Barack Obama, seeks to fault the policies of Democrats in trying to find an avenue to reduced inequality.

Inequality is a recent development here in the US.  Forty years ago, we were one of the most equal countries, and in this short time, we have moved to one of the most unequal, thanks in large part to conservative policies driven by the likes of Reagan, Friedman, and now by the likes of George Will.

While inequality (essentially resulting from incentives which motivate hard work and creativity) is a good thing up to a point, a growing number of highly respected economists, as well as social scientists, medical experts, and others, are arguing that very high levels of inequality, such as we have today, result in many negatives–reduced economic growth, psychological distress to the lesser privileged, health issues, and a general discontent with the fairness of the system. These things can eventually lead to revolution, and indeed there is much world history to evidence this risk.

Let’s examine Will’s points in his article. There are three.

He starts with criticism of the continuance of farm subsidies totaling $956 billion. With this criticism, I wholeheartedly agree. We are not only subsidizing crops we shouldn’t even be growing, enriching already wealthy farmers, but also denying parts of the world which are much better suited in climate and labor costs to supply our cotton, rice, and other subsidized farm products–parts of the world in abject poverty, in which these agricultural products represent one of the few ways for their poor populations to earn a bare essential living. The question we have is how does Will determine to lay the blame for this on the Democrats? Farm subsidy programs have been in place for decades, supported by far more Republican than Democratic votes, paid for by the lobbyists for large food and agricultural interests. I would say it is much more clearly a Republican program. Take a look at a CATO Institute examination of Republican support for farm subsidies (http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/republicans-are-weak-farm-subsidies): “…24 of the RSC’s 165 members sit on the House Agriculture Committee, the notorious overseer of farm-welfare programs. Total direct government farm payments to the districts of those 24 [Republican] representatives alone costs taxpayers more than $1 billion per year. Numerous other RSC members hail from farm states, and therefore have a vested interest in protecting payments to their constituents.”

Next, Will wants to attack food stamps, moving rapidly from there to welfare in general. He says we spend $1 trillion annually on welfare. It’s not clear how Will adds up his numbers. Other sources (http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/us_defense_spending_30.html) compare key US spending categories this way:  Welfare $396 billion; health care $970 billion; defense $820 billion. The International Peace Research Institute reports that we spend more than the next 10 countries combined on defense (http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/military-spending-cuts/u-s-military-spending-dwarfs-rest-world-n37461). Let’s talk about reducing not only farm subsidies, but also defense spending and use the savings to spend more on schools and infrastructure.

And, the implication of his treatment of welfare is that welfare is not helpful in reducing inequality.  He seems to feel welfare is a waste.  Welfare programs can do with improvements, but successful nations do and must provide a safety net for those who are disadvantaged or are unable to work. I’m sure there are many on the right who would like to summarily identify those on welfare as “simply lazy,” but this is clearly not the case. Millions of Americans are lining up to apply repeatedly for scare jobs every day.  More on why we have such unemployment in future posts.

Will is right that the welfare program of the US is tilted toward the elderly, in terms of medical and social security payments, but he is not necessarily right that welfare is bad in general. And, again, this misallocation toward the elderly was not initiated by the Democrats–it has been true for decades since Medicare and Social Security were enacted. It was not taken down by Regan, or the either of the Bushes. Let the Republicans try to change the elderly orientation of welfare–their challenge will be as great as that of the Democrats–this is now motherhood and apple pie in the US. The elderly have the time, the money, and willingness to engage in politics–to fight a good fight, which the young do not have. I doubt the Republicans will bring on that fight, should they inure to majority in US leadership.

His third and final point is to attack the low interest rates of the Obama era as undermining equality by paying only low interest rates to the pensioners. He’s right about this. But, what were the policies of the Bush/Greenspan era which led to the crisis, which resulted in the need to manage interest rates at similarly low levels in the years leading up to the 2007 collapse?  The Democratic administration’s low interest rates were necessitated to enable a recovery from the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression–a legacy of Republican leadership. Congress was unwilling to do much of anything of a fiscal nature, leaving the Federal Reserve with the burden of trying to revive the economy with monetary policy alone. Those low interest rate policies under Bush and Greenspan were designed to artificially motivate the middle class to buy more homes, take out second mortgages, buy more cars, and keep the economy growing–that was the Bush/Greenspan 2002-2007 set of policies. This eventually resulted in a massive bubble which had to be addressed by the Obama administration.

There are certainly things the Democrats could have done better in the Obama term, but George Will is wrong and unfair in attempting to place unique blame on the Democrats in regard to these elements of policy.

From his choice of complaints, I would say the better discussion around these points would be around whether these problem areas are the fault of Democrats or Republicans, and how these kinds of vested interests can indeed be overcome to make changes for the common good. In terms of the present administration, the discussion might be about whether it is Obama’s fault that Congress is gridlocked, or whether that is more the fault of the right wing of the Republican party. More the latter in my opinion.

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