Monday, April 29, 2013

The end of entitlement

Robert Samuelson writes that the public is going through a downshift in expectations that is having deeper political consequences.

Weighed down by these contradictions, entitlement has been slowly crumbling for decades. The Great Recession merely applied the decisive blow. We're not entitled to many things: not to a dynamic economy; not to secure jobs; not to homeownership; not to ever-more protective government; not to fixed tax burdens; not to a college education. Sooner or later, the programs called "entitlements," including Social Security, will be trimmed because they're expensive and some recipients are less deserving than others.

The collision between present realities and past expectations helps explain the public's extraordinary moodiness. The pandering to the middle class by both parties (and much of the media) represents one crude attempt to muffle the disappointment, a false reassurance that the pleasing past can be reclaimed. It can't.

I don't think this is true. We still have the paradox that we have more productive capacity and underlying abundance than ever before. The problem is we have less and less clarity on how to distribute it, or what we value, or what incentives are or ought to be.

What it does mean is we need a deeper rethink of economic institutions to cope with a world in which many of the things we value most are not easily traded. Government cannot deliver what people want if we have no shared vision of what people ought to want, in their own different ways. Instead, our general discourse on rights and universal rules tends to evade the question.

"..some recipients are less deserving than others" says Samuelson. That is the heart of the problem. It is a matter of ethics, not economics. The left wants universal (unearned) rights. The right wants a changing mix of pure market allocation and tradition.