Sunday, February 18

Economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity

In his book The Great Risk Shift, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker describes how individuals have individuals and families have lost much of their security over the last three decades. Incomes are more volatile, jobs can go poof in an instant, two-earner families are in greater peril of suffering severe declines in income. Most importantly (at least, these would be the most important notions I would push if I were a politician), we are much less secure than we were 30 years ago in our retirement income and in the financing of our health care. In the old days, before I went to college, most employees worked for medium and large corporations that paid 100 percent of the premium for family health coverage. Now fewer than a quarter of those employers do that. And where companies once provided defined-benefit pensions, now they offer defined-contribution 401(k)s.

What strikes a chord most deeply, though, is Hacker's invocation of the Personal Responsibility Crusade. This crusade has emedded itself so firmly in our culture that we rarely notice it. When we do, we have trouble describing what's so wrong-headed about it.

When President Bush blamed torture at Abu Ghraib as the actions of a few bad apples, he was parrotting the party line of the Personal Responsibility Crusade. Whenever anyone wonders out loud why the hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, hated the United States so much, all debate is shut off as Personal Responsibility Crusaders angrily reply that those 19 hijackers were responsible for what they did, and U.S. foreign policy had nothing to do with it.

This kind of buck-passing is infuriatingly hard to argue against, because the buck-passer is disclaiming all responsibility for his actions by explicitly pinning the responsibility on others. Buck-passers don't dodge the issue; they sidestep it expertly by invoking the Personal Responsibility Crusade.

The Personal Respsonsibility Crusade is, among other things, anti-insurance. On the issue of medical insurance, the Personal Responsibility Crusade says we should abandon broad health-insurance pools, and instead we should embrace Medical Savings Accounts, to force us to live healthier and to, I don't know, I guess we're supposed to comparison-shop for medical care -- find the cheapest lab to process biopsies for cancer, that sort of thing.

Hacker says there is "a simple but forgotten truth: economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity."

No one has forgotten this. But if you mention it, you're branded as a class warrior. And "class warriors," like "conspiracy theorists," are not allowed to participate in our mass-media discourse.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting a good friend, a guy who is married to a woman with an MBA degree from Wharton. (Did she grow up on my side of the tracks? Hell, no -- she's the stepdaughter of a former president of a huge cosmetics company.) We had dinner with my friend and his wife, and some friends of theirs -- a Wharton classmate and her husband, who owns a company that employs in-home nurses.

The guy was worn out and seemed a bit unhappy, although not to depressed to usher us out to his new car, a Bluetooth-enabled Acura. His cross to bear: He was being sued by his employees for alleged violations of wage-and-hour laws. I made a gently smart-ass remark about how maybe he should have followed the wage-and-hour laws, for which I spent half an hour in the social deep-freeze. Clearly, I was to side with my friend's wife's friend's husband, not with his employees who complained about working unpaid overtime.

What bugged me even more was that the guy's home-nursing business had been kick-started with an investment by his wealthy father. His dad staked him the money to start his business. Nothing wrong with that, but the guy had no idea of what it must be like to have a job where your boss forces you to work overtime and you risk losing your job -- and possibly your home -- if you complain.

"Economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity." Yeah, and those who grew up with a surfeit of economic security often don't realize that they're in the minority. That most people can't be entrepreneurs with Dad's money. That most of us can't work unpaid internships to get the experience needed to get a good start to our careers.

"Economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity." We're going to talk a lot about that in the coming election season.