Thomas Friedman once again pronounces a pox on both their houses, demanding that Republicans and Democrats compromise and embrace his agenda for moving the country forward. The big problem is that because Thomas Friedman apparently doesn’t believe in doing homework, he doesn’t actually have an agenda that would move the country forward.
Taking his items in turn, he calls for an investment agenda, with the qualification:
“But this near-term investment should be paired with long-term entitlement reductions, defense cuts and tax reform that would be phased in gradually as the economy improves, so we do not add to the already heavy fiscal burden on our children, deprive them of future investment resources or leave our economy vulnerable to unforeseen shocks, future recessions or the stresses that are sure to come when all the baby boomers retire.”
Now the folks who have done their homework know that projections for Medicare and Medicaid spending have been sharply reduced in the last five years as the Congressional Budget Office and other forecasters have incorporated part of the slowdown in cost growth that we have seen over this period. This means that the deficit projections for 10-15 years out don’t look nearly as scary as they did in the recent past. The reduction in projected cost growth exceeds the savings from almost any remotely feasible cut that might have been proposed five years ago.
On the Social Security side of the entitlement ledger, most older workers have almost nothing saved for retirement because people with names like Greenspan, Rubin, and Summers are not very competent at running an economy (another example of the skills shortage). This means that it is not practical to talk about cuts to Social Security for anyone retiring in the near future since this is the bulk of what most retirees will be living on. In fact, those who did their homework know that many people in Congress and across the country are now talking about increasing benefits. We can cut our children and grandchildren’s Social Security, but this is a dubious way to propose to help them.
Then we have Thomas Friedman’s energy agenda:
“We should exploit our new natural gas bounty, but only by pairing it with the highest environmental extraction rules and a national, steadily rising, renewable energy portfolio standard that would ensure that natural gas replaces coal — not solar, wind or other renewables. That way shale gas becomes a bridge to a cleaner energy future, not just an addiction to a less dirty, climate-destabilizing fossil fuel.”
Friedman apparently has not done his homework here either. Andrew Revkin, who certainly is not a knee-jerk enviro-type, devoted a blogpost to a new study indicating that fracking results in much higher emissions of methane gas than had previously been believed. While this study is not conclusive, its findings certainly deserve to be taken seriously. Unless they can be shown to be mistaken, it is wrong to imagine shale gas to be the bridge fuel Friedman claims.
Then we are told:
“In some cities, teachers’ unions really are holding up education reform.”
Really, the problem is teachers’ unions? Well, large chunks of the country don’t have any teachers’ unions to block reform. Yet, we don’t hear of Texas and Alabama beating out Finland (which does have teachers’ unions) for top rankings on standardized tests or other measures of student performance. Teachers’ unions have often come into conflict with self-proclaimed reformers. While the unions may have obstructed their agenda (which often seems largely focused on weakening teachers’ unions), it is far from clear that this has had negative outcomes for students. In the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, the most noteworthy recent confrontation, the parents overwhelmingly sided with the teachers, so apparently they haven’t been clued in on the benefits of reform.
Next we get Thomas Friedman’s theory of wage inequality:
“Finally, the merger of globalization and the information-technology revolution has shrunk the basis of the old middle class — the high-wage, middle-skilled job. Increasingly, there are only high-wage, high-skilled jobs.”
That’s a nice try, but the data don’t fit Thoams Friedman’s little hyper-connected technology driven story. My friends Larry Mishel, John Schmitt, and Heidi Shierholz looked at this issue very carefully. In the last decade the jobs that have been growing most rapidly are actually low-skilled occupations. If we want to look for reasons for wage inequality we might try items like declining unionization rates and high unemployment.
So Friedman is surely right that we should not view compromise as a 4-letter word, but that doesn’t mean we should agree on a policy agenda that is not grounded in evidence.
Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.
Photo by The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, used under Creative Commons license