By Arthur Alpert
I read lots of humdrum stuff, but what psychologist Jonathan Haidt told the N.Y. Times a couple of weeks ago was a jolt.
“The fervor and passion of partisans is clearly rewarding; and if it’s rewarding, it involves dopamine; and if it involves dopamine, then it is potentially addictive.”
Extreme partisans, he added, tend to be happier than centrists.
Hmm. I guess he’s right but his comments could mislead because of what he didn’t say.
There are kicks outside partisanship, too.
I’ve certainly not lacked for joy since becoming an independent (in Bernalillo County Board of Elections terminology, Declining To State a party affiliation).
First, I get an adrenalin rush from defending journalism against malpractice.
And there are rewards from dealing with fundamental issues rather than party politics.
And I’m downright jazzed when (looking past the noisy, colorful fights) I nail what the parties share – which is not small potatoes. Think Vietnam and Iraq, global empire, corporate domination of politics and White House aggrandizement of power.
Better yet, absent the two-party focus, I begin to perceive that some poor journalism may arise from non-political motives like personal psychology or lack of intelligence.
Which brings us, finally, to today’s subject, the Journal’s go-to syndicated economist, Robert J. Samuelson.
Having read Samuelson closely for a couple of years now, I’m persuaded he’s sincere and decent. But he sees himself as objective, unbiased and expert – all balderdash.
Consider “Generation Squeezed”, Samuelson’s recent jeremiad against entitlement spending. (It may be jeremiad #325,008.) The Journal published it Monday, August 6. It seems to print them all; I’m beginning to think management likes his message.
Samuelson long ago constructed a generational war between geezers (my side) and kids. In “Generation Squeezed”, he bewails the Great Recession’s effects on the young. Without jobs, they’re moving back in with Mom and Dad.
But he ignores the “why.” I guess it doesn’t matter that corporate America’s power over government enabled Wall Street to gamble with our money and eventually implode, thereby exposing a hollow economy and causing our Lesser Depression.
It wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security.
Then Samuelson belabors the weak labor market and once again, won’t ask why. It’s complicated, but surely it matters that Wall Street pilfered our savings and we can’t buy as we used to.
It wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security.
Next, Samuelson takes a logic-defying leap. “To aid the young, we could tighten Social Security and Medicare, raising eligibility ages and reducing payouts for wealthier retirees. Unlikely.”
Huh? Saving some dollars on Medicare, in particular, is desirable, but how would that help young people looking for jobs?
He cannot grasp that employers will hire when they need workers to produce goods and services for customers.
“And then,” Samuelson continues, “there are the costs of aging. Gains in productivity, from new technologies or better skills, that would normally flow into paychecks will be siphoned off to pay for retiree benefits, underfunded state and local government pensions and infrastructure repair.”
This is unintelligent, true, but it’s also ignorant. Gains in productivity do not “normally flow into paychecks.” Real wages haven’t risen in 30 years despite great productivity gains.
Thus does Samuelson fall victim to unexamined assumptions. Need I add that he never asks, “How come the gains didn’t get to the workers?” Or, “Who got ‘em?”
Instead, he’s fixated on these worrisome statistics:
“The ratio of workers to retirees, 5-to-1 in 1960 and 3-to-1 in 2010, is projected at nearly 2-to-1 by 2025.”
That’s so. It is also true that living standards rose substantially despite the “sharp decline in the ratio of workers to retirees from 1960 to 2010 (most of it by 1990).”
That’s from economist Dean Baker’s post, “Robert Samuelson’s Generation Squeezed is Victimized by the One Percent, Not their Parents”, Aug. 6, at CPR.net.
Here’s what Samuelson doesn’t get. The worker-retiree ratio is not the whole story. When society’s ability to pay for what it wants is at issue, the economy’s growth and efficiency matter, plus its distribution of wealth.
Rejecting that, Samuelson can conclude by restating his worry that his grandchildren and yours will be “squeezed” because geezers are living high off the hog.
His single-mindedness is admirable, but let’s think about it.
Remember those productivity gains? Suppose they were shared with employees who then spent the money, thereby encouraging businesses to hire.
And what if corporate oligarchies didn’t rule? I take distinct pleasure here – because I’m a geezer in the donut hole who needs one pill priced at about $500 – in pointing out that Big Pharma’s political influence shields it from market competition.
If there were such competition, we’d all benefit, according to Samuelson’s own economics.
But he’s obsessed with generational war.
In fact, I cannot remember Samuelson ever discussing the economic costs of the protections and welfare our biggest companies enjoy.
Nor has he asked how much the (cancerous?) growth of the financial sector costs us. Or the sad state of corporate governance; management calls the shots, not “owners.”
And when he dealt with inequalities of wealth, he sided with the most affluent.
Combine Samuelson’s sincerity and profound ignorance of his own biases and the sum is a dangerous innocent.
Not so the Journal editors; they knowingly feature him often and prominently. (As I write, Friday, August 17, they’ve published another Samuelson attack on entitlements. Jeremiad #325,009, perhaps.)
They do so because Samuelson is obsessive about entitlements and because he’s blind to economic realities.
Samuelson is part of a larger strategy that includes publishing him ad nauseam with dissent almost entirely limited to far right, corporate-funded “free market think tanks.”
It makes perfect sense if your mission is to advance an editorial agenda.
PS I’m feeling the dopamine, whatever that is.