Demographic Mega-Trends and Robert Samuelson’s Denial

grid-cell-2777-1391024215-3“There is no parallel in history to the [American] experiment of free government on this scale. The scale accounts for a great deal, including . . . pessimism about the present or the future of America.”

— Scottish historian D.W. Brogan in “The American Character,” 1944

Robert Samuelson’s Op-Ed about “America’s Menacing Mega-Trends” in Sunday’s Washington Post is mostly very good — particularly at presenting the data, and identifying the problem — but perhaps not so good at solutions, and conclusions. So it’s disheartening to see a few lazy passages undermine an otherwise good article.

“…America’s future rests heavily on how these mega-trends play out. Democracy works best when the political system can mediate between the often-inconsistent demands of public opinion and larger national needs. This, America’s leaders can’t or won’t do. Faced with immutable trends, they have not adapted to change. Instead, they pander to partisans with soothing, though outdated, stereotypes. Nostalgia poses as policy when it is actually a marketing strategy.”

So far so good. But I’m not sure that today’s political elite are any better or worse at embracing change, avoiding nostalgic sales pitches, partisan pandering, or “outdated” thinking, than politicians were at any other time in our history. Why should we expect any more of politics, or politicians? Increasing dependence on government institutions, and political solutions — the infantile habit of looking to political leaders to solve our problems — is itself a problem, one that goes unmentioned here.

It’s mainly the next few paragraphs, where Samuelson oversimplifies liberals and conservatives, mischaracterizing both, giving into wrongheaded stereotypes.


“Liberals won’t come to terms with aging. Believing that spending on the elderly and near-elderly constitutes the essence of progressivism — and ignoring the affluence of many elderly — some liberals even support raising these benefits. The paradoxical result is that the pro-government party has become an instrument of anti-government policies, because accommodating all the elderly’s benefits means quietly condoning deep cuts in most other programs.”

By its nature, this brand of liberalism discriminates against the young. To be sure, their economic problems stem heavily from the Great Recession (in 2012, 40 percent of men ages 18 to 31 lived with their parents). But shrinking government services and looming tax increases compound the damage.”

I can’t speak for liberals, but I doubt they’d accept this characterization without objection. He has a point. While it’s true that politicians won’t come to terms with aging, for obvious self-interested political reasons, the same isn’t necessarily true for the wide variety of liberals they represent. Some liberals are focused on the short term, but many of them are realists.

Postwar liberalism finds itself on the wrong end of an exploding cigar that was lit almost century ago: Patronage and clientelism — dividing voters into blocs and interest groups, and buying their votes — but it was created by political parties, for their own interests, not by genuine liberals. And by now, all but the most low-information voters or die-hard activists are fully aware that the hundreds of trillions of dollars of promises made by politicians to the special interest groups they depend on to get elected have no hope in hell of ever being kept.

The young-to-old wealth-transfer scheme is increasingly transparent, not just to conservative critics, liberals are onto it, too. But once political parties developed and perfected the anti-democratic tradition of  (thanks FDR, LBJ) cultivating group rights and benefits based on race, class, income, gender, grievance, etc., what do we expect? For them to not protect their interests?

Here’s the thing about special interests. It’s ultimately about power. And the way that works is, offloading the costs to those who have the least power to defend themselves. (Kevin Williamson’s insights about this are worth exploring) The segment of society with the least power to protect its interests are the young. And the interest group with even less power to defend itself is the unborn.

If D.W. Brogan, who in 1944 warned us about the “American experiment in free government”, could have foreseen the degree to which, by the end of the last century, Americans would be shifting the costs of their indulgences to taxpayers yet unborn — those lucky few that survive the womb in the first place — he would probably set himself on fire.


Here Samuelson’s intentions are good — to be even-handed — but still, he steps in it.

“Conservatives have parallel hang-ups. They can’t adapt to the permanence of Big Government or the presence of so many immigrants, including an estimated 11 million who are here illegally. Even if unworthy government programs are cut, federal spending will easily exceed one-fifth of national income, which is more than today’s taxes will cover. Higher taxes, contrary to GOP dogma, will be needed. Similarly, illegal immigrants won’t conveniently vanish.”

Yes, tell conservatives about their “hang-ups”. Dad-gum taxes, dad-gum im’grunts. This is so depressingly shallow, I don’t know where to begin. It contains two of the laziest assumptions ever made about conservatives, casually rolled into one sentence.

First, it assumes Big Government is permanent. And conservatives just can’t accept it. If history teaches us anything, it’s that no government is permanent. Regardless of size.

The more bloated, ineffective, reckless, and corrupt a government is, the more vulnerable it is to ‘impermanence’, to put it delicately. Or to be less delicate about it, catastrophic failure.

If conservatives can’t adapt to the permanence of Big Government, it might be because conservatives, being realistic, understand that — as Glenn Reynolds often likes to say — “something that can’t go on forever, won’t.”

Then there’s immigration. Here, he steps in with both feet. Those conservatives just can’t “adapt to the presence” of so many immigrants. Them foreign people, right. To the average conservative, the rational response is: What the hell is he talking about? Does his depiction of a conservative think that? Hell, let’s go find one, and beat the snot out of him! This imagined conservative Samuelson speaks of. This is easily the most convenient, insidious, race-baiting, intentional mischaracterization of conservative thinking that columnists, reporters, and editors repeat endlessly. The New York Times and the Washington Post are among the guilty of this intentionally divisive, racist suggestion. Bear with me. I can prove it.

If a conservative candidate, for example, advocates improved border security, and a non-‘progressive’ approach to immigration reform, if you’re a newspaper editor, or network producer, just label them as an “anti-immigration”. Period. Don’t make any distinction between legal and illegal. Just say they’re ‘anti-immigration”. Even in headlines. Even if they are, in fact, pro-immigration. It’s like an unspoken rule of the newsroom. It’s shameful.

Similarly, if a conservative has an honest policy disagreement with activist groups promoting an agenda based on gender, or sex, or has a traditional view of marriage (a view that the President of the United States held and defended until a few hundred days ago) that persons’ views are labeled, in headlines, as “anti-gay”. Does this mean that as recently as 2013 President Obama was anti-gay? Apparently so. The important thing to know is, editors, headline writers, and news producers have chosen to label conservatives as “anti-immigration”. Not necessarily because they don’t know any better (they do) but because A. It actually is a rule, in newsrooms, due to a political agenda, or B. (more likely) they’re too just too lazy to bother.


“Higher taxes, contrary to GOP dogma, will be needed. Similarly, illegal immigrants won’t conveniently vanish.”

The only thing that needs to ‘conveniently vanish’ is the insistence that a comprehensive mega-reform bill the size of Pluto is a worthwhile answer. I can’t disagree that many conservatives prefer a head-in-the-sand approach to immigration. But realistically, most conservatives–and most Americans for that matter–simply place immigrations concerns very low. Far lower than politicians do. A recent poll reveals that it’s an extremely low priority, for actual people in America. I imagine Samuelson knows this. Also, many of the “solutions” to immigration are so rigged with corporate and competing self-interested groups’ agendas, voters are right to be cautious and distrustful.

“Higher taxes will be needed”. Needed for what, I wonder? More revenue? Contrary to liberal dogma, higher taxes don’t produce increased tax revenue. Even JFK knew this. What good are higher taxes if the result is decreased revenue? The best way to create less of something is to tax it more.

If seriously taxing the middle class (the great untapped resource) instead of showering them with tax breaks were to ever happen, then yes, higher taxes can draw more revenue out of what’s left of working society. It depends on the goal.

Is the goal more money for government services? Maybe that’s not the goal. In the 2008 primaries, during a debate with Hillary Clinton, candidate Barack Obama was asked this, directly. Obama admitted that higher tax revenue wasn’t the primary concern. The goal was “fairness”.

I have to assume Samuelson is advocating more tax revenue, since he pointed out that “Even if unworthy government programs are cut” (higher taxes are needed) that still won’t be enough balance the budget.

It depends on our definition of unworthy. Or the scope. If it assumes that simply cutting a few unworthy programs here and there is the most that can be done, short of jacking up taxes (but only on a tiny segment of wealthy people, since you can’t touch the middle class and their protected tax breaks) then yes, higher taxes certainly are needed. But why stop at programs? If Samuel had a cup of coffee and 20 minutes with any staff member at Reason Magazine, he’d get an earful about “unworthy” whole departments. I recommend Samuelson and Nick Gillespe meet at Starbucks. Then report back.

“Government can’t do much about the decline in marriage. But it isn’t handcuffed elsewhere. What’s needed is a bargain in which Democrats trim retiree benefits (Social Security and Medicare) and, in exchange, Republicans deal forthrightly on immigration and taxes. This seems unlikely, because it would require both parties to accept the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.”

Samuelson’s centrist pose is admirable. Positioning himself as the reasonable, non-partisan, analytical wise one, and it’s only those stubborn, self-interested partisans and “wishful thinkers” that are too rigid to see reason. Who does that remind you of? Hmm…


“Appraising America’s democratic prospects in the mid-1940s, historian Brogan wrote that “the pessimists have always been wrong.” Maybe, but they’re looking prescient now.”

Okay, I do like Samuelson’s pessimism. So, there’s that.

It is a good article, in spite of my complaints. I recommend reading the whole thing.

“America’s menacing mega-trends” – The Washington Post

[The American Character at Amazon]

[Rotten Fruit: Patronage, Clientism…]

[Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic at Amazon]

[The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure at Amazon]

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