America’s fiscal situation appears grim. The “supercommittee” was unwilling to make tough decisions, mostly because voters won’t support the necessary mix of tax increases and spending cuts. Few politicians want to acknowledge that somebody’s standard of living will have to fall. It’s hard not to look at the current crisis in Europe and wonder if the United States might someday find itself in the position of Italy, even if we will be spared the fate of poorer Greece.
For all the economic predictions, few commentators have taken a serious look at the politics of this new era. Will Occupy Wall Street shape the debate, will the tea party grab the mainstream, or will we get something else altogether? To address these questions, enter Thomas Byrne Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia University and previously a longtime writer for The Washington Post.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, current and forthcoming fiscal pressures will reshape American politics into a zero-sum battle of who gets what, and how much is taken from whom. It promises to be ugly.
In Edsall’s portrait, fear is on the rise. It will lead to a self-destructive, polarized national politics based on paranoia, brutality and coarseness, whether the issue is cracking down on immigration, neglecting the long-term unemployed or failing to impose higher taxes on the wealthy. His view of American politics suggests that Republicans will hold firm to their ideology while Democrats sell out their side with weak compromises.
As a caution about Edsall’s theory, I’ve never once heard that view from a conservative; more often conservatives end up disappointed when their representatives yield to mainstream liberal ideology. For better or worse, and despite all their rhetoric, Republican politicians accept and indeed embrace a larger portion of the American welfare state than ever before.
What about the trend of polarization? The data indicate that while Congress is more politically divided along party lines, the electorate as a whole is not so fractured. Most people hold a mix of independent, centrist and moderate views, with varying degrees of skepticism about both political parties.
Edsall fails what George Mason economics professor and blogger Bryan Caplan has called the “ideological Turing test.” Can Edsall explain the views of fiscal conservatives in a manner that those conservatives would recognize and agree with? Not to this reader and fiscal conservative. Here’s one example of a paragraph that is both slanted and not insightful: “Conservative priorities have gained more traction from fiscal collapse than has liberalism. The contemporary economic climate has dealt a blow to the instinct of generosity essential to the left and has strengthened the instincts of greed, callousness, and self-preservation.”
You would hardly know that conservatives, on average, give more to charity than do liberals, that America recently passed universal health coverage (in the midst of a recession), that most spending cuts are illusory and manufactured by tricks involving artificial fiscal baselines, that Mitt Romney is still the most likely Republican candidate for president or that entitlement spending is slated to rise significantly over the next few decades.
I wished for more discussion of the elderly. The two biggest government programs — Medicare and Social Security — are almost exclusively for them, with a significant chunk of Medicaid going to the elderly as well. By about 2030, America as a whole will have the age structure currently found in Florida. That means the elderly, who vote at above-average rates, are very likely to keep winning political battles. The real question about our fiscal future is not Republicans vs. Democrats but rather whether any coalition can limit benefits to older people. It is already unlikely that the Republicans will gut Medicare or Social Security or get very far in trying. The last major expansion of Medicare came under the Bush administration, and, despite the tough talk of Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, the Republicans are unable to enact fundamental Medicare cost control because they are too dependent on the white elderly vote.
I am disappointed that the book does not make a clear fiscal prediction. Exactly which programs will we cut, and how much will taxes go up? Who will lose the political battles to come? Will a centrist movement for fiscal responsibility take off? The book never delivers on the promise of its title. It also fails to acknowledge that the austerity advocates, for all their flaws and inconsistencies, are absolutely correct about the long-run need for fiscal balance and that, one way or another, we must heed their message.
“The Age of Austerity” won’t help us get to a better version of fiscal restraint. It may help us see some of our fellow Americans, especially conservatives and Republicans, as greedy and heartless. I would submit that such an oversimplified portrait is part of the problem that this book ostensibly is trying to cure.
THE AGE OF AUSTERITY
How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
By Thomas Byrne Edsall
Doubleday. 256 pp. $24.95