Correcting Ross Douthat in His Attack on Progressives

Print
Monday, 15 November 2010 05:09

Ross Douthat denounced progressives who attacked the Bowles-Simpson proposals for cutting Social Security and Medicare to help finance lower taxes on the hard-pressed wealthy. He got a few things wrong in the process.

First, Douthat complains that businesses in the United States have to "labor under one of the higher corporate tax rates in the developed West." While the marginal tax rate in the United States is somewhat higher than the average, because of the extensive loopholes in the corporate tax, the effective tax rate in the United States is lower than the average for the OECD. There certainly is no general opposition among liberals to reform that would reduce the tax rate while offsetting the lower rates with fewer deductions.

He complains that in the liberal/progressive's world, "the Social Security retirement age never budges, no matter how high average life expectancy climbs." Mr. Douthat apparently has not heard that the Social Security retirement age is rising already. The age at which workers collect full benefits has already risen from 65 to 66. It will rise to 67 for workers who reach age 62 after 2022. Also, although life expectancy has been rising, this is mostly due to increases for workers in the top half of the income distribution. The increase in the retirement age already in law will eat up most of the increase in life expectancy over the last 40 years for workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution.

He also appears to believe that Social Security is a subsidy for middle class workers. This is not the case. Because of its progressive benefit structure, most middle income workers will get a real return of less than 2.0 percent on the money they paid in payroll taxes.

Douthat also complains about the government warping the health care marketplace. While this is true, the main distortions are not being primarily protected by liberals. Patent protection for prescription drugs cause them to be sold at prices that are several hundred percent above their competitive market price, however conservatives tend to be the biggest proponents of stronger patent protection. Increased international competition would also go far toward bringing our health care costs more in line with the rest of the world.

Douthat also compares the views of liberals in the United States unfavorably with Europe, noting that many European countries are cutting back on the generosity of their welfare states. Apparently Mr. Douthat didn't know that their welfare states are currently far more generous than the welfare states in the United States. This means that the cutbacks will still in most cases leave the welfare states in these countries considerably more generous than in the United States. For example, the recent hotly contested law in France raised its early retirement age to 62 and its age for full benefits to 67, the levels already in law in the United States. And, French workers have seen a much more rapid increase in life expectancy than workers in the United States over the last four decades.

Finally, Douthat apparently is a Neanderthal protectionist who fears international competition. He argues that the United States could have higher tax rates and a more generous welfare state in the early post-war period because its competitors had been destroyed by the war. Actually, in economic theory, the United States benefits from having wealthy countries from whom it can buy goods and services more cheaply than they can be produced domestically. It is not clear why Douthat thinks that this is a problem.