Eric Mink Writes About Risk (the Experience, Not the Board Game)
I enjoy closely reading and analyzing Eric Mink’s columns in the Post-Dispatch, but because he primarily writes about national or international issues, I don’t get to blog about them here very often. Today’s article, though, fits right in with what we do and what I like to talk about. It is a great column, albeit one with which I disagree profusely. There is just an unbridgeable philosophical divide between us that his piece today lays clear. But, I repeat, I think it is a very well-done column, and in its tremendous personal honesty it becomes more than just high quality — it’s admirable.
Outside of a book he discusses in depth, the premise of Mink’s column is that Americans are living lives, financially speaking, at greater risk than before. One of the faults of his piece is that he does not define “before.” Was there more security in the 1950s? The 1880s? When? Let’s assume he means the 1950s or so. We now have, Mink admits, more material success and financial health on average, but less security in that status than we used to. The list of concerns for American families keeps getting longer:
But it’s not just me. It turns out we have good reason to worry about the unpredictable what-ifs of day-to-day life: What if I lose my job? What if illness or injury strikes the family? What if there’s a tornado, a hurricane, a flood, a divorce? What if we can’t afford college? What if a depressed economy wipes out our savings?
These concerns are no doubt real to many Americans, albeit quite annoying to read or listen to. (Phil Gramm was right.) Mink then goes from micro to macro by placing the above concerns into a larger context (emphasis added):
The issue is not the odds of such things happening. It’s that if even one of them does, the impact is likely to be more potent and longer-lasting than ever before. And it’s that — in today’s America — there is less help available to get us through the hard times. That leaves all of us exposed to things beyond our control with little protection.
Mink then attempts to provide evidence for these statements. He cites a book by an LA Times economics writer documenting that modern Americans have larger income swings from year to year than we used to. These swings, and related uncertainties, make life planning more difficult. The result is:
People have been stripped […] of the “security of expectations.”
You should read the entire article yourself to see the evidence for this that Mink provides, in terms of health care, insurance, and pensions. I need to get to my own thoughts. The belief that the government is doing less than it used to is simply preposterous. Did I miss it when we eliminated Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, property tax rebates, earned-income tax credits, heavily subsidized public tranportation, free public education, and a thousand other government programs? Wait — they are all still there. In many cases, regrettably so.
Americans are indeed more on our own than we used to be. It has nothing to do with the government, though. We have chosen to bowl alone. We live with immediate, nuclear families, and have fewer close connections with our communities, churches, extended family, social groups, and neighbors than we used to. I think everyone will agree that this is a fact. When we have difficulties, financial or otherwise, we have fewer options of places to turn for help. This is how many of us have chosen to live, but it does not have to be that way — and, indeed, is not for everyone. Mink’s column is frustrating for its erroneous and, to my mind, offensive assumptions that government used to, and should, provide more security for people.
The column’s conclusion blames, in unnamed fashion, Republicans and market fanatics (sounds like me) who have dismantled society’s safety net, against the wishes of most Americans. First of all, the safety net has not been the least bit dismantled. (Are you enjoying your taxpayer-paid prescriptions, seniors?) But, more importantly, the items he lists as evidence were never required to be provided by government in the first place. Pensions and health insurance were offered by the private sector when it made sense to do so. Now it is making less sense for many companies to do so. There are legitimate demographic reasons for much of this, especially regarding pensions.
Mink writes that these safety nets constitute “the fabric of protections woven from the devastating experiences of the Great Depression.” Wrong. Employer-provided health insurance, as most people know, became popular as a means of luring employees during the wage restrictions of WWII. Private pensions were never required by government, either — although there are indeed laws governing them if an organization decides to implement one. Mink is longing for a day that never was by blaming the government for dismantling programs it never installed (thank God) in the first place.
I think we need more personal responsibility, and the risks that come with that — not less. Americans should react to difficult economic times by making smarter personal decisions. You don’t have to have two cars. You can live in a less-expensive house. You can pass on buying that new flat-screen if you can’t afford it. You can exercise more (running is free) to become more healthy. You can eat less fast food crap. You can do a million other things. It is not the government’s job to take care of you. It is not up to other taxpayers to make you secure in your expectations. Make your own reality.