NOTHING INEVITABLE ABOUT...

NOTHING INEVITABLE ABOUT IT. Roger Lowenstein's review of Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift in this weekend's NY Times was a surprisingly myopic and -- in the old, populist sense -- elitist piece of writing. His review is hampered, to be sure, by fundamental misreadings of Hacker, but the most glaring deficiency is a blase, even bored attitude towards the woes and worries of those below him on the income ladder.

"To buttress [Hacker's] point," Lowenstein writes, "the author trots out a familiar-seeming list -- of people who burned through their savings to finance a medical expense, or who retired only to see their corporate pension plan go bust, or who lost a job that was once secure. But as predictable and, at times, whiny as his examples seem, Mr. Hacker does make a contribution to our understanding." But how predictable and whiny might such examples seem to the millions of Americans who watch a loved one die from cancer because they couldn't afford to take them to the doctor for early screening, or to Jim Horner, who lost his $900,000 of accumulated pension savings from twenty years of work when Worldcom went bust? Would he be comforted to know that the past few years have been "very good years as measured by the Dow Jones industrial average"?

More substantively, Lowenstein appears to have either not read the book or not understood it. There are legitimate critiques to make of Hacker -- I'll be making one this week in a forum we're doing -- but Lowenstein's charge that Hacker doesn't realize we're in a globalizing age is directly contradicted by the book. And his apparent belief that there's nothing the state can do to counteract those trends is belied by the evidence. Structural though some of the issues may be, nothing about them forces an increase in risk: Western Europe and Canada haven't let globalization deprive their citizens of health coverage, secure retirements, unions, or paid family leave. They've done what governments are supposed to do: surveyed the landscape, and legislated so as to protect their citizens from destabilizing forces.

The remarkable cycle that Hacker is pointing out is that, in an age when structural economic trends are pushing risk and insecurity onto individuals, Republicans have hastened the transfer, trying to push even more risk onto individuals through HSAs and privatization. Hacker, in contrast, is calling for some (so-to-speak) countercyclical policy-making that responds to rising risk with policies designed to combat it. Whiny and predictable, I know, but important nonetheless.

--Ezra Klein

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