Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Far be it from me to defend Thomas Friedman, but ...

While I find Friedman unreadable in style and uninteresting in substance, not to mention lacking in real knowledge of much that he discusses, this time around perhaps he deserves at least a halfhearted defense.

A recent Dean Baker blog post goes as follows:

"Thomas Friedman Competes for the Nobel in Ignorance

"Thomas Friedman told readers that: "But now it feels as if we are entering a new era, 'where the great task of government and of leadership is going to be about taking things away from people,' said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum."

"Unfortunately, Mr. Friedman apparently doesn't talk to anyone who has ever taken any economics. There are no serious forecasts that do not project that productivity will continue to grow for the indefinite future, and many project that productivity will grow at a more rapid pace than it did in the years from 1973-1995. This means that there is no reason, except incompetent economic management and/or the continuing upward redistribution of income, why the vast majority of the population should not experience improvements in living standards. This would mean an increase in both public and private services."

In fact, Friedman is right although Baker is also right - one could even take the view that Baker's riposte is a non sequitur.

Consider Medicare. Over time, the law on the books seems to promise (against the background of the best available demographic and technological evidence) a rising expenditure level in Medicare that is fiscally unsustainable. (Parallel problem for employer-provided health insurance.) The projections thus strongly suggest that the government will have to "take things away from people" - that is, change the Medicare rules in the direction of denying best-available-care in circumstances where it would have been provided today.

But what about Baker's point? He is right that, under consensus projections, people's living standards will keep on improving. Indeed, so presumably will their healthcare, as the technology keeps advancing. Suppose Medicare in 2050 denies people the best contemporaneously available care as overly expensive, when it would have provided the best available care in 2010. The people who were being denied care in 2050 because the program had been scaled back might still be receiving treatment vastly superior to any that is available (even to the richest people in the world) today.

Worse in relative terms - compared to what is contemporaneously feasible - but better in absolute terms.

Baker's way of looking at it is preferable if one is actually trying to evaluate how well off people will be in 2050 (if today's projections are in the ballpark) compared to today. But Friedman is right about the existence of a problem in political economy and in managing expectations, when current policy seems to promise that outlays will grow unsustainably faster than the economy. And there is a reason for looking at it this way as well as Baker's way. For example, we may have a cataclysmic U.S. fiscal bankruptcy (affecting the degree of actual rise in living standards) because government is unable to "take things away" in Friedman's sense even when this involves taking away less than 100% of contemporaneous gains from technological progress.

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