Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

Bobo thinks he may have figured out one reason why Money Boo Boo lost.  Y’all ain’t gittin’ hitched like y’all should.  In “The Age of Possibility” he babbles that the world is entering a post-familial age. He opines that supple minds will be needed to recognize and navigate the new normal.  He informs us that married people, including married women, voted for Mittens.  Citation?  He don’t need no stinkin’ citation…  And it may not have dawned on him that folks may not be crankin’ out them babbies because they don’t want their children to live in the world Money Boo Boo and the rest of the 1% have created for us.  In “Generals in Their Own Web” Mr. Cohen says out-of-control surveillance turns up dalliances that are not the real scandal.  Prof. Krugman, in “Life, Death and Deficits,” says raising the retirement age on Social Security and Medicare would be a harsh blow to Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution.  This is true, but we’ll most likely be eating cat food pretty soon.  Here’s Bobo:

At some point over the past generation, people around the world entered what you might call the age of possibility. They became intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options.

The transformation has been liberating, and it’s leading to some pretty astounding changes. For example, for centuries, most human societies forcefully guided people into two-parent families. Today that sort of family is increasingly seen as just one option among many.

The number of Americans who are living alone has shot up from 9 percent in 1950 to 28 percent today. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans said that children are very important to a successful marriage. Now, only 41 percent of Americans say they believe that. There are now more American houses with dogs than with children.

This is not a phenomenon particular to the United States. In Scandinavia, 40 percent to 45 percent of the people live alone. The number of marriages in Spain has declined from 270,000 in 1975 to 170,000 today, and the number of total Spanish births per year is now lower than it was in the 18th century.

Thirty percent of German women say they do not intend to have children. In a 2011 survey, a majority of Taiwanese women under 50 said they did not want children. Fertility rates in Brazil have dropped from 4.3 babies per woman 35 years ago to 1.9 babies today.

These are all stunningly fast cultural and demographic shifts. The world is moving in the same basic direction, from societies oriented around the two-parent family to cafeteria societies with many options.

This global phenomenon has been expertly analyzed in a report called “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” written by a team of scholars including Joel Kotkin, Anuradha Shroff, Ali Modarres and Wendell Cox.

Why is this happening? The report offers many explanations. People are less religious. People in many parts of the world are more pessimistic and feeling greater economic stress. Global capitalism also seems to be playing a role, especially, it seems, in Asia.

Many people are committed to their professional development and fear that if they don’t put in many hours at work they will fall behind or close off lifestyle options.

Toru Suzuki, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Society Security Research in Japan, gave Kotkin’s team this explanation in its baldest form: “Under the social and economic systems of developed countries, the cost of a child outweighs the child’s usefulness.”

Singapore is one of the most interesting cases. Like most Asian societies, it used to be incredibly family-centered. But, as the economy boomed, the marriage rate plummeted. Singapore now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. “The focus in Singapore is not to enjoy life, but to keep score: in school, in jobs, in income,” one 30-year-old Singaporean demographer told the researchers. “Many see getting attached as an impediment to this.”

This cultural shift is bound to have huge consequences. Globally, countries that remain fertile, like the U.S., will do fine while countries that don’t, like Japan, will decline. Geographically, singles will dominate city life while two-parent families will be out in suburbia. Politically, married people in America are more likely to vote Republican; Mitt Romney easily won among married voters, including married women. Democrats, meanwhile, have done a much better job relating to single people. President Obama crushed Romney among singles, 62 percent to 35 percent.

The 2012 election results illustrate the gradual transition we are making from one sort of demography (the current Republican coalition) toward another sort of demography (the Democratic coalition). The rise of post-familialism is a piece of that shift.

My view is that the age of possibility is based on a misconception. People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.

The surest way people bind themselves is through the family. As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind. Therefore, our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like.

But the two-parent family is obviously not the only way people bind themselves. We are inevitably entering a world in which more people search for different ways to attach. Before jumping to the conclusion that the world is going to hell, it’s probably a good idea to investigate these emerging commitment devices.

The problem is not necessarily a changing family structure. It’s people who go through adulthood perpetually trying to keep their options open.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Well, an F.B.I. agent on friendly terms with a Florida socialite (enough to send her shirtless photos of himself) can, on the basis of a half-dozen mildly harassing e-mails she had received, set in motion an invasive inquiry that ends up leaving the C.I.A. without a permanent director and putting the appointment of the next Supreme Allied Commander in Europe on hold.

The United States is a very serious country that from time to time opts to turn itself into a complete joke.

The headline is obvious enough: Surveillance State Devours Its Own. I am not sure whose morals would stand up to this degree of intrusion.

The weirdly intersecting dalliances of Jill Kelley (just one more super-leveraged American throwing wild parties in Tampa as her family plunges into debt), Paula “Keep-Your-Hands-Off-My-General” Broadwell, David “Peaches” Petraeus and General John “I’m-Seriously-Into-E-mail” Allen happened to emerge as Google published its semi-annual transparency report about government demands to see its users’ private data.

The report for the first six months of 2012 makes interesting reading. Of the 20,938 requests for access to Google accounts from nations around the world, by far the largest single number — 7,969 — came from U.S. government agencies. The percentage of those U.S. demands that were “fully or partially complied with” by Google was also by far the highest — 90 percent. (Of Russia’s 58 requests, zero percent were complied with, and of Britain’s 1,425 requests, 64 percent were acted on). In all the U.S. requests targeted a total of 16,281 users or accounts in the period, almost half the global total of 34,614.

So the fact the F.B.I. gained access, on the basis of not much, to Broadwell’s Gmail account, where it stumbled on evidence of her affair with Petraeus, is not that unusual — even if Kelley’s initial complaint about cyberstalking e- mails written under the pseudonym KelleyPatrol was flimsy and would, it seems, have gone nowhere without a push from the friendly or perhaps smitten F.B.I. agent (who was subsequently taken off the case).

I know this is convoluted. The movie, coming soon, will cut some details in the interests of plot clarity. Of course, with due prurience, the movie will also play up the “seductress” Kelley and dwell, as the media has done in outrageous but predictable fashion, on her “Middle Eastern” forbears.

Now, I applaud President Obama for saying that he hopes Petraeus’s affair “ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career,” and for expressing the hope that “he and his family are able to move on.” Or at least I hope that scrutiny of Petraeus’s life focuses not on his “All In” biographer and paramour Broadwell but on his achievements turning the tide in Iraq and on the failure of the Iraq-modeled “surge” he backed in Afghanistan, where many U.S. Marines and other members of the Armed Forces perished for nothing during Obama’s first term. (This was a nonsubject during the election campaign.)

What Obama did not say, of course not, is that Petraeus and Allen (and Kelley and Broadwell) are all in some measure victims of the Surveillance State the president inherited from George W. Bush and has spent the past four years consolidating and expanding. Among other things, Obama has tried to amend the Patriot Act to give the F.B.I. ever greater intrusive powers. In 2010, The Washington Post reported that every day the National Security Agency intercepts and stores “1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communication.”

Obama declared in 2009 that we “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” His success in fulfilling that pledge has been distinctly mixed. The drone-led battle against terrorism takes place in a world largely beyond due process and the rule of law. And the privacy of Americans is intruded upon daily in ways that flout the Fourth Amendment.

Now his top generals, older men drawn to younger women, have ended up caught in the invasive web. The irony of a security apparatus turning on its security chiefs is impossible to escape.

The president says national security has not been compromised in any way. So what, pray, is the issue here? Allen’s flirtatious banter with Kelley? The ultimate failure of Petraeus the perfectionist to meet his own impossibly high standards? Or rather the deeply troubling fact that this F.B.I. inquiry digging into in-boxes was possible in the first place?

But never fear, the movie — working title “Downfall” — will not get into this. It will feature the Kelleys’ lavish parties for guests from MacDill Air Force Base — complete with flowing champagne, valet parking and couture fit for the Kardashians — but will steer a very long way from Fourth Amendment issues. Unless a good-looking lawyer with a conscience gets written into the script.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness:

America’s political landscape is infested with many zombie ideas — beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die. The most prominent zombie is the insistence that low taxes on rich people are the key to prosperity. But there are others.

And right now the most dangerous zombie is probably the claim that rising life expectancy justifies a rise in both the Social Security retirement age and the age of eligibility for Medicare. Even some Democrats — including, according to reports, the president — have seemed susceptible to this argument. But it’s a cruel, foolish idea — cruel in the case of Social Security, foolish in the case of Medicare — and we shouldn’t let it eat our brains.

First of all, you need to understand that while life expectancy at birth has gone up a lot, that’s not relevant to this issue; what matters is life expectancy for those at or near retirement age. When, to take one example, Alan Simpson — the co-chairman of President Obama’s deficit commission — declared that Social Security was “never intended as a retirement program” because life expectancy when it was founded was only 63, he was displaying his ignorance. Even in 1940, Americans who made it to age 65 generally had many years left.

Now, life expectancy at age 65 has risen, too. But the rise has been very uneven since the 1970s, with only the relatively affluent and well-educated seeing large gains. Bear in mind, too, that the full retirement age has already gone up to 66 and is scheduled to rise to 67 under current law.

This means that any further rise in the retirement age would be a harsh blow to Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution, who aren’t living much longer, and who, in many cases, have jobs requiring physical effort that’s difficult even for healthy seniors. And these are precisely the people who depend most on Social Security.

So any rise in the Social Security retirement age would, as I said, be cruel, hurting the most vulnerable Americans. And this cruelty would be gratuitous: While the United States does have a long-run budget problem, Social Security is not a major factor in that problem.

Medicare, on the other hand, is a big budget problem. But raising the eligibility age, which means forcing seniors to seek private insurance, is no way to deal with that problem.

It’s true that thanks to Obamacare, seniors should actually be able to get insurance even without Medicare. (Although, what happens if a number of states block the expansion of Medicaid that’s a crucial piece of the program?) But let’s be clear: Government insurance via Medicare is better and more cost-effective than private insurance.

You might ask why, in that case, health reform didn’t just extend Medicare to everyone, as opposed to setting up a system that continues to rely on private insurers. The answer, of course, is political realism. Given the power of the insurance industry, the Obama administration had to keep that industry in the loop. But the fact that Medicare for all may have been politically out of reach is no reason to push millions of Americans out of a good system into a worse one.

What would happen if we raised the Medicare eligibility age? The federal government would save only a small amount of money, because younger seniors are relatively healthy and hence low-cost. Meanwhile, however, those seniors would face sharply higher out-of-pocket costs. How could this trade-off be considered good policy?

The bottom line is that raising the age of eligibility for either Social Security benefits or Medicare would be destructive, making Americans’ lives worse without contributing in any significant way to deficit reduction. Democrats, in particular, who even consider either alternative need to ask themselves what on earth they think they’re doing.

But what, ask the deficit scolds, do people like me propose doing about rising spending? The answer is to do what every other advanced country does, and make a serious effort to rein in health care costs. Give Medicare the ability to bargain over drug prices. Let the Independent Payment Advisory Board, created as part of Obamacare to help Medicare control costs, do its job instead of crying “death panels.” (And isn’t it odd that the same people who demagogue attempts to help Medicare save money are eager to throw millions of people out of the program altogether?) We know that we have a health care system with skewed incentives and bloated costs, so why don’t we try to fix it?

What we know for sure is that there is no good case for denying older Americans access to the programs they count on. This should be a red line in any budget negotiations, and we can only hope that Mr. Obama doesn’t betray his supporters by crossing it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: