2005 - %3, May

Good-bye Federalism

| Mon May. 2, 2005 3:44 PM PDT

Now that the GOP controls all branches of the federal government, we've heard time and again the liberals are rediscovering the joys of federalism as a means of experimenting with their own progressive policies at a state level. On the other side of the aisle, as Susan Milligan reports in the Boston Globe, our Republican Congress has all but abandoned federalism, instead using New Deal-style powers in order to "quash state efforts to regulate industry." The brave crusade against clean air and children runs the gamut, from repealing state controls on engine emissions to preventing states from outlawing harmful drugs.

Now the natural thing to do would be to start screaming "hypocrites!" at every conservative you see, especially since it was George Bush himself who said back in 2001: "The framers of the Constitution did not believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful government." But faulting Republicans for not living up to their time-honored states'-rights principles isn't going to get anyone anywhere. As I've said before, this just isn't a debate between federalists and anti-federalists, it's a debate between those who think there should be economic standards and those who don't, and it's really being fought everywhere. Republicans are rightly worried that progressive state experiments could succeed and then bubble up to the federal level, so naturally they'll use every tool in their little Congressional toolkit to stomp these innovations out.

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Guess who's championing worker safety?

| Mon May. 2, 2005 1:00 PM PDT

You'll have to excuse me for being so jumpy, but every single time I hear that the Bush administration has done something good, I scrunch my eyes and wonder what the catch is. So it goes with this New York Times report today that various federal agencies are increasing cooperation to crack down on workplace violations:

With little fanfare and some adept bureaucratic maneuvering, a partnership between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], the Environmental Protection Agency and a select group of Justice Department prosecutors has been forged to identify and single out for prosecution the nation's most flagrant workplace safety violators.

The initiative does not entail new legislation or regulation. Instead, it seeks to marshal a spectrum of existing laws that carry considerably stiffer penalties than those governing workplace safety alone. They include environmental laws, criminal statutes more commonly used in racketeering and white-collar crime cases, and even some provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a corporate reform law.

Nathan Newman explains that the reason why this sort of coordination can be so effective is that when companies are found to be trampling all over workplace safety laws, "it's a good bet that the company is also violating environmental laws." Certainly something to keep in mind. But hey, why has there been so little fanfare about this? The OSHA administrator won't speak on the record about the initiative, and neither will the Labor Department's top lawyer. Are the technocrats in OSHA and the EPA, who are reportedly very enthusiastic about this new initiative, all afraid that Bush's corporate allies will get wind of what's going on and raise Big Business hell? More to the point, OSHA under the Bush administration has been notoriously awful on workplace protection issues, so one wonders why the sudden change of heart. At any rate, good news on the surface.

No, not welfare...

| Mon May. 2, 2005 12:27 PM PDT

I don't think I've ever gone wrong linking to Mark Schmitt, so here's a link to Mark Schmitt's post on Social Security and universalism. Read it in full. As we know, the president proposed at his press conference last week to slash and hack benefits for anyone making over $20,000. See this analysis for more—although do note that Bush's plan only covers 70 percent of the long-term actuarial imbalance; to get to "solvency," we'd have to cut benefits even further. But the point of Bush's "progressive price indexing," as anyone with even the dimmest of light-receptors can see, is to turn the defined-benefit part of the program into a welfare program for the poor, which can then be killed with nary a howl in the night.

Well, some conservatives are salivating over the thought of Democrats opposing a Bush proposal that helps the poor. Leave aside the fact that Bush's plan doesn't really "help" the poor so much as "refrains from gunning them down along with all the rest of us." (Have our standards really fallen so far that people should be grateful to the president for this?) The larger point, as Mark says, is that "progressive price indexing" really isn't a very hard thing for liberals to oppose:

We would have to be insane to accept a change that creates a huge, middle-class constituency for whom Social Security would be a demonstrable rip-off. … So there's no doubt that preserving Social Security, the original model of a universalist program, and not letting it become a targeted welfare program that leaves a large category of middle class people worse off, will be an easy call.

Uh-huh. Calling the program a "safety net" has always been the wrong way to look at it. Social Security is more of an earned right: far from a government "handout," you have to work hard and pay taxes for at least forty quarters (ten years) to qualify. In fact, because benefits are calculated based on a person's 35 highest-earning years, the system actually rewards work and success.

Furthermore, as Mark Thoma has argued time and time again, Social Security is not fundamentally an anti-poverty program, but a social insurance program: insurance against disability, insurance against the death of a working spouse or parent, insurance against rapid inflation during your retirement years, and insurance against outliving your retirement savings. These are things that could happen to anybody, not just low-income folks. Why the president thinks anyyone making over $20,000 a year doesn't deserve these benefits, despite having worked their whole life to earn them, is simply beyond me.

Feeling Overworked? Well who isn't?

| Mon May. 2, 2005 11:50 AM PDT

A little fodder for those grumbling at the water cooler. The Families and Work Institute just put out a new report (pdf) entitled "Overwork in America" that deserves a bit of discussion. The crucial findings: 44 percent of Americans are overworked using at least one of three different measures, and those overworked employees have, on average, poorer health and higher rates of clinical depression, both of which help to drive up health care costs, as you'd expect. In other words, it's a real problem. Paradoxically, it's the fact that workers have become so darn adept at navigating the 21st century economy that's to blame here:

For those with too much to do, the Overwork in America study found that the very skills that are fundamental to succeeding in the global economy—specifically, moving quickly from task to task with little time for recovery in between, facing many interruptions, and working outside normal work hours, including vacations—can be useful but also can become detrimental. For a significant group of Americans, the way we work today appears to be negatively affecting their health and effectiveness at work.

The price of competence, you could say. As it turns out, though, it's difficult to figure out how, exactly, to reverse these trends. The Institute found that longer vacations usually don't translate into feeling less overworked, although it does help if employees spend most of their vacation relaxing and enjoying themselves, rather than keeping their thumbs mashed on the ol' Blackberry. (Incidentally, employees here in the United States don't get very much quality vacation: only 14 percent of workers took two weeks or more for their longest break.) On the more helpful side, the report suggests creating "more effective workplaces"—wherein employees have opportunities to continue learning, can feel as if they're succeeding, have the flexibility to juggle job and family life, etc. That's a bit vague, but supposedly doing this sort of stuff in the right amounts helps decrease overwork.

Okay. Then there's a broader question to ask here, namely: "What price growth?" America is often lauded for its supercharged GDP, especially in comparison to some of our more welfare-heavy, vacation-loving European peers, but perhaps it's time to re-examine this assumption. For one, the usual comparisons are a bit misleading: European GDP growth per capita has been roughly the same as that in the U.S over the last decade—1.8 percent per year in the U.S., 1.7 percent in the EU15. (Indeed, if you exclude Germany, which has had a number of reunification-related problems, it becomes a very fair match.)

Nevertheless, the Francophobes have it partly right: Income per capita in Europe remains at about 70 percent of the U.S. average. But this isn't because Europeans are less productive—in fact, they're nearly as productive per hour as Americans—but simply because they work fewer hours and take longer vacations. And no, this isn't because crushing European tax rates discourage work; see economist Olivier Blanchard's study on the subject. It's the result of a conscious choice, trading off some private goods for fewer hours worked. Europeans end up working about 40 percent fewer hours over their lifetime than we do. Now there's no one correct way to decide whether we in the United States ought to choose more free time or more stuff, but the Overwork in America report lays out the case that the cost of working more and more hours can be quite high indeed. One more reason to think the fetishization of growth above all else may be the wrong way to think about things.