In the US, an Insecure Economy Needs a Stronger Safety Net

Friday, 30 November 2012 11:15 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed
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Staff at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington.Staff at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, working on the company’s new 787 Dreamliner jets earlier this year. (Photo: Stuart Isett / The New York Times)Looking at The New York Times's "most e-mailed" list, I think we can safely conclude that readers are suffering from post-election burnout; all they seem to want to read about is food.

Which is fine!

But I wanted to share some thoughts provoked by a recent New York Times column by Ross Douthat, in which he makes a very good point — namely, that President Obama's winning coalition did not, for the most part, consist of forward-looking, National Public Radio-listening, culturally adventurous liberals. Instead, the big numbers came from groups "unified by economic fear," as Mr. Douthat put it.

Indeed: single women, Hispanics and African-Americans are for a stronger welfare state because such groups can require the security such a welfare state can provide.

Where I would part ways with Mr. Douthat is in his suggestions that (a) rising insecurity reflects "social disintegration" and that (b) turning to the welfare state is a dead end.

The truth is that while single women and members of minority groups are more insecure at any given point in time than married whites, insecurity is on the rise for everyone, driven by changes in the economy.

The United States' industrial structure is probably less stable than it used to be — you can't count on today's big corporations to survive, let alone retain their dominance, over the course of a working lifetime. And the traditional accoutrements of a good job — a defined-benefit pension plan, a good health-care plan — have been going away across the board.

Every time you read an article by someone extolling the dynamism of the modern economy, the virtues of risk-taking and declaring that everyone has to expect to have multiple jobs in his or her life and that you can never stop learning, etc., bear in mind that this is a portrait of an economy with no stability, no guarantees that hard work will provide a consistent living and the constant possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And nothing people can do in their personal lives or behavior can change this.

Your church and your traditional marriage won't guarantee the value of your 401(k) or make insurance affordable on the individual market.

So here's the question: isn't this exactly the kind of economy that should have a strong welfare state?

Isn't it much better to have guaranteed health care and a basic pension from Social Security rather than simply hanker for a corporate safety net that no longer exists?

Might one not even argue that a bit of basic economic security would make our dynamic economy work better, by reducing the fear factor?

Now, none of this will bring back traditional mores — but that's really a different issue.

In Sweden, more than half of children are born out of wedlock, but they don't seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong. Maybe we'll go that way too. So?

Anyway, Mr. Douthat is quite right to point out that the Obama coalition is in large part a response to fear instead of, or as well as, hope. But that's O.K.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008. Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).
Copyright 2014 The New York Times.

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