Closer to $2 trillion

Hosted by , and

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris receive a presidential daily briefing from the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the Vice President’s National Security Adviser Nancy McEldowney and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo by Adam Schultz/Official White House

Democrats are much closer to passing the nearly $2 trillion relief package President Joe Biden has proposed. A Republican pitch for a much smaller package doesn’t look to be going anywhere. The White House says doing too little is way riskier than doing too much, but economist Larry Summers is worried the package is too big and will endanger efforts to spend later on infrastructure. Who is right? Josh Barro talks with Megan McArdle and David Dayen about that, Senator Romney’s proposal for a child benefits package, and special guest Helen Andrews makes the conservative anti-Boomer case.

Read the full transcript below

Josh Barro: This is Josh Barro and welcome to Left, Right & Center, your civilized yet provocative antidote to the self-contained opinion bubbles that dominate political debates. It's the first week of February and this week lawmakers in Washington are moving toward another coronavirus relief package. The Senate passed a budget that will pave the way to pass the package on a party line vote if necessary. But President Biden continues to negotiate with Republicans. He had a long meeting with them on Monday at the White House to talk about gaps between their plans, but the gap really looks very large at this point. So the question is: can there be any sort of bipartisan deal on any of this? Or are we just heading to using the budget process to pass something pretty similar to what Biden has proposed to begin with? To talk about that, let's bring in our Left, Right & Center panel. As always, I'm your center. I'm joined by Megan McArdle, columnist the Washington Post on the right. Hello, Megan. 

Megan McArdle: Hi. 

Josh Barro: And on the left, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. Hello, David.

David Dayen: Hi, good to be here again.

Josh Barro: So the counteroffer from these 10 Republican senators is about a $600 billion relief package. Now Joe Biden's proposal is 1.9 trillion. So these are really not very close together. They had this long meeting at the White House, the White House has made clear that it is unwilling, for example, to reduce the relief checks to less than $14 00. The Republican senators have proposed checks of $1,000. The White House is open to certain other changes, like lowering the income caps to qualify for those checks. But still, I mean, this is a really large gulf between the Republicans and the Democrats. So it's looking like the most likely outcome is a package that's done through the budget reconciliation process, which means the Democrats can act with just 50 votes in the Senate, plus the Vice President's vote. The Senate's passage of that budget this week was a necessary step on the way to that. Because of some quirks, Democrats can use this process up to twice this year. David, you had previously been urging what you were calling a checks and shots approach, which was to say, pass a bill quickly that has money for states to do vaccinations and that has these individual relief checks, and then you can do more controversial measures later through that reconciliation process. And this is more or less what that Republican group has proposed. They agree with Biden on funding for vaccination shots. And the relief checks proposal isn't that far from Biden's plan. It's not close, but that seems like an area unlike some of the others where you might ultimately be able to work out a deal. So is there life in that? Is that something that Biden should be directing political capital to, doing at least part of this relief through this vehicle, and then you can always go through reconciliation later and do the other parts that you can't get Republican votes for?

David Dayen: I don't think there's any life in it because I think the Biden administration has made it pretty clear that they don't want to split the bill in any way, whether they think that having those popular pieces in reconciliation helps them with perhaps wayward members of the Democratic Caucus, or what,  they seem unwilling to move forward in that fashion. So I think we're going to get a reconciliation bill. It was interesting: when the Republicans did go to the White House, Senate Republicans, there was a Bloomberg piece that suggested that even the Republicans were saying, well, just let us do this checks and shots now and you can do whatever you want in reconciliation, seeming that all this was about was maybe getting credit. I mean, the reason I was in favor of sort of doing a quick relief through regular order strategy is the speed of it. So especially on the vaccine side, to ramp up vaccine distribution would require some more funds and if you can get those out quickly, the budget reconciliation process is pretty protracted. I mean, we saw a multi-hour vote-a-rama and that was just for the budget resolution. It has to go through committees, it has to come back, there are another series of votes, we're probably not going to see a package until March. And that's a delay that we really kind of can't afford when you're talking about the vaccine distribution. So that was the reason that I was in favor of that. It doesn't look like the Biden White House is taking my advice.

Josh Barro: Megan, the Biden proposal is extremely popular. There was a Quinnipiac poll out this week that found 68% of respondents said they favored Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus relief bill, only 24% were opposed. 78% said they favored the 1400 checks with only 18% opposed. I don't think this just boils down to the idea that spending on stuff that people get is in general popular. I don't think there's normally this sort of political pressure that leads to these kinds of huge one off spending bills. Certainly the government doesn't ordinarily send out checks like this. So what do you make of those numbers? I assume you disagree with the public here, but why do they disagree with you?

Megan McArdle: Well, I think for a couple reasons. First of all, we all feel like we're in a national emergency and normal constraints sort of don't feel like they apply. And I will say this about myself. I'm actually a budget hawk. I was a budget hawk, by which I mean, I was a budget hawk when President Trump wanted to blow up the budget in order to pass big tax cuts. I think, you know, at the end of the day, there does have to be some relationship between inflow and outflow over the long term and that we should try to make it match as much as possible when we're not in an emergency. But we are in an emergency. And I will say last spring, I was just like, you know, cancel everything, pay people to stay home. But we're now in this weird spot where we actually... our economy is basically at full employment, except for leisure and hospitality. And then leisure and hospitality, no one is working. And so for me, obviously, I think even though I would still favor doing more relief, I would have targeted to people in those industries, both on the business side and on the worker side. But people feel like they're in an emergency. So therefore, they're not worried about the taxes. And people really do like getting $1400 checks. More broadly than that is most people like things that are really broad. They don't like targeted relief. Like, raising the unemployment payments has been more controversial than just sending checks to every household, even though every household doesn't need it. First of all, there's nothing to spend the money on. So the idea that this is stimulus is ridiculous. And second of all, the people who are really hurting, are hurting really badly. And we could be, you know, pushing the money towards those people. But people like the feeling that like, we're all in this together, they like feeling that they're going to get a $1400 check, and then they're going to stash it in their savings account, and maybe, you know, pay down debt, or they will spend the money on something when the restrictions lift. But it doesn't surprise me that this is an incredibly popular part of the plan, because it feels like it's targeting ordinary real Americans, even though the things that ordinary real americans are suffering right now, like the inability to send their kid to school, or the inability to go out for a meal that's not in 24 degree-weather, shivering in a parking lot, those things can't be fixed by a check.

Josh Barro: Can you just lay out more explicitly what you see as the problem if we send out too much money? I mean, the line from the White House consistently is that the cost of doing too little or just much larger right now than the cost of doing too much. Interest rates are really low. If the government borrows and spends too much money, it's just not that big a deal economically. Are you concerned that that's going to cause interest rates and inflation to go up? What goes wrong if we send out too much money?

Megan McArdle: Look, I am concerned that we have run up literally trillions of debt over the last year. And I thought that a lot of that was justified, we were in an emergency, interest rates are low. But you know, it's not like a mortgage. It's not like an individual mortgage, where it amortizes over time, and at the end of the loan, you've paid it off. The United States has to roll over its debt periodically. And when it does, if interest rates have risen, if people are less confident that the United States has been able to repay its debts, then it gets more expensive and you can get into kind of a fiscal crisis really fast. And the problem with it is it's actually very hard to see coming until suddenly, it's upon you. The economist Rudi Dornbusch, had a great quote about this word about the Mexican currency crisis in the 80s, where he said it took forever and then it took a night. Everyone said, well, something should happen, but nothing is, I guess it's okay. And then it really wasn't okay, very suddenly. And so I do worry about something like that eventually happening to us. When is eventually? I don't know, could be 10-20 years. And maybe that's too long to worry about. But I do think that when you don't have to spend money, and when there's no obvious rationale for spending the money. We aren't in a recession, where the problem is confidence stimulus is about confidence, right? It is about giving people enough money that spending restarts and then businesses start feeling a little more like oh, okay, I have some breathing room, I can maybe hire some people. And, and starting to bring economic activity back at a time where people are frozen, because they are afraid about the future. That's not the situation we're in now. Most households are doing great financially compared to themselves a year ago, but the households that are doing badly are doing really, really badly and have no way to work. And so we should be focusing not on stimulus, but on providing targeted relief to those people who are really in desperate circumstances, and the more we spread the money around, the less we're able to target them. And if we don't have some constraints, then the other problem is maybe we are running up debts that will really come back to bite us in a decade or so. 

Josh Barro: David, Larry Summers has been raising a version of this objection, mostly to a chorus of boos from Democrats. Do you see any downside to going too big here? I mean, I think Summers's concern is basically, that if you do too much now, it's going to take up space that limits what you can do later in the year when there might be an infrastructure package or other spending that's focused not on immediate relief, but long term investment in the economy. And so that could be either through a political channel where basically you use up the willingness to do borrowing and spending, or I mean, it doesn't have to be a currency crisis, like Megan describes there, but if the borrowing does have effects that lead to higher interest rates, then maybe the the political environment around borrowing becomes less favorable because of that, because it's more expensive to borrow and then it interferes with the ability to do the infrastructure package. Do you worry about that at all?

David Dayen: It's not going to surprise you that I disagree with Larry Summers. So I have been hearing about the inflation boogeyman being just around the corner since the Great Recession and we just haven't ever reached that corner. This has never been a problem in the last decade and I don't suspect that it will be in the future. The interest rates and debt service as a percentage of the overall debt is at a pretty historic low. Interest rates are very low right now and that that is a good time to borrow. So what Summers is saying is that we're going to crowd out future needs in terms of public investment, things like infrastructure. There is a plan if you talk to the Biden people to do that package with the second reconciliation bill that you were talking about, and keep in mind that the entire Biden tax plan, which would reverse many of the Trump tax cuts, to the tune of trillions of dollars is also on the table. So I'm not even sure that very large infrastructure plan will even be, you know, I think a lot of it will be offset. So it just doesn't seem like this is a constraint. And, you know, then we get into this issue of targeting, which has been a big topic of discussion this week. The Biden team is considering making the eligibility, the means test, on these direct payments much tighter. It's based on some research by Raj Chetty and others who show that that money wasn't immediately spent on the last stimulus check. To me, that doesn't really tell you much of anything, it doesn't mean that that money wasn't useful to those individuals. And maybe they spent it at the end of the month, just because they didn't spend it the day that they got, it doesn't mean that it wasn't helpful. And the bigger problem here is that the federal government does not have the data right now to actually target very well. We are going to put out these checks based on 2019 tax data, because that's all we have, at the moment until the 2020 tax season opens. And what that means is, is that that's pre pandemic. And we're going to say that if you made $50,000 a year in 2019, that's the cutoff, even if you lost your job in March, and didn't have it for the rest of the year. Now, there's apparently a way to get that money back through the tax code, but it's a barrier in terms of you got to fill out a form and you got to know that you have to fill out a form and there's going to be utilization problems. So if we really want to do this with targeting, and making sure that the money only goes to people who really, really need it, why don't you give everyone a check now, and then claw it back in the next tax year using the correct data of what people actually earned? That seems to me to be the only fair way to do this.

Josh Barro: I want to ask a little bit about the inflation boogeyman because I have not been very worried about this for the last decade and I'm not very worried about it now, but we have seen over the last year that inflation expectations have continued to tick up. If you look at the one market way to look at this, as you compare the interest rates on 10 year government bonds to the 10 year government bonds that are adjusted for inflation, you can get a sense of what people expect that inflation rates will be over the next decade and that number keeps going up. It's now over 2% around 2.2, which obviously is not a real high number. It's a little bit higher than the Fed's inflation target. The Fed has said that it wants to allow inflation to run somewhat above its target for some periods. So I don't think this is a worry now but David, I'm just wondering if that continues to go up and at the margin, you know, the more deficit spending you do that should put upward pressure on that, especially with the Fed being so accommodative does there need to be a political plan about what to do if inflation does come back for the first time in so long? I mean, at least, you know, the, I'm not saying that we need to desperately avoid any policies that could cause inflation, but it seems like people are experiencing that for the first time in a while, especially seniors who aren't working and so wouldn't be enjoying the wage increases associated with sort of a an economy that's running hot. What do you do about the fact that that's going to arise as a public opinion, concern as a political concern, and I think, you know, I think that does conceivably interfere with efforts to do an infrastructure package because if you have to do those tax provisions you describe to offset whatever new spending, you do, then you add the political difficulty of getting people to agree in a very narrow Democratic majority on exactly what tax increases to do, whereas if you continue to have this very low rate environment, then you can just sort of agree to do more deficit spending.

David Dayen: That certainly is a political issue, although I think that the Democratic caucus is pretty well aligned on a lot of that stuff. I mean, I would say that inflation has been running below target for close to a decade now, off and on. I mean, for the vast majority of the last decade, inflation has been under that 2% target. If we run it hot for a period of time, you're just moving back to that target level, that the 2% for so long, has been a ceiling, rather than a target. And if we've run below it, that's been fine in the eyes of the policymakers, but I think that's the wrong way to look at it. If it's a target, and it's something you want to hit, whether you're going a little below it, you're going to have to compensate that by getting a little above it at some point. So I think that I just don't see this as a major problem right now. And the second thing is that, are we going to let 2.2% over 2% be something that restricts us from, you know, reconfiguring our schools so that we can get people into the classroom? Are we going to let that be a barrier to getting the vaccines out as fast as possible, and testing and tracing so that fewer people are in a position of dying? I mean, I just don't think that long-run inflation expectations, which have always seemingly been a little overdetermined and wrong, frankly, if you look at CBO projections on inflation, and where it's going to be it every year for the last 10 years, it ends up getting revised down, I just don't think that should be a barrier to the real human challenges that we have right now.

Josh Barro: Megan, what would it be such a bad thing to run the economy so-called too hot for some period? I mean, I think I disagree with your characterization, that we're at full employment outside travel and hospitality and some other leisure industries that have been especially impacted by the pandemic. I mean, we saw in the 2018-2019 period, that the unemployment rate could get a lot lower than a lot of economists previously thought without spiking inflation up. That was generating relatively healthy increases in real wages. It feels like you know, that people say, oh, the economy will be too hot. That means that companies compete more for workers, they have to pay more, it becomes easier for people to find jobs and to change jobs if they don't like their job. And the flip side of that is yes, some prices go up as companies have to pay more in order to get stuff done, but it feels like that provides a lot of benefits to ordinary people that are not something to sneeze at.

Megan McArdle: Yeah, I'm not an inflation hawk. I mean, at some level, I'm an inflation hawk, right? If inflation were persistently 5%, I would be anxious. And I would say that this is becoming a problem that we should address, right. But if inflation is 2.8, or 2.9%, I'm not freaking out. Like everyone else, I'm kind of fascinated about why inflation is so low, it is mysterious. But my fear is that we then just take that as a kind of natural law. And you've seen a lot of this on the Democratic side, right? People will say, well, you know, the United States borrows in its own currency and therefore we don't have to worry about something like what happened in Greece, as if the United States borrowing and its own currency were a physical law, like the  speed of light, and could never change. And my fear is just that look, if we get to like 200, or 250% of debt to GDP, which is where both parties, the direction they're now pushing us. No one wants to ever pay for anything, they just want to spend huge amounts of money and spend it on things that are not really fundamentally about addressing crises, which is when you should be doing deficit spending. I think the risk instead is that people look at that debt level and just say, you know what, I'm kind of starting to worry about whether the United States can pay this much debt back. And now Japan has been over 200% and has managed to so maybe it's possible. But that's the scenario I worry about is that then the interest rates creep up and we've had all these wonderful interest rates look for that were so low for so long, because people just assumed there was no default risk. And that as that creeps up, suddenly we're having to roll over debt at higher and higher interest rates, interest is crowding out more and more into the budget and making a default, more likely, at which point the interest rates go up. Right? Those are the kinds of scenarios that again, I'm not worried about this in the next five years. But because those scenarios, it takes a long time to get into that position, it's not something that happens overnight. And that means that you know, even when everyone's like, well, but I don't see it happening right now. Why should we worry about this? Now let's worry about that later. By the time later arrives, and you need to worry about it. It's too late. You're now in bad trouble, and so I would like us to say, yes, sometimes we have to borrow money to deal with a crisis. I supported a bunch of this in 2008. I supported a bunch of it and the past year, I still support a bunch of it for people who are really suffering right now. And I'm not worried about running the economy too hot. What I am worried about is the long term fiscal structural problem that we are setting up if we are not thrifty about the money that we spend. And if we are not really making sure that it is money that is either going to, like infrastructure, raise tax revenues and economic growth later, or money that is needed right now, because we're in a crisis to deal with people who are suffering, and $1400 checks to people who are making $150,000 a year is not in any way really connected to people who are suffering. It is connected to the Democratic Party's desire to please voters and get a poll bump.

Josh Barro: Let's take a break. I'll be back with David Dayen of The American Prospect and Megan McArdle of The Washington Post to talk about proposals on both sides of the aisle to get more money to parents of children. You're listening to Left, Right & Center.

You're hearing from our Left, Right & Center. And we want to hear from you to tweet us @LRCKCRW and download the free KCRW app to listen to Left, Right & Center on demand.

Josh Barro: Back again with Left, Right & Center. I'm Josh Barro. On the right is Megan McArdle columnist at the Washington Post. And on the left, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. Infrastructure may be on the congressional agenda for later this year, but there's another big idea with bipartisan support that could show up there too. Joe Biden has called for child allowance: an unrestricted payment of a few thousand dollars per child each year to parents, from deep poverty all the way up through the middle class. It would end up phasing out for high earners. Currently, we have a child tax credit, but in addition to being smaller than this proposed child allowance, you can't get the child tax credit if you're extremely poor, because you have to earn income to qualify for it. Making this allowance available to people with the lowest incomes would significantly reduce child poverty. And now this idea is bipartisan. Mitt Romney is out with a proposal that differs from the Biden plan and its contours, it's actually a little bit more generous overall, but it takes the same universal approach that is aimed at poverty reduction. This idea would cost about $100 billion a year. Romney would pay for that in a few ways, including by eliminating the income tax deduction for state and local taxes paid. That deduction, which is a favorite of affluent residents of high tax blue states was already significantly curtailed in the 2017 tax law. So Megan, is this a good idea?

Megan McArdle: Absolutely. You know, the SALT deduction is indefensible, either ethically or as a public policy matter. And it's a good idea to have a simpler-to-administer program that targets, you know, the United States has a demographic problem and anything that even on the margin encourages people to have more kids is good for America. This is good for families who may need help but not qualify for traditional forms of assistance. And I think that shift away from targeted welfare that, you know, puts conditions on the money that basically encourage people to work less, or in other ways, you know, for example, to not take a higher paying job because their benefits phase out, I think anything that is simpler, that goes to more people who may need it, and that pays for it by taking away a deduction that — while I benefit from it — is really just completely ridiculous and should never have happened is a win for everyone.

Josh Barro: David, what do you make of this proposal? And do you see this as something that might get done this year?

David Dayen: So the Romney proposal is pretty good, the fact that it's administrated through the Social Security Administration rather than the IRS probably means more take up for it. As you say, it has a slightly more generous benefit than Biden does. The state and local tax deduction is not the only way it's paid for. I suspect some progressives will have a problem with certain pay-fors that are in the Romney plan, including reducing the earned income tax credit, eliminating TANF and the knock-on effects that has, because if you cut TANF, which is the former welfare program, there are ways in which eligibility for that reflects eligibility for nutrition assistance. So there are some issues to work out there. But you know, there's certainly a range of pay for us that you could use. The issue, I think, is that you know, you describe the child allowance is bipartisan, and it's kind of bipartisan by the skin of its teeth. So Romney put out this plan, but I was rather shocked to see an immediate statement from Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who were two people who were sort of associated with improving the child allowance or child tax credit or things to help families, and they blasted it. I mean, absolutely blasted the Romney plan, saying that they don't support turning the child tax credit into a child allowance. They call it welfare assistance. So the number, I suspect, of federal officials on the Republican side that are going to agree with Mitt Romney can be counted on one hand and maybe one finger. So that's that's going to be a barrier, I think, to getting this done, although you could conceivably do it in a reconciliation area and Romney plus the Democratic caucus might get you there, at least on the Senate side. So I was just surprised, though, that Romney was really kind of all alone on this.

Josh Barro: Yeah, Megan, that statement from Rubio and Lee stuck out to me because they said that this proposal was not pro-work. And so I think that there are two different things that conservatives can mean when they talk about whether an income support program promotes work. One is the stuff that you address that when you have a welfare program, that you lose benefits because you work in earned income, then that obviously can discourage people from working. And the Romney plan is quite explicitly designed to avoid that. You get to keep the child allowance, even if you work, even if your income goes up until you get to a pretty high level. So it doesn't have that work disincentive that conservatives often worry about. And yet, Lee and Rubio say anyway, that it is anti-work, because their concern is just the fact that you increase the incomes of very poor people who do not have labor income, that that I guess, conceivably makes it possible to subsist without working? And it's anti-work that way, which just strikes me as as bad economics and a pretty morally deficient position. And I guess the question is, what is the animating concern when conservatives talk about making sure that the government promotes work?

Megan McArdle: Well, let me let me raise a qualified defense of that. The benefit that he proposes for someone who has, say, five children is higher than the benefit that that person would have gotten, you know, before welfare reform from TANF, or what was then aid to families with dependent children. And we have evidence that people were subsisting on that, and that there were disincentives to work built into that, and that when you made getting benefits contingent on working and made them time limited, people went to work who had not before. And so now the worst-off people were then much worse-off. And that's something that's under discussed with welfare reform is that you had this real bifurcation where on average, it doesn't look that great, it looks like it's a small improvement in people's lives, but you had people who were better off because they got into the labor market and stayed there, and over time, earn more money and so forth. And then you had people who were for reasons of mental health or drug addiction or what have you, unable to get in the labor market and those people were dramatically worse off, and their children were obviously dramatically worse off because there was no income coming into the household anymore. And this goes back to something closer to that system. But that said, it also removes some of the really bad incentives of that old system, where on the margin, you had this problem of phasing out and losing benefits. Which effect is larger? I tend to think that removing the disincentives to work is going to be a larger effect than enabling some people to subsist on their benefit, as I suspect will happen. But, you know, I think we're gonna have to wait for the empirical evidence to know who's correct on that.

Josh Barro: David, I was wondering if you could say more about Romney's proposal to run this through the Social Security Administration? Because that sounds like a technical issue that why should anybody care which government agency runs this sort of benefit? But as you alluded to, there are a lot of people who are eligible for current child benefits who don't receive them. And you see this with other government programs, too. There are a lot of people who are eligible for Medicaid, but are but are not signed up for it. To what extent can the government control the extent to which people actually get benefits that they're eligible for? And what can we achieve just through better program design so that people actually get what Congress says they're entitled to?

David Dayen: Yeah, I mean, generally, I'm just all in favor of making these benefit designs simpler. When you run something through the tax code, or you have the IRS administer it, you put the onus on the individual to know that there is a certain eligibility to fill out the proper form to, you know, make sure that their tax preparer, perhaps, is filling out the proper form. And, and we've seen this, I mean, there have been studies of, for example, the earned income tax credit, which is a major way for the working poor to get a particular benefit. And the utilization is something like 78%. And that means one in five people who are eligible for it just don't get it. And there have been, you know, large potential plans on the left, there's a guy named Joe Sanberg here in California who has done this across the country, to get people to know about the EITC and to sign up for the EITC. And it's kind of like why do we need to waste that effort of organizing, when we can just make the program simpler to use and intuitive and erring on the side of getting the benefit out automatically or close to it rather than putting the onus on the individual? I say that it's kind of a tax on people's time, which, you know, maybe doesn't come up as an income tax, but it is a tax. And and, you know, we have these sort of convoluted ways in many senses of putting together systems so that people can get benefits to which they're entitled. So I think anytime that you simplify that system, you're moving in the right direction.

Josh Barro: Let's take a break. And when we come back, Helen Andrews will join us with her case against the baby boomers, I've been talking with Megan McArdle, The Washington Post and David Dayen of The American Prospect. This is Left, Right & Center. 

You're hearing civilized yet provocative opinions from all sides. Now we need to know what you think. Tweet us at @LRCKCRW stream all episodes of Left, Right & Center and our companion show All The Presidents' Lawyers at or from the KCRW app.

Josh Barro: Back again with Left, Right & Center, I'm your host Josh Barro. On the right is Megan McArdle, columnist at the Washington Post. And on the left is David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. Now we're going to talk about the baby boomers, what they did to the rest of us and what we can do to fight back, and to talk about that we're joined by Helen Andrews. Helen is a senior editor at the American Conservative, and her new book is called Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. Hello, Helen.

Helen Andrews: Thanks for having me.

Josh Barro: So this is a trend, this anti-Boomer sentiment. And it seems to come from across the political spectrum. You are obviously a conservative, but there are also books like this being written from the left and it seems like at least some of the complaints about the boomers are in common. But what is the complaint? What do you allege that boomers have done to wrong the generations that come after them? You say, "they inherited prosperity, social cohesion and functioning institutions. They passed on debt inequality, moribund churches and a broken democracy." How exactly did they do that?

Helen Andrews: You're right, that it's a pan-ideological case against the Boomers and my intention with this book was to sort out which elements of the anti-Boomer case were valid and invalid. And as I pared away the invalid ones and got down to the ones that I think are a fair case, a common theme emerged. In most cases, what the Boomers did to screw up the country for the generations after them was to destroy institutions. The Boomers were a generation preoccupied with youth, they thought that youth and inexperience was where you would find the most wisdom, they didn't put a lot of stock in tradition, they also put a great value on individual choice. And the thing about institutions, whether they be the families, or the churches, or even the political parties, is that institutions constrain individual choice. So they decided to tear down like a wrecking ball all of the things that had held together the civilization that they inherited, and the result, rather than being liberation across the board has been chaos.

Josh Barro: And so it strikes me that in these arguments, it seems to be sort of table stakes, that everything has gone to hell. Things used to be good, and now people are mad because they're so much worse. And then the debates are about you know why that happened and what to do about it. But I want to ask first, like, are things really that bad? Because there was a Gallup poll released this week about aspects of public life and it found that average satisfaction with various aspects of public life fell off a cliff during the pandemic, but even prior to that had been on a downward trend for 20 years. And so things like organized religion and the size of government and things like that, there's just continuing dissatisfaction that is growing. On the other hand, when Gallup asks people whether they're satisfied with their personal lives, as of early 2020, that was a record of 90%. If you polled that about 40 years ago, you typically get only about in the high 70s of Americans saying they're satisfied with their personal lives. So 40 years on, people are more satisfied with their own lives than they used to be. So I guess, you know, how do we know that the breaking of those institutions and that liberation, how do we know it was such a bad thing if people are reporting on average  greater satisfaction than they used to?

Helen Andrews: I'm so glad you're pushing back against the claim that everything's gone to hell, because a lot of Boomers themselves don't buy it. They look at the world outside, they say, what are you Millennials complaining about? You have iPhones. And I think one example that rebuts the data that you've just presented is the family. That's clearly one where the Boomers will own up to having effected a revolution. They're rather proud of the sexual revolution that they created. They might admit that they may be engaged in some excesses in the 1970s, but they say, well, the old family that existed in the 1950s, that was terrible and repressive, and nobody actually liked it. And in fact, if people liked it so much, how come it hasn't come back? But I look at the data for Millennials and I see that in just the last five years, America crossed a fateful threshold, where now a majority of people over the age of 16 are unmarried. Usually a majority have been married throughout American history. The Millennials are on track to be the least married generation in American history. 25% of Millennial women are now on track to die childless. And I don't think based on my conversations with Millennials that that reflects how Millennials want things to be. Most people want, at some point in their lives, to settle down with a partner. And so the fact that that's not happening indicates to me not that people's desires have changed, or that people's desires have been unleashed by the wonderful freedom of the sexual revolution, it shows that something was broken in the way people engage in courtship, the way they come together, the way they make commitments to each other. So I think that's, you know, least married generation in American history is a pretty good indication that things are not going great.

Josh Barro: David, there are aspects of this account that I think you often hear similar things from the left. Now they come from places of different values and different emphases, but this idea that it used to be more possible to have a single breadwinner family, that an ordinary, every person usually a man could have an ordinary job and support a spouse and children on that. That the economy changed structurally in a certain way that pushed us away from that is something that you hear both traditionalist conservatives like Helen and various voices on the left raising as a significant deterioration in American society. Do you see that? And if so, what caused that? And how could you change it?

David Dayen: I think you could definitely make an economic argument for why it's so difficult for people to couple up, and so difficult for people coming up in this generation right now to prosper. I don't know that I would necessarily connect that to a generational issue. I always kind of have a problem with painting with a very broad brush, what one generation or another generation did when, you know, we contain multitudes, but it's certainly true that changes in the economy have made it much more difficult for families. I mean, that's what we were just talking about, with respect to various ways to reduce child poverty. I think that that is more of an ideological issue, and in my view, and an issue of certain trends around conservatism and conservative economics that came in, you know, or in the early 1980s, rather than a generational issue, but it is something that I think that that both parties can agree that that has a detrimental effect, whether we agree on what that detrimental effect is not withstanding, but it's something that we should definitely pay attention to.

Josh Barro: Yeah, Helen, to that point, just before you joined us, we were talking about Mitt Romney's child allowance proposal and the cool reception that it's gotten from certain other Republican officials. How does this fit into your critique of the Boomers but also of the societal changes that we've seen over the last several decades? A child allowance — is that a conservative idea that would allow people to return to some of those more traditional family forms? Or is that an undesired government intervention?

Helen Andrews: I think the details of the Mitt Romney proposal are not something I've examined yet, but fundamentally trying to make things easier for families, the intention behind the Romney proposal, is absolutely well within the conservative tradition. But I think I might be in perfect agreement with David here in saying that the changes that have disrupted the one-earner family model are so much bigger and more structural than can possibly be addressed by you know, a check in the mail from the government. It's the shape of the labor force. It's the leverage that employees have when negotiating with their employers. It's big things like that, which actually is why I thought a generational angle was appropriate in here, because a generation is kind of the only thing big enough to take in all of the changes that are responsible for the way the world looks and the economy looks today.

Josh Barro: Megan, what do you make of all of this, this idea that imposing more constraints on people's choices effectively will lead them to be happier in the long run? Obviously, that's not a very libertarian view. But do you accept any of this, that things that opened up, the economy opened up, the society opened up the world, that those have had negative social effects? In particular, I think that there's been a revisiting of some of the China trade stuff that you know, in the 1990s, people a lot of places on the political spectrum, but especially libertarians had this view that more free trade in the world was going to cause rising standards of living both here and abroad. And certainly in China, we've seen rising standards of living. But I think that there's been a bit of a reevaluation that the disruption to American workers was larger than was expected at the front and maybe that was a driver of some of these negative social changes. Is that an area where you actually needed more government restrictions rather than more freedom?

Megan McArdle: I think we got something wrong, which was that we did not understand how much the China shock would displace labor. It had never happened. It was such a big change that normally when you have trade adjustment, it's pretty smooth because it's a small number of people each year, they can flow to other sectors. What happened with China was just that there are so many people in China's labor force that the shock was incredibly disruptive, and millions of people were displaced before the adjustment started. And I think that that was a huge mistake. It was a political mistake, but it was also a kind of policy mistake. And that if I had understood that that was what was going to happen in the 90s. I would have probably said, for example, that maybe we should slow the introduction of the multi fiber agreement in order to have to give the US textile industry more time to adjust for the labor markets to smooth out. I do think we should be clear, though, that living standards have risen. And, you know, we say that a man can't support his family, you know, on his salary alone. But the fact is that if you wanted to live in a Levittown house of 1950, most people could or many of the people saying that they couldn't possibly do it could. They don't want to live that lifestyle, they don't want to have one car that doesn't work very well and doesn't have a heater, and they don't want to live in 1000 square feet, and they don't want have everyone in the family share one bathroom, the things that people in 1950 were happy to get, because it represented a step up in their living standards. For people in 2020 it doesn't look that great. And so if people wanted to go back to this actually quite austere living standard, compared to what we have, no cable, no fancy kitchen gadgets, none of the rest of it, that stuff can be a real improvement in people's quality of lives. But, you know, the other problem is, and here is where I think I would maybe agree more with with Helen is that, to a certain extent, this is a cultural coordinating equilibrium, which is to say that, you know, if you are a woman who is thinking about staying home with your kids, and maybe you would like to, if other women aren't doing that, then it's a much poorer experience for you. You were bored and isolated and lonely. When you go to parties, you don't have anyone to talk to. My mother used to talk about this, because she was a housewife on the Upper West Side where a lot of women worked. And she would go to parties, and people would ask what she did (this is in the 70s) and she would say, Well, I'm home with the kids. And they would just kind of look over her head as if she now couldn't possibly have anything interesting to say. And so, you know, there is an equilibrium in neighborhoods where, you know, if a lot of women work, the neighborhood, all the services, the dry cleaning, and so forth, they're optimized for women who work. In a family where there's a lot of stay at home moms, it tends to be optimized for the stay at home moms and professional moms will complain about this at their schools that they are expected to participate in things in the middle of the day, and so forth. And those are real costs to the people who want to do the other thing. And we have not figured out and maybe it's not possible, how to build a society in which both things are possible. And so if you think that the world was better off when more women were home with kids, at least when they're young, and I think that that is possible, I think it's an empirical argument. If you look at the literature on happiness, it's really interesting that the only group whose happiness has fallen is married women. Then, you know, maybe that that's correct and maybe the Boomers really brought destruction. I'm a childless woman with a professional job. If you think that I would have been pretty unhappy locked in a suburb with three kids, then you think that's a good change. But I think it is a change, and we shouldn't over-romanticize it, but we shouldn't assume that what we're doing now is the best possible thing either. Maybe it isn't.

Josh Barro: But isn't that last bit and an important part there? While it has become much less common for a woman to stay at home and raise children, there are millions and millions and millions of American women who do this. And if they so chose, families can locate into communities where that's more common. You don't generally do that on the Upper West Side, but people have chosen various subcultures. You certainly see, you know, Mormon communities in Utah where this is a very standard thing to do. And so Helen, when I look at that decline, my first assumption is that people's behavior is driven by what they would like to be doing. And that when there's when when you have more people who are unmarried, and when you have more women who are in the workforce, my first assumption is that that reflects an actual set of preferences, and that if we reimpose, 1950s style, you know, social expectations, then we end up pushing people into situations that we can see now they would not freely choose to enter. So why shouldn't that be the first assumption — that people's behavior, that people's life choices reflect their actual preferences?

Helen Andrews: Well, first, I'd like to push back a little against your claim that there are still millions and millions of stay at home moms out there so it must be fairly easy to pursue that. Of course, there are millions of stay at home moms, but the percentage of women with children under five who are working full-time reached its highest point ever in 2019. So that's still definitely something that's favored and advantaged. But you make a valid point about, you know, don't people's choices reflect their actual preferences, their revealed preferences, so to speak? But there's a reason why Elizabeth Warren called the Two-Income Trap a trap, and it's because it's something that people get stuck in, even when their choices would lead them to want to prefer a different option. And this is also the rebuttal to the valid point that Megan made, which is that, you know, if people really wanted to live the one-breadwinner lifestyle circa 1970, they could do that. And there's a fascinating technical debate on exactly that question between economists like Scott Winship and Oren Cass specifically, but the bottom line point is that actually, it would not be possible today to buy the health insurance that you would have back then, to buy the college education for your kids that you would have back then, so that the claim that you could live that lifestyle if you wanted to, and the fact that you don't mean that you wouldn't, doesn't hold up because those choices are, in fact, not available to people.

Josh Barro: Before we go, what's wrong with Aaron Sorkin? I was interested to I mean, you go through these six specific examples of boomers who basically failed to live up to their potential in this book. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote "The West Wing" has come in for a lot of criticism, especially from the left in recent years. What's your knock on Aaron Sorkin?

Helen Andrews: Well, I should clarify, I do devote an entire chapter to Aaron Sorkin in this book, but it's not a takedown. I love Aaron Sorkin. The West Wing is my guilty pleasure. My problem is not with him. My problem is with the people who took the West Wing for reality. I think, Megan, Josh, David, some of you probably lived in Washington, DC. And so you can confirm my experience, which is that a lot of people in this town think of themselves as characters in their own little West Wing episode. And that's what I find disturbing because the West Wing is a fantasy. It's a fantasy version of, well, the Clinton years were pretty Boomerish already, insufferably Boomerish in many ways, and the West Wing is an even more Boomerish fantasy version. So it's like Boomer-ness squared. That's what's wrong with The West Wing,

Josh Barro: Helen Andrews, senior writer at The American Conservative and author of Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. Thank you, Helen. 

Helen Andrews: Thank you, Josh.

Josh Barro: We've reached that time once again for our famed Left, Right & Center rants featuring pet peeves from across the political spectrum. David Dayen, what's your rant? 

David Dayen: Well, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced he would step down this week to spend more time with his moon colonization project and less time on congressional hearings. The same day as his announcement, the Federal Trade Commission fined Amazon $61.7 million for stealing tips from delivery drivers. Amazon's currently fighting a unionization campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, by confronting warehouse workers with anti labor message messages in the bathroom stalls. And at another troublesome warehouse in Chicago, the entire facility was shut down, and workers were told they could stay on if they agreed to a new warehouse and a 10 hour overnight shift called a mega cycle. I'd say that Bezos's departure was intended to overshadow these stories, except that knuckling under workers, partners, sellers on its website, competitors, governments and entire industries has been his modus operandi for the last 27 years. That's the legacy of a winner-take-all executive and a winner-take all-economy, whose desire to take a cut of every economic transaction is nearly complete. The best parting gift for Bezos and for all of us would be the breakup of the behemoth he built.

Josh Barro: Megan McArdle, it's your soapbox.

Megan McArdle: Stop complaining that the vaccine program doesn't look like some imaginary perfect program that you have designed in your head that would prioritize essential workers or not vaccinate people who've already had COVID or in some other way be superior to what's actually happening. On the ground, administrative overhead matters. If we tried to do all of this exquisite targeting, it would take forever and cost eight times as much. Leave authorities the leeway they need to get as many people as possible vaccinated as fast as possible without letting vaccines rot away in freezers or expire because we opened them and then couldn't find exactly the perfect person to vaccinate. The most important thing we can do now is get shots in arms and that is what we should be focused on — not who's getting the shots.

Josh Barro: For my rant, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene — who, before her election, made social media posts appearing to endorse killing public officials and who also endorsed QAnon, and 911 truth conspiracy theories — has been removed from her seats on the budget and education committees. Eleven House Republicans joined every Democrat in their vote to remove her. Now Republicans who voted not to remove actually had a fairly valid point. The majority party isn't supposed to decide who the minority party puts on committees and who knows what could be done with this in the future? They say it's for minority party leadership to make these decisions about who is too crazy to sit on a committee. And that's fair, but where was minority party leadership? Where were the Republicans? Republicans didn't intervene in this primary like they could have to try to prevent this kook from getting elected to the House. And they didn't decide on their own to remove her from this committee. In fact, Kevin McCarthy, who is apparently made of, like, a giant, like, bowl of gelatin, came up with this idea where he came to the Democrats and said, Well, what if we removed her from only one committee? Traditional thing trying to make as few people happy as possible. Ultimately, yes, it's supposed to be up to the parties themselves to enforce boundaries and guardrails and keep the craziest people out of politics away from levers of power. You did see efforts in the Republican Party to keep Steve King, the former white nationalist congressman from Iowa, off of committees and ultimately out of the Congress. But it has become so integral to the Republican Party's coalition — these nuts and conspiracy theorists and extremists — that they didn't feel in a good position to enforce this and so it fell to the House as a whole. That was unfortunate, but it is what it is. 

That's all we have time for today. I want to thank Megan McArdle, David Dayen and Helen Andrews. Left, Right & Center is produced by Sara Fay. Our technical director is JC Swiatek. Todd M. Simon composed our theme music. I'm Josh Barro. Thanks for joining us and tune in next week for more Left, Right & Center.

Announcer: Download and subscribe at, the KCRW app or wherever you find podcasts. Left, Right & Center is produced and distributed by KCRW.




Sara Fay