The Entitlements Debate: Are Social Compacts Possible in Heterogeneous Countries?

As we become a less “white” country will we also become less generous and less caring of our fellow citizens? In other words, is it possible to have a meaningful social compact in an increasingly heterogeneous country? This is at the core of an ongoing exchange between conservative New York Times columnist and former senior editor at The Atlantic, Ross Douthat and Salon’s Joan Walsh. 

Last week Douthat wrote a column in the New York Times discussing the political wisdom of cutting the deficit by increasing taxes.  Among other things he said: “Historically, the most successful welfare states (think Scandinavia) have depended on ethnic solidarity to sustain their tax-and-transfer programs. But the working-age America of the future will be far more diverse than the retired cohort it’s laboring to support. Asking a population that’s increasingly brown and beige to accept punishing tax rates while white seniors receive roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they paid in (the projected ratio in the 2030s) promises to polarize the country along racial as well as generational lines.” 

Joan Walsh responded in Salon accusing Douthat of “racial paranoia” by suggesting that “‘brown and beige’ people will abandon white seniors to poverty” thus turning on its head the more conventional argument that “that white Americans have a stake in the education and employment prospects of non-white young people, because in the more diverse 21st century America, those black, Latino and Asian young people will increasingly be footing the bill for Social Security.”  

Today Douthat replied

What do you think?

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5 Responses

  1. Brenda says:

    You are the blogger, Ms. Banks! What do you think!? I got to the end of your post and you let me down!

    • Taunya Banks says:

      Sorry to disappoint, so here are a few quick comments. I think that Douthat and Walsh over simplify the issue. Granted a majority of younger workers today are non-white, but most younger workers, no matter their race or ethnicity, are angry at their elders for the way the seniors governed the country over the past forty years. Thus the problem is not so much increased heterogeneity, but serious generational differences. As more of the younger generation move into positions of power we will continue to debate about entitlements and other social issues.

  2. Adam says:

    Judging by Douthat’s reply, I’d say he’s confusing an argument over a generational divide with one involving a racial/ethnic divide. It seems that the essential mechanism in his argument for the coming stability isn’t any particular characteristics of being a different race but rather the conflict between the elderly and the young in government spending priorities. The fact that the younger generation happens to be less white than the older population is true but irrelevant. While I don’t think Douthat’s argument is as offensive or mean-spirited as Joan Walsh suggests, I think he’s missed the point of his own argument. All of the rational self-interest motives that would cause this conflict are related to the age of the stakeholders, not the ethnicity. And if Douthat wants to advance the argument that one generation is more willing to spend on the welfare of another generation if they are the same race, he’s going to have to rely on something other than rational self-interest and broad analogy to Scandinavian entitlement programs.

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    I agree with Adam in re: Douthat’s (a) confusion over the cause of the potential divide, and (b) non-racist motivation. However, I can’t understand how a fellow with a three-digit IQ like Douthat could so totally screw up the arithmetic.

    In what dream world are the increasingly brown and black young taxpayers protected by the high-bracket rate cuts of 2001 and 2003, and protected by the Republicans with fierce ardor in the present Congress?

  4. Hasan Diwan says:

    I have witnessed few things so myopic. Scandinavia (and the rest of Europe) “Ethnic solidarity”? Let me introduce Douthat/Walsh to 2011. Scandinavia is, less so, but remains very ethnically diverse now, than the rest of Europe. The world’s most diverse city is, not New York, but London. Sweden takes in more refugees from the third world per capita than any other country on Earth.