Makers vs. Takers Redux
Revisiting a lively debate from over the weekend.
Steven Taylor’s “Makers and Takers?” has generated an enormous amount of commentary, especially for a posting late on Super Bowl Sunday. That it takes on a column written by Glenn Reynolds, and that he not only linked the post (always appreciated) but engaged in the comments discussion (I believe a first for us) were major factors in that.
Given the enormous help that Glenn Reynolds and Bill Quick were in helping to launch OTB back in early 2003 and their kindnesses during some hard times in my personal and professional life, I’m a bit distressed at how they’ve reacted to the piece and have a few thoughts on the matter.
First, Glenn’s summary on Steven’s post–“and I should kill myself or something”–is great for driving traffic (thanks, again!) but an unfair reading, to put it mildly. Rather, Steven found the core argument of the column simplistic and expected more nuance from someone of Glenn’s stature. Yes, Glenn is most famous as a pundit–an insta-pundit, no less–but he’s an enormously accomplished legal thinker, not a talk radio host.
Second, I think a lot of Steven’s frustration with the piece stems from the headline (“It’s takers versus makers and these days the takers are winning”) itself. I don’t read the column itself making the black-and-white claim that the headline suggests. Having been on the other side of that in a few pieces I’ve placed elsewhere, it’s a pretty common occurrence for readers to frame their reaction to it by the headline–which the column author almost never writes. So, I think Steven’s reacting as much to the general argument being made too often by talk radio hosts, columnists, and political candidates that there’s a huge class of non-contributors that the rest of us are having to support as to the column itself.
Third, in terms of Glenn’s column itself, my own objections are largely over framing rather than substance. We agree that farm subsidies, corporate welfare, and bailouts for those who make stupid business choices are really bad public policy. Further, we agree on the pernicious effects of rent seeking in the system, particularly the enormous incentives to spend a lot of time and money lobbying for special treatment in the tax and regulatory code.
While reflexively sympathetic, however, I’m less sure that subsidizing or otherwise providing some government assistance to those who are underwater in their mortgages is necessarily problematic. It largely depends on what form the policies take.
Likewise, I almost completely disagree that unemployment insurance provides some enormous incentive to permanent mooching. While it’s probably true that providing long-term benefits provides a disincentive for those at the bottom of the economic ladder to seek gainful employment (why bust your ass doing a lousy job for minimum wage when you can get 2/3 as much for doing nothing) the benefits are so meager that almost anyone else is much better off finding a job.
Further, framing as makers vs. takers “People who took jobs they didn’t particularly want just to pay the bills see others who didn’t getting extended unemployment benefits” implies that it’s a no-brainer that people should take whatever job comes their way. Someone laid off from an $80,000 job in a field they’ve spent years preparing for really shouldn’t be expected to take a $24,000 job doing manual labor and lose everything they’ve worked for prior to a serious effort over a few months to get back on their career path and thereby exhausting other options. Doing so not only wastes human capital but it makes it much harder for that person to get back on track, since they not only lack the time and energy to look for more suitable jobs but they’ve devalued their resume by taking those steps back.
On the other hand, I’m much more sympathetic than Steven to Glenn’s argument that an underlying problem in the debate is that the federal government has become so powerful that rent-seeking and other corrupting behaviors are natural consequences. Just as people rob banks because that’s where the money is, people lobby government because it controls so many of the outcomes of the system.
But I think Steven’s right that the observation falls short of substantive policy analysis, for a variety of reasons. Like it or not, the political structures of 1789–or even 1936–simply won’t work in our modern society. The United States isn’t and hasn’t for well over a century been an outpost of 13 more-or-less separate states that had little interaction. While I’d like to see the federal government generally smaller, the serious debate is within a margin of 15 to 20 percent, not 85 or 90 percent.
Fourth, Bill Quick’s suggestion that OTB has shifted its ideological views over the years and is much less friendly to right-libertarians than it once was is one I’ve seen made by many others who were allies in the heady days of the fight over the Iraq War. There’s probably some truth in it. First, because we’ve gone from a solo blog to a group blog that I dominated content-wise to one where the vagaries of time leave me as a much less frequent contributor, there’s a widening scope of views seen here. Second, my own views on some issues have in fact evolved over time.
I reject, however, the notion that the shift is a function of my having “burrowed ever deeper into the Washington establishment.” While it’s true that I now work just off of K Street in downtown Washington, I’m at a non-ideological foreign policy think tank and we spend less time talking about US domestic politics here than in perhaps any other job I’ve ever had.
Instead, the fact that I’ve spent a little over nine years writing on an almost daily basis about politics in a public forum having to defend my views while being intellectually honest has made me realize that some things that I once fervently believed were true are either outright false or a hell of a lot more complicated than I once thought. That Steven Taylor, who has remained back teaching at the small town Alabama campus where we first met as colleagues some fourteen years ago has had a very similar evolution reinforces my sense that it’s not DC that’s changed me but rather blogging.
Fifth, I’m befuddled by the early commenters on the post–who, contrary to some suggestions are actually not OTB regulars–who make the argument that Reynolds and/or Taylor are unqualified to comment on the matter because they’re employees at state universities and therefore somehow on the government teat themselves. Granted, I’m sensitive to the matter having worked for government–as a military officer, as a college professor, and indirectly as a military contractor–but providing honest services to the taxpayer for hire isn’t remotely equivalent to being on the dole.