The Electric Commentary

Friday, January 28, 2005

Krugman, Kling, Krauthammer

A new regular Friday feature for the EC. Although their first initials are a bit troubling up there in the title section. Maybe I should call it the "Robert Byrd Special." Nah. Anyway, let's start with Pauly K, who, surprise of surprises, has now made good points in consecutive columns. This one debunks that claim that African-Americans don't benefit as much as other groups from Social Security due to a shorter life expectancy:

Here's why. First, Mr. Bush's remarks on African-Americans perpetuate a crude misunderstanding about what life expectancy means. It's true that the current life expectancy for black males at birth is only 68.8 years - but that doesn't mean that a black man who has worked all his life can expect to die after collecting only a few years' worth of Social Security benefits. Blacks' low life expectancy is largely due to high death rates in childhood and young adulthood. African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years - not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.

Second, the formula determining Social Security benefits is progressive: it provides more benefits, as a percentage of earnings, to low-income workers than to high-income workers. Since African-Americans are paid much less, on average, than whites, this works to their advantage.

Finally, Social Security isn't just a retirement program; it's also a disability insurance program. And blacks are much more likely than whites to receive disability benefits.

Vitriolic rhetoric unbecoming of an Ivy League professor notwithstanding, he is correct about this. Although Bush's use of this statistic is not bigotry, as Krugman claims at the at the end of his column.

While you're at the NYT site, read this Op-ed by Robert Wright, it's very good.

Next, Arnold Kling answers a question from Megan McArdle:

Q:Why hasn't labour successfully colonised the non-manufacturing world, outside of the public sector?

In manufacturing, workers develop specific human capital. As someone who actually worked in a factory for a couple of summers, I can attest to this. You learn to operate the particular machinery in the plant, but that knowledge is of no value in a different plant.

In the service sector, skills are often transferable. You may have a license (to be a teacher, a nurse, or what have you) that makes you transferable. Or you may have a skill set (sales, general management, computer programming) that is transferable.

With specific human capital, there is mutual bargaining power. The company values your experience, but your opportunity cost is low, so they could try to keep your pay low and exploit you. So a union helps you out.

With generic human capital, you do not need bargaining muscle. If you are way underpaid, you simply take another job. So a union helps less.

And finally, Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post on the Condi Rice confirmation:

You don't expect to see an iconic civil rights leader such as Andrew Young indignantly defending a Bush administration appointment. It took the Senate Democrats' attack on Rice to produce that unlikely scene.

Will it matter politically in the end? Can Democrats take the African American vote for granted? Perhaps, but it will be interesting to see whether Democrats will be willing to repeat this exercise if Bush should nominate Clarence Thomas to succeed William Rehnquist and become the country's first black chief justice. The Democrats' performance on the Rice nomination has opened precisely that possibility for the president.

What an excellent point. Late last week I mentioned that it was politically stupid to oppose this nomination (especially because Robert Byrd was involved) and this is a good example of why it was stupid. This useless posturing wastes political capital, and, while opposing one African American for confirmation may be no big deal, opposing more than one starts to look like a pattern. And if the President thought that nominating Thomas may have been too controversial before, he now has an opening.


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