Hackwork

by Henry on October 23, 2006

Back to Jacob Hacker’s book, this “review”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/business/yourmoney/22shelf.html?ex=1319169600&en=e12ba6da23dbafc5&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss by Roger Lowenstein in the NYT this weekend is really pretty awful. It’s one of those reviews which prompt you to wonder whether the reviewer has read the same book as you have. The very faintest of praise,”as predictable and, at times, whiny as his examples seem, Mr. Hacker does make a contribution to our understanding,” together with some unpleasant insinuations, “[s]ounding at times like a liberal Pat Buchanan.” But what really gets me is that Lowenstein baldly mis-states Hacker’s argument.

Hacker a la Lowenstein:

[The title of the book] suggests that some deliberate and perhaps evil agent is the active force that is causing all these economic downers. Mr. Hacker locates this agent in a rhetorical flourish. “What has changed?” he wonders: “In a word, ideology.” By this, of course, he means the right-wingers who have lately been running the show in Washington. He is right that Republicans generally frown on entitlement payments, and that nothing so thrills some conservatives as plotting the demise of Social Security. But there is a problem with the way he sets up cause and effect, namely, with blaming ideologues for our soaring medical bills. The fact is, most of the ills that Mr. Hacker addresses are a result of changes in the private sector. … Had Mr. Hacker paid more attention to why the economy has become so changeable, his story might have been less a morality play and more a straightforward account of companies adapting to evolving times. One dynamic he all but ignores is globalization: companies competing in a world market simply cannot afford all the goodies that they once could. The author often sounds nostalgic for that bygone era. “The traditional, lifetime employment relationship was like a marriage,” he observes. Now, “the risk is on workers.” He juxtaposes the supposedly heartless Wal-Mart with General Motors, which “paid its workers solidly middle-class incomes and provided generous benefits.” The problem, ahem, is that 80 percent or so of those swell G.M. jobs no longer exist. Could Mr. Hacker fail to have noticed? Perhaps not. At the very end, when he turns to suggested remedies, he makes a daunting acknowledgment. Discussing a need for insurance that is “portable” — meaning that workers can take from job to job — he adds: “If this sometimes means corporations are off the hook, so be it.” That doesn’t sound like a marriage to me; it sounds like a one-night stand.

Hacker a la Hacker.

There are straightforward reasons why workers and their families experience heightened financial instability in today’s economy and society. The big puzzle is why political and corporate leaders have been so slow to respond … they’ve actually piled on new risks even as Americans have become increasingly insecure (p.34). … Even as the old model of employment has come undone, our government has not stepped into the breach. Even as corporations have abandoned the old contract, they have not forged a new contract that deals with the reality that workers constantly need to gain and upgrade skills, or the fact that women with children are now more likely to work than not (p.85) … As health care costs have exploded in an increasingly competitive business environment, this old, odd bargain has come undone (p.143) … There can be no turning back the clock on many of the changes that have swept through the American economy and American society … The competitive strains on American employers are not going to go away … Nor can we transport ourselves back to a wistful image of the New Deal … But accepting these changes does not mean accepting the new economic insecurity, much less accepting the assumptions that lie behind the current assault on insurance (p. 166)

Hacker-a-la-Lowenstein is an economic Rip-van-Winkle, who would like to roll back the economy to the era after the Great Depression, but is forced to acknowledge at the end of his book that this isn’t really possible, and to make a few vaguely interesting suggestions for tinkering around the edges. Hacker-a-la-Hacker (cue the italics) is _repeatedly_ at pains to argue that rolling back these secular economic changes isn’t possible. The book _isn’t_ about the root causes of these economic changes in global markets, it’s about the _choices made by leaders regarding how to respond to these changes._ Different choices were, and are possible – other countries have chosen to shelter their citizens to a greater or lesser degree from increasing risks and changes in the employment relationship. Instead, leaders in business and politics in the US have chosen _not to respond to these increasing risks_, and sometimes _to impose new risks on top of those imposed by global markets._ This is banally obvious to anyone who reads the book with even the minimal degree of care and scrupulosity. Either Lowenstein has failed to grasp the simple, basic core of Hacker’s argument or, for whatever reason, he has decided to give a misleading impression of what the book actually says. This isn’t the first highly peculiar review of the book – see “Kevin Drum”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2006_09/009544.php on Brink Lindsay’s review which similarly fails more or less completely to address Hacker’s actual argument. Something funny is happening here.

{ 26 comments }

1

Uncle Kvetch 10.23.06 at 11:30 am

Different choices were, and are possible – other countries have chosen to shelter their citizens to a greater or lesser degree from increasing risks and changes in the employment relationship.

Yes. And on any given Sunday you can turn to the “A” section of the Times and read about how awfully those countries are doing, what with their skyrocketing unemployment and angry young people and demographic time bombs and they really wish they could live exactly like we do but they’re just too stuck-up and European to admit it so so don’t be fooled for one minute into thinking that there is an alternative to the status quo because only hopeless deluded lefties think that and God Bless America.

2

Matt Kuzma 10.23.06 at 11:55 am

Either Lowenstein has failed to grasp the simple, basic core of Hacker’s argument or, for whatever reason, he has decided to give a misleading impression of what the book actually says.

I’ve come to realize that reading comprehension is a far rarer skill than it would seem is necessary in a world of so many printed words. So it comes as no surprise to me that even a reviewer of books, who really ought to be able to understand what he is reading, simply reads what he wants to.

3

nick s 10.23.06 at 12:35 pm

This isn’t the first time that the NYT Book Review has assigned pieces, it appears, with the intention of producing lazy hackish writeups. Apparently, this adds spice to the publication.

4

otto 10.23.06 at 2:42 pm

When a reviewer starts referring to political book or article as nostalgic its usually a poor sign for the quality of the review.

5

derrida derider 10.23.06 at 6:55 pm

I assure you, uncle kvetch, few Europeans want to live like Americans. In particular no-one sees the US health and welfare systems (if you can call them systems) as something to aspire to.

Don’t let your patriotism become xenophobia – there are some things that even foreigners do better than your compatriots.

6

Henry 10.23.06 at 6:58 pm

[I believe uncle kvetch is joking …]

7

Rhadamanthus 10.23.06 at 7:48 pm

I’d be interested to have Henry interact with Will Wilkinson’s post here.

It’d be a good opportunity for two wings of liberalism to interact. Perhaps the major division between market liberals and egalitarian liberals are their attitudes about economic risk. Egalitarian liberals tend to see the negative consequences of risk as far worse vis-a-vis the benefits than market liberals do.

8

Kevin Hayden 10.23.06 at 8:13 pm

Certainly you’d have to consider that the reviewer has a background in successful capital investment.

In layman’s terms, that means he’s a capitalism purist, one who measures everything against a corporation’s profit-loss statement. His motive, in this review, seems to seek to absolve business from any responsibility from anything else, like the well-being of families and communities.

It strikes me as more bootstrap theory, that business responsibility is only to investors. The kind of thinking that, carried out, leads to the real world dillemma of products and services that few can afford to buy.

In short, his motive was to disparage Hacker’s contentions not to review his book objectively.

9

trane 10.24.06 at 9:10 am

– Had Mr. Lowenstein paid more attention to the book under review, his ‘review’ might have been less a morality play and more a straightforward account of the argument in the book.

Henry: As your review of the book this review review works nicely. Thanks.

10

aaron 10.24.06 at 11:59 am

His review seemed quite good to me.

I might even read the book eventually because of it. Henry’s reveiw of the review is what is hackish. Not at all representative of Lowenstien’s view.

11

Uncle Kvetch 10.24.06 at 12:01 pm

[I believe uncle kvetch is joking …]

I think so too.

12

Henry 10.24.06 at 1:26 pm

aaron – if you have a substantive criticism to make, make it. If you just want to call names, don’t be surprised if your future comments get deleted for being worthless.

13

Steve LaBonne 10.24.06 at 2:18 pm

I think so too.

And what makes you an authority? Il n’y a pas de hors-texte, after all.

14

aaron 10.24.06 at 2:37 pm

My substantive criticism can be infered by clicking the link and reading the Lowenstien review.

The part you site is not his statement of Hacker’s argument, but his statment that Hacker’s more focus on the causes of risk shift would help provide the perspective to deal with it more effectively.

I recommend reading further down.

He was very generous in not criticising Hacker to harshly for some of his sillier statements, like “The big puzzle is why political and corporate leaders have been so slow to respond … they’ve actually piled on new risks even as Americans have become increasingly insecure “. A bigger puzzle is why haven’t they done it faster. All risk the employer assumes translates into a cost.

15

aaron 10.24.06 at 2:38 pm

The part you site is not his statement of Hacker’s argument, but his statment that more focus on the causes of risk shift would help provide the perspective to deal with it more effectively.

16

Henry 10.24.06 at 2:54 pm

Wrong. The part that I discuss is in fact Hacker’s argument, which Lowenstein badly misunderstands, as I explain above at no doubt tedious length. Read the book. You very obviously don’t know what you are talking about.

17

astrongmaybe 10.25.06 at 2:10 am

Excellent post – but sometimes it seems that there’s an tendency for American center-leftish discussion on risk/globalization to reify and slightly mystify the European experience. After all, every single European country has plenty of commentators and politicians who would happily strip away any additional risk-protection, and are pressing hard to do so. I can understand the need for a counter-example to point to, but there is an unquestionable tendency among elements of the US social-democrat(ish) left to view W. Europe as a unified, unchanging, unconflicted welfare state. I haven’t read Hacker’s book, so I don’t mean him, rather just a general point.

And, er, “scrupulosity”?

18

astrongmaybe 10.25.06 at 2:12 am

Eek! My last nit-picking sentence was prefaced with “nitpickery alert” but somehow the posting software cut it out.

19

brooksfoe 10.25.06 at 5:41 am

Lowenstein’s argument is: first, Hacker ought to focus more on those causes of risk shift, like globalization, which are not deliberate; and second, those causes, because they are not deliberate, are just facts of the universe about which nothing can be done. It’s an interesting standpoint, like arguing that books about how to live a healthy lifestyle ought to focus more on the fact that we’re all getting older and will eventually die no matter what we do.

However, those of us busybodies who are interested in making things somewhat more pleasant and less horror-filled for the duration of our stints in these mortal coils tend to like books that focus on the things one actually can do something about, like, say, making benefits portable.

20

aaron 10.25.06 at 6:25 am

“second, those causes, because they are not deliberate, are just facts of the universe about which nothing can be done. ”

Where do you get that from?!?

You should have noticed that Lowenstien endorses the idea of portable benefits.

21

aaron 10.25.06 at 6:29 am

Sorry, I was mistaken, he doesn’t endorse that idea. He makes a more general compliment of Hacker’s progressive ideas.

22

Steve LaBonne 10.25.06 at 7:26 am

However, those of us busybodies who are interested in making things somewhat more pleasant and less horror-filled for the duration of our stints in these mortal coils tend to like books that focus on the things one actually can do something about, like, say, making benefits portable.

Be reasonable, now- you can’t expect our option-backdating ruling class, and its hired shills, to pay too much attention to the woes of us peasants. They have more important things on their minds, such as avoiding prosecution or at least negotiating a favorable plea-bargain.

23

Martin James 10.25.06 at 10:38 am

Henry,

I haven’t read the book but I have read lots of studies that show that job tenure has not decreased over the last 50 years. The “good old days” of lifetime employment is a myth.

Second, the increasing number of working women significantly decreases the risk of unemployment to the household. One would think that if people were more concerned about financial risk they would be increasingly rather than decreasingly be in married relationships.

Third, what evidence does he show that employment risk has been increasing? Unemployment rate changes and the business cycle in general have been relatively moderate in the last 20 years compared to the 20 before that.

Fourth, the increasing access to debt instruments,(does he cite evidence of changes in home ownership over time which has increased over time to historic highs) has improved the ability of people to spread expenses to different times in the life cycle.

That does live the increasing cost of health care, which, although not as comprehensive as some other countries is quite comprehensive for pregnant mothers and children in poverty, the elderly and the disabled. One would have a very tough time showing that the risk of adverse health care events on wealth has increased significantly over the last 50 years. There has been a modest increase in the total number of uninsured but frequently these numbers are not adjusted for immigration. Even after adjustment for income levels the hispanic population has relatively lower demand for health insurance.

I’m not saying there aren’t people without significant financial and health care risk, I just don’t see the evidence that the relative size of that group has changed dramatically, and in particular changed dramatically due to policy changes.

Furthermore, in a representative form of government its the preferences of the median voter that tend to drive the system. Did he analyze the risk profile of the median voter over time? Did he look to data on chnages in the risk preferences of people?

24

Henry 10.25.06 at 1:07 pm

astrongmaybe – you’re right on scrupulosity – I’m misusing the word and should have said scrupulousness. On mystifying the European welfare state – I haven’t read anything specific by Hacker on this, but I know that he’s in dialogue with a bunch of political economists and political sociologists (Wolfgang Streeck and co.) who are specialists in this area, and critical of the problems of the continental welfare state model (which is _not_ the European model tout court, a la Esping-Andersen).

Martin – he discusses some of this stuff in the book, albeit at a semi-popular level. The preferences of the median voter clearly do _not_ drive policy outcomes here – see the consistent support for some sort of government driven health reform. The US political system is not one where the median voter counts all that much, b/c of inbuilt institutional mechanisms and political strategies – see Hacker’s previous book with Pierson for a lengthy discussion of this (albeit one that I suspect he’d partly revise in light of the likely election outcomes in a couple of weeks).

25

astrongmaybe 10.25.06 at 6:51 pm

Henry: no, I wasn’t suggesting people of Hacker’s expertise would do that, more a vague haze in the left-blogosphere. It was probably too general a point to make in a quite specific thread like this.

26

aaron 10.26.06 at 6:51 am

Also, a poplular meme is that the only reason those risks were picked up by employers is that in the 40s there were caps on wages. Employers provided benefits to get around wage caps.

This seems to go along with Hacker’s concession that risk shift probably shouldn’t be avoided, but managed. Having portable benefits makes sense, but doing so means that employers will be “let off the hook”. People should manage most of there own risk, but also we probably can provided a universal, safe bottom that doesn’t cost too much. The goverment can probably protect people’s physical well-being, but protecting their lifestyle and assets seems silly to me.

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