On Thursday, October 19th, esteemed scholars William Galston and Nick Eberstadt met at the New School’s John Tishman Auditorium to discuss entitlements, an issue that lies at the center of an American ideological battle that has raged for decades. Although billed as a “debate,” anyone who was expecting an event resembling Tuesday’s Obama-Romney brawl at Hofstra University probably left feeling disappointed. Instead, the two scholars confronted the audience with two drastically different perspectives on what has, over the course of the 20th century, come to define U.S. politics, particularly since the economy tanked in 2008.
William Galston, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, ostensibly represented the “liberal” position, while Eberstadt, a long-time member of the American Enterprise Institute, embodied the conservative view. However, as one might expect from two individuals who have spent their lives studying issues that most of us only understand in superficial terms, the reality was considerably more complicated.
Eberstadt began his speech by laying out his central contention: that the growth of entitlement spending in the U.S. has resulted in a culture of dependency that threatens to fundamentally transform the American way of life for the worse. Subsequently, he made ample use of graphs and visual aids to illustrate the dramatic rise in government spending on social programs since the New Deal. He described entitlements as inherently immoral, an example of the government taking “other people’s money” and redistributing it according to specious notions of economic equality.
All of this falls neatly into the category of the contemporary American right. However, Eberstadt disputed a key contention of many conservatives, including Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan, namely that the country is headed towards a “fiscal cliff,” beyond which it will be too late to stave off economic disaster. On the contrary, Eberstadt asserted that the ongoing growth of entitlement spending is, in fact, sustainable for the foreseeable future. The danger, he posits, is not fiscal collapse, as many conservatives contend, but rather cultural decay, the consequences of which are at least equally dire.
While successful in demonstrating the alarming growth of entitlement spending as a portion of GDP, Eberstadt was not so clear in explaining his thesis that this reality will radically transform America. The closest thing he offered to an explanation was the generality that the promise of subsidization from the government saps the work ethic of otherwise-productive citizens. This has been a common ideological supposition in America since at least the presidency of Ronald Reagan, although, to his credit, Eberstadt supplemented this well-worn rhetoric with convincing numbers and facts.
Galston, the ostensible liberal, did not dispute his opponent’s assertion that entitlement spending has grown immensely. He also conceded that certain entitlement programs are corrupt and/or inefficient and really are counterproductive to the interests of their intended beneficiaries. He cited food stamps and the increasing exodus of males from the workforce as problematic signs that the government should not abet with more spending.
Nevertheless, these instances of dependency are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to explaining the increase in entitlement spending. Americans are no less hardworking then they have ever been, and the notion that a transfer of money to an individual inherently amounts to a handout is simply not true. On the contrary, much of the entitlement spending that Eberstadt maligns goes towards funding programs that, in the long run, yield returns on their investment. For example, supplemental income for working-class families can increase social mobility and funding for education taps into the vast, underutilized reservoir of talent in America’s underprivileged communities, improving the economy as a whole. In the end, if everyone benefits from entitlement spending, then it is an example of interdependence, a positive phenomenon dating back to the founding of the Republic.
Underlying many of Galston’s points is the implication that the expansion of government in the economy cannot be assessed purely, or even in large part, on a moral or ideological basis. Rather, the increase in entitlement spending is in many ways reflective of the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Some of the uptick, he explained, can be attributed to demographic and economic changes that have little to do with the motivation, or lack thereof, of citizens. To name one example, the income gap in America, fostered by a tax code that has become increasingly regressive since the 1980s, has necessitated an increase in entitlement spending to provide Americans with basic necessities that, in the past, they would have paid for themselves.
It is difficult to say who “won” the debate, seeing as both scholars seemed far more focused on communicating complex ideas in a short amount of time than they were in clashing with each other in the limited time allotted for their statements. Ironically, Eberstadt, who assailed entitlement spending for its cultural impact, was far more effective in underlining the fiscal consequences of government programs than illustrating the doomsday scenario that he placed at the heart of his argument. Galston, who based his assertions on sociological evidence and only touched on numerical data in the abstract, invited the audience to examine his opponents data in a different light. But it would be difficult to claim that his interpretation possessed the same grounding in statistical fact.
Ultimately, the most interesting elements of Galston’s and Eberstadt’s arguments came when they strayed from their respective ideological lines to suggest a far more complicated reality than the pundits prognosticate on a daily basis. By conceding that some entitlements are unsustainable, liberals provide grounds for compromise with conservatives who are eager to reign in spending, assuming they are likewise willing to entertain compromise. At the same time, in dismissing the easily-digestible but factually dubious notion of a “fiscal cliff” beyond which the U.S. cannot recover, conservatives invite criticism of an entitlement society on a more relatable basis than alarmist and abstract charts and graphs.
To be sure, neither of the aforementioned arguments are new to the political discourse. Bill Clinton based much of his campaign on the necessity of welfare reform, breaking from left-wing orthodoxy in a manner similar to his adviser, Galston. By the same token, social conservatives frequently pontificate about the effects of entitlements on family values, cribbing shamelessly from the Moynihan Report, released all the way back in 1965. But to hear respected scholars from across the ideological spectrum frankly discuss such nuances in an election year, devoid of partisan self-reflection is refreshing, to say the least.