On Very Serious People, Climate and Children

Do you remember the days of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan?

A decade ago elite opinion was obsessed with the supposed need for immediate action on budget deficits. This consensus among what I used to call Very Serious People was so strong that as Ezra Klein, now a Times Opinion writer, wrote, deficits somehow became an issue to which “the rules of reportorial neutrality don’t apply.”

The news media more or less openly rooted not just for deficit reduction in general, but in particular for “entitlement reform,” a.k.a. cuts in future Medicare and Social Security benefits. Such cuts, everyone who mattered seemed to argue, were essential to secure the nation’s future.

They weren’t. But here’s my question: If elite opinion cares so much about the future, why isn’t there any comparable consensus now about the need for climate action and spending on children? These are two of the main components of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and the case for both is much stronger than the case for entitlement cuts ever was.

Yet whereas calling for Social Security cuts used to be treated as a sort of political badge of seriousness, calling for urgent action on climate and children isn’t. If anything, much reporting on current politics seems to suggest that the handful of Democrats trying to dismantle Build Back Better, to limit the Biden agenda to modest spending on conventional infrastructure, are being responsible, while the progressives trying to make sure that we really do invest in the nation’s future are somehow unserious.

Let’s talk about what securing the future really means.

The logic of demands for entitlement reform was always suspect. It’s true that an aging population and rising health care costs may eventually force us to choose between tax hikes and benefits cuts (although worries about government debt have long been greatly overblown). But why was it urgent to take action in, say, 2010? What would be lost by waiting a few years? If you thought about it, the elite consensus was that we needed to cut future benefits in order to avoid … future cuts in benefits. Huh?

By contrast, the cost of delaying action on climate and children is real and immense.

On climate: Every year that the world fails to limit greenhouse gas emissions, humanity emits about 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide — and these emissions will stay in the atmosphere, warming the planet, for hundreds of years.

We’ve already seen the costs imposed by the leading edge of climate change — severe droughts, a proliferation of extreme weather events. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that such costs will get far worse in the decades ahead. So by postponing climate action, we are undermining our future in a much more substantial way than we do by, say, adding a few percent to the national debt.

On children: Child poverty is a huge problem in America. And there’s overwhelming evidence that spending on programs that alleviate child poverty has huge payoffs: Children who receive aid from these programs grow up to be healthier adults, with higher earnings, than those who don’t. In fact, the evidence for high returns from spending more on children is much stronger than the evidence for high returns to spending on roads and bridges (although we should do that, too).

So every year that we don’t increase aid to children, for example by expanding the child tax credit, leads to decades of wasted human potential.

But elite opinion — and much reporting — somehow fails to highlight the extreme irresponsibility of opposing clean energy plans and the immense waste of human potential that comes from failing to address child poverty. Instead it’s all “$3.5 trillion! $3.5 trillion!” — often without pointing out that this is proposed spending over a decade, not a single year, and that it would amount to only 1.2 percent of G.D.P.

OK, I don’t fully understand this double standard — why Very Serious People became obsessed with the supposedly urgent need to limit government debt yet are blasé about if not hostile to proposals to tackle the issues that really matter for our future.

Money is surely part of the story: Corporate groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were all in on entitlement reform but are lobbying furiously against Build Back Better. Indeed, the Democrats trying to scuttle Biden’s agenda are more accurately described as the party’s corporate wing than as “centrists.” After all, polls suggest that the policies they oppose are highly popular, so in that sense they’re well to the right of the political center.

But not everyone defining conventional wisdom is on the take. There also seems to be a sort of social dynamic in politics and the media, perhaps reflecting the circles in which opinion leaders move, that treats people who want to make the lives of ordinary Americans harder as courageous, while considering those who want to raise taxes on corporations and the rich flaky and unrealistic.

Whatever the reasons for this dynamic, it needs to be fought. Right now we have an opportunity to really do the right thing. It will be a tragedy if this opportunity is missed.

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