Letters to the Editor

By Democracy Readers


Although I disagree with him on a number of policy questions, I also hold Brad DeLong’s scholarly work in high regard. Thus I was pleased to hear he was reviewing my recent book A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic. I was looking forward to an intelligent, principled, and spirited critique.

I was perplexed to find instead an essay [“Shrugging Off Atlas,” Issue #28] that betrayed only glancing familiarity with the real existing text I wrote. I was left to wonder: Did Brad actually read the book he reviewed?

DeLong starts by getting the publisher wrong with his very first mention of the book. A Nation of Takers was not, as he states, published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as part of its “ ‘New Threats to Freedom’ series.” The actual publisher is Templeton Press, of the Templeton Foundation: It says so on the back cover. (AEI has no “New Threats to Freedom” series.)

A little later, DeLong observes that “Eberstadt’s conservative comrade Veronique de Rugy reports that 35 percent of Americans receive some ‘means-tested benefit.’ ” But on page 130 of A Nation of Takers, I cited Census Bureau data to exactly that effect: “As of 2010, over 34 percent of American households were obtaining means tested benefits.” Why not cite my text—instead of work by a researcher with whom I have never collaborated? Did DeLong just not read that far?

There are findings and assertions in my book that should concern all public-minded citizens. Among them: 1) the federal government has effectively been transformed into an entitlements machine over the past two generations; 2) the explosive growth of entitlement spending in postwar America has coincided with a long-term “flight from work” by adult men; 3) the government’s disability entitlements—from which over 12 million working-age Americans were drawing awards last year—are rife for misuse and abuse; 4) over the past four decades America has increasingly resorted to the device of funding its federal spending—now mainly entitlements—through borrowing, in effect taxing the Americans of tomorrow for our unprecedented levels of current entitlement consumption today.

Your readers unfortunately learn none of this, because DeLong did not bother to describe those arguments, much less evaluate or challenge them, in his 3,000-plus-word review. Did he even know those arguments were there?

Early on, DeLong writes, “We need venture no further into A Nation of Takers than the bottom of the second page….” Taken in context, this sounds like a confession.

I like a good debate—I happen to think public policy and the common weal are promoted through the competition of ideas. More than that: We obviously need a serious national debate on the entitlements question. That is why my book includes, indeed showcases, critiques of my own findings from Bill Galston (on the left) and Yuval Levin (on the right).

It is a shame DeLong chose not to show up for that same debate. It is also a disservice—not least to your readership.

Nicholas Eberstadt
Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

J. Bradford DeLong replies:

Because I have learned a lot from Nick Eberstadt over the course of my life, I am puzzled that he claims that in my review I did not show up for a “serious national debate on the entitlements question.” I’m even more puzzled that he’s taken my statement that his first serious error appears on the second page as “a confession” that I read no further in his book—especially since I go on to quote extensively from later passages in A Nation of Takers.

I cited Veronique de Rugy as my source for the estimate that 35 percent of Americans receive some means-tested benefit because I first read it in her work, long before I read the same number in A Nation of Takers.

By my count, I spent half of my review dealing with the issues Eberstadt complains that I did not write about. As I explained, government has a very proper role providing social insurance. As we grow older and as medicine advances, government should spend more in these sectors. I spent time trying to figure out what if any proportion of rising entitlement spending is “excessive.” Eberstadt didn’t. I agree I did not deal with the fourth issue Eberstadt complains about. So let me deal with it now.

I would note that Eberstadt’s final claim is wrong. The past four decades have seen Presidents Nixon (briefly), Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. Under only four of those eight—under Obama appropriately, and under Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II inappropriately—has it been the policy of the party in power to borrow-and-spend heedlessly or has the government been funded by (and the relative burden of the debt increased by) borrowing. To claim that inappropriate reliance on deficits to fund government is a 40-year American pattern rather than a post-Ford Republican Party disorder is, I believe, seriously misleading.

My view is that when think tanks endorse claims that both political parties are equally responsible for fiscal dysfunction, they are making it more difficult to solve American problems in order to advance partisan Republican claims.

Democracy Readers who would like to submit a letter to the editor can do so by emailing dajoi@democracyjournal.org.

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