Opinion | Should the U.S. Expand the Social Safety Net?

To the Editor:

Re “Can We Afford a Welfare State?,” by N. Gregory Mankiw (Opinion guest essay, Sept. 17):

Mr. Mankiw is a noted conservative economist, and his guest essay is the classic conservative lament: We cannot afford the safety net provided by many advanced nations. Basically he is saying that we must accept: the highest health costs in the world, some of the highest levels of childhood poverty, hundreds of thousands of people going bankrupt each year because of health debts, inaccessibility of higher education for many of our citizens, high levels of economic inequality, etc. Why? Because it would reduce our G.D.P.

The values expressed by this position are simply unethical and are increasingly leading to the extremism in our politics. Of course, America can afford to become a major welfare state, and I, for one, am willing to pay for it.

Larry Wakeford

To the Editor:

N. Gregory Mankiw makes a well-reasoned case against expanding the welfare state, but the basis of his argument is that the goal of society should be to maximize G.D.P. Yes, G.D.P. per capita is lower in Europe, but most workers also receive between four and six weeks of paid vacation per year, paid maternity and paternity leave, and government-provided health care.

What is the impact of that on their emotional and physical well-being? Does the average worker benefit more from being able to afford slightly more luxurious household goods, or a more generous paid holiday and better access to health care?

James Kemp
New Canaan, Conn.

To the Editor:

Prof. N. Gregory Mankiw argues that President Biden’s “$3.5 trillion package is too big and too risky. The wiser course is to take more incremental steps rather than to try to remake the economy in one fell swoop.”

His path might be the more rational one, but it won’t work in today’s political world. You have to get it when you can. What might work through the eyes of a Harvard economics professor doesn’t translate to the floor of Congress.

Following Yogi Berra’s advice, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Don’t dither.

Paul G. Bursiek
Boulder, Colo.

To the Editor:

N. Gregory Mankiw opines that policy considerations behind the proposed $3.5 trillion social spending bill raise “larger questions about American values and aspirations, and about what kind of nation we want to be.” Yet Mr. Mankiw ignores the message our current budget says about our values.

The United States spends about $700 billion annually on the military. A 2018 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies says we spend more on our military than the next 10 nations combined. That suggests a priority not for self-defense, but rather to project U.S. military power around the globe. Excessive military spending results in corporate welfare. It enriches the military-industrial complex while exacerbating income inequality.

Mr. Mankiw says we would need to raise taxes to have a social safety net comparable to Western Europe’s. We have another option. We can change our priorities to provide more aid for our people and less aid for powerful corporations.

Jerry Wallingford
San Diego

To the Editor:

N. Gregory Mankiw repeats the same tired arguments and hints darkly at “risks to economic prosperity” and the dangers of trying to “remake the economy.” Crucially, he ignores the gross inequalities in income, wealth and working conditions that exist in the United States today, which makes his appeal to the supposed trade-off between equality and efficiency both sad and irrelevant.

Many of the policies encapsulated in the Biden proposals increase both equality and efficiency, for example by supporting disadvantaged children and others in whom the current economy underinvests.

Mr. Mankiw has the same blind spot when he compares G.D.P. per capita in the United States and Europe. Where high levels of inequality exist, G.D.P. per capita is an imperfect measure of the well-being of the typical household. How about using other metrics such as life expectancy, access to education, health care coverage? Then the comparison would not be so favorable.

Barbara Morgan
The writer is a senior lecturer in economics at Johns Hopkins University.

To the Editor:

N. Gregory Mankiw asserts that Europeans work less than Americans “because they face higher taxes to finance a more generous social safety net.” The European residents work less because the European Union nations recognize that workers deserve to have time away from work for their families and interests, that workers ought not to be slaves to their employers, and other reasons based on the recognition that adults are more than workers.

If the so-called “family values” Republican Party had genuine concern for American families, this country would have a law like the European Union, requiring a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation for every worker.

Beverly Isenson
Steilacoom, Wash.

To the Editor:

N. Gregory Mankiw, not wanting to come across as totally lacking in compassion toward the less fortunate in his opposition to the proposed Democratic reconciliation bill, writes, “That is not to say that the United States has already struck the right balance between compassion and prosperity.”

The many millions who are homeless, who are struggling to get by on minimum wage jobs, who are one medical bill away from destitution, who can’t afford regular dental care, can be forgiven for seeing this assertion as the ultimate in understatement.

It is a sad fact that our dynamic capitalist economy works for some — for many of us — but not for all of us. Mr. Mankiw is an advocate of capitalism, of free enterprise. But if we’re going to have capitalism, it needs to be a capitalism that works for all of us.

How about we start with stringent tax policies that punish corporations that offshore our jobs? This mad race to the bottom by American corporations, to countries with starvation wages, no unions and no environmental protections, must stop, now.

Edward Gogol
Crystal Lake, Ill.

To the Editor:

Prof. N. Gregory Mankiw argues that the social spending bill of $3.5 trillion is too large and “higher taxes distort incentives and impede economic growth.” I would note that the United States has far and away the highest overall poverty rate among the 26 industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Mr. Mankiw’s use of G.D.P. as the measuring stick of prosperity doesn’t do a good job of reflecting individuals’ well-being.

Americans paid much more in personal income taxes in past decades and the nation prospered nonetheless. Too many of our citizens continue to financially struggle amid massive accumulation of wealth by the top 0.5 percent of our population. It’s time to right the ship.

Barbara Dingfield

To the Editor:

Prosperity as the greatest good? That is demonstrably false. The more we prosper, the more we consume; and the more we consume, the hotter grows our world, planet Earth. We have set ourselves on a path to a very, very unpleasant future, and maybe extinction.

Ted Sittler

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