Saturday, November 24, 2012

Ross Douthat Needs a Lesson in Comparative Politics

Ross Douthat, always available for some erudite conservative-leaning op-ed column, has published a new one, in dialogue with Paul Krugman that addresses one of my favorite topics from my Ivory Tower days.

Just a quick work before my critique. Douthat appears to be one the 2 token conservative columnists at the NY Times, next to David Brooks. But, his work does not seem to be as painfully inaccurate and illogical as Brooks. Admittedly, he hides his arguments in some rather pompous language. While he continues to be some kind of apologist for "conservative" values, he is more dismissive of the Republican Party. He seems to hold the Republican Party in more contempt than Brooks. Brooks seems to be trying save the GOP, while Douthat just ignores it.

In any case, Douthat treats us to another short treatise on why the US can't have a Swedish welfare state. As a former professor of political science who studied Europe, I was intrigued. And I was not the least bit surprised that his arguments resemble those of the undergrads I once taught. I published the following comment to his blog entry (and 23 people liked it!):

Douthat's response to Krugman reminds me once again of being in the lecture hall teaching a bunch of somewhat clever undergraduates who aren't capable of making a very sophisticated argument when making their objections to a Swedish welfare state in America. I've heard these arguments a million times and his have the same flaws.
1. Sweden is homogenous!? It had major class warfare in the late 19th century and early 20th that violently divided its society. Why is ethnic diversity qualitatively worse than class conflict? Diversity is in the eyes of the political scientist. And why can't the US overcome ethnic diversity to create a robust welfare state? Does he still think America is too racist/ethnically biased to create one? What are "cultural extremes"? Is there some scale we're not aware of?
2. Sweden is small? If so, then it would be too poor to sustain a strong welfare state. We're the wealthiest country on Earth. We could afford it if we wanted to politically.
3. If children in Sweden are better off and are even more likely to live in a two-parent (though unmarried) household than Americans, what is with this fetish Douthat has with the institution of marriage? Why must marriage be the primary family structure for raising children in the US, if it's not necessary in Sweden?
As much as Douthat praises these "traditional" institutions, he needs to remember their history of discrimination and patriarchy if he wants to seduce us to return to some idealized, but false, past.

Just a quick word on another element of this argument. Despite the decline of religious observance (not faith or spirituality in Sweden), he claims that "Lutheran thrift" and Sweden's social capital has sustained the welfare state. Funny, other faiths in Europe produced a welfare state, Catholics in France and Austria, for example, and a mix of Catholics and Protestants in Germany. And I'm not sure why he can't find thrift among Americans?

I complement Douthat on trying to engage the age-old question of why there's no strong welfare state in the US. But, before writing a column with such a definitive attitude, it would better if he carried out what he set to do, a robust comparative analysis. If he had, he would see his arguments for why the US has a SMALLER welfare state than Sweden melt away and return to the main reasons: immigration and politics (with some decentralization added in).
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