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Joe Klein and the Industrial Age

Josh Marshall wonders about Joe Klein's contention on Meet The Press that "private accounts [are] a terrific policy and that in the information age, you're going to need different kinds of structures in the entitlement area than you had in the industrial age." Josh wants to know "if anyone knows of an example where he explains this argument." To make a long story short, I don't believe that he has. Nexising for "industrial age" or "information age" and Social Security you get a few repetitions of the meme, but nothing one would call an argument. The closest you get is his February 6 column "The Incredible Shrinking Democrats" which states:

There is, then, a profitable discussion to be had between 'ownership' Republicans and 'third-way' Democrats about transforming the stagnant bureaucracies of the Industrial Age.

To Klein, then, the problem with Social Security is that it's mired in stagnant bureacracy. Needless to say, Social Security's associated bureacracy is, in fact, very small compared to the (large) overall scale of the program. Much smaller, in fact, than the administrative costs that would be entailed by the information age alternative of private accounts. In a September 22, 2003 column, Klein dismissed Dick Gephardt's attack on Howard Dean's past support for raising the retirement age as "an utterly transparent industrial age process, like a steam locomotive creaking out of a station." I'm no fan of the former minority leader, but I like to think that my column-length attack on the man raised some substantive points of disagreement instead of merely casting aspersions on his old fashioned belief that seniors deserve a dignified retirement even if the stock market is down when they turn 65.

The January 24, 2005 issue of Time carried a Klein column full of priase for Lindsay Graham's phase-out plan that, likewise, baldly stated that "Democrats--especially those who understand that the industrial-age social safety net can be improved for the information age--should not dismiss this simply because it involves Bushian private accounts" but didn't explain anything about why the advent of improved information technology rendered Social Security's guarantees irrelevant. You also see a lot of loose talk about the information age in Klein's book, The Natural, which is quite good despite, rather than because of, his vaguely formulated information age pseudo-thesis. You can read a representative excerpt in the DLC's Blueprint magazine and I think you'll see that, rhetoric aside, the information age doesn't play an actual role in the argument.

March 7, 2005 | Permalink


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» Bad economic history watch from coffee grounds
Matthew Yglesias, Josh Marshall (twice), and Digby all wonder about Joe Klein's statement that: I agree with Paul in that private accounts have nothing to do with solvency and solvency is the issue. I disagree with Paul [Krugman] because I... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 7, 2005 9:42:01 PM


I'll bet Joe Klein has quite a comfortable IRA.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 7, 2005 3:46:45 PM

Klein's comments are just white-collar snobbery. The era of defined-benefit "industrial age" pensions implies union-membership, work in noisy, pollution-producing factories and life close to a city dominated by industry. "Information age" means clean, efficient companies where everyone wears nice, starched shirts and talks about their latest stock tips at the water cooler.

He's essentially making a class-based argument-- that the USA is too rich and lives in an age of service-based white-collar jobs (from his perspective, anyway) -- and thus the US should abandon the "low class" Social Security system, which smacks of the sort of thing one would propose to the lower-middle classes.

Posted by: Constantine | Mar 7, 2005 3:54:10 PM

I've heard some arguments that in an era of decreasing job security, social insurance needs to be tied less to individual jobs. I think social security already does that, though. The private accounts would do this as well, but it's not an argument. This is another "The world has changed. You can sense it in the water..." lines people like to use when they don't actually have an argument.

We didn't have computers when toasters were invented, but some people are still left with industrial age toasters! That was fine in the industrial age, but now we need toasters built for the information age.

Along this vein, we should also begin large scale deforestation. Old growth is even pre-industrial and frankly, out-of-touch with today's world.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Mar 7, 2005 3:59:18 PM

It's about time somebody took him on. Go! Go! Go! I really can't stand that guy.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 7, 2005 4:08:20 PM

BTW, one interesting thing about Social Security is that its use of unique numerical IDs predates computers and databases and so forth. I guess the dewey decimal system is the same way. I guess it's just kind of weird the think that people were conceptualizing this stuff before the age of the computer.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 7, 2005 4:11:14 PM

Along the line of what Matt Singer is writing, the only argument one should be making about a transition to Information age economy is the one that would argue against Bush's plan for Social Security Privatization. An information economy is a riskier proposition, and it makes sense to have a more stable guaranteed benefit vehicle.
Also, the actual plans that are on the table (or at least floated), are not good ideas at all with the government's finances in their current Bushian state (Bushian meaning loosely : an adjective describing the peculiar state of not being able to do a proper post mortem on the last disaster, because the looming one is so urgent that deference must be paid to the person in charge of the last disaster).
There are conceiveable private accounts plans that could be good ideas in the context of a well run government, but not the one in discussions now.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 7, 2005 4:11:56 PM

There is at least one lefty I respect who says that the old centralized mass-market social-compact has been rendered obsolete by technology and new externalities(...read China)...Sterling Newberry of DKos Diaries and BOPNews. Or, correction, that is my impression, I have difficulty understanding his post-modern perspective, and I would not want to mischaracterize his positions.

Newberry (forgive, he is so much smarter than I), I believe also expects a total collapse; an abandonment of empire, fallback to borders, and dismantlement of the defense establishment; a catastrophic energy crisis; and a massive redirection to sustainable decentralized energy development in order to maintain productivity and competitiveness.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 7, 2005 4:14:55 PM

It would be useful if the next time Klein tries to posit this post-modern BS, someone calls him on it. He is a tiresome jackass.

Posted by: Doug | Mar 7, 2005 4:20:51 PM

Bob, I'm not always quite sure what Newberry is talking about, in all honesty.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 7, 2005 4:26:50 PM

It was interesting that Klein also trotted out the same ‘information age’ mumbo-jumbo during his defense of Clinton on Meet the Press. Of course, Clinton himself used to engage in a lot that sort of techno-mystical talk as well. But the difference is that Clinton actually had a sound mind for policy behind the hokey rhetoric about the ‘information age’, ‘building a bridge to the 21st century’, ‘competing in the world economy’, etc. Not so much for Klein, it seems.

Posted by: RC | Mar 7, 2005 4:27:55 PM

praktike--I agree with you on Stirling. Some of his posts are very clear and cogent. Others are a bit obscure for my taste.

Posted by: Abby | Mar 7, 2005 4:31:51 PM

Thanks for that, praktike :)

Sen's Arrow:
Goedel writes a constitution with Cantor's help, or the limits of rationality

in which Newberry proves it is impossible to be a Pareto liberal...or something

The Madness and Wisdom of Crowds

If I only understood Habermas ...

Brother Can You Spare Me a Dime

The most relevant, on why the post-WWII Economic Order, and the assumptions and pre-conditions for the New Deal, no longer pertain. Part one of a series, and I am having a little trouble delving into the archives.

I think Newberry's foundations are in information theory, with its applications to economics and communications.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 7, 2005 4:51:31 PM

The place where I first encountered all this industrial/information age "Choice generation" stuff was in Andrei Cherny's "The Next Deal", which was lavishly praised by Michael Barone, among others. It's a pretty good book, the one anecdote in the book I thought was most interesting was that in the Presidential race between Mckinley and Bryan, some factory owners threated to fire their workers if Bryan won the election. In less raw form, I think the same thing is happening today. Is it just me, or does Joe Klein really hate Krugman's gizzard?

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Mar 7, 2005 5:25:38 PM

"Newberry (forgive, he is so much smarter than I)"

Incomprehensibility can mean the reader is not smart enough / well read enough to understand. Or it can simply mean the author is spouting a rich stew of buzzword gibberish.

Newberry falls into the second category.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 7, 2005 5:26:50 PM

maybe Klein is trying out for the role of "George Gilder of the Democrats" -- note how snarky Klein is toward Gore, who might once have been a competitor for the role

Posted by: David | Mar 7, 2005 5:51:48 PM

I wonder if the right fully grasps the extent to which eroding the shared burden of social welfare actually enables, if not hastens the further fragmentation of the culture and society (which they claim to care so much about), and the hold on which Judeo-Christian values have on law and the social fabric. The fantasies of the Christian right aside, the cultural liberalization that began in the 1960s will not be undone, and a privatized, culturally liberalized America will enshrine the values of the market (including those which the right detests - the pandering to our most un-Christian instincts), and the dissolution of the mainstream. It will not be barbarism, as TS Eliot and his paleocon fellow travellers predicted, but banality, and plutocracy - a kind of Hellenistic America - where video games and reality TV, the stupid and the shrill, displace any hope of genuine cultural achievement. The neoconservatives care little of culture, and in their heart of hearts neither do the Christian fundamentalists (who have given us little more than velvet Jesus paintings and Amy Grant), but do they understand that they - and not just the cultural left - are weakening the ground on which Judeo-Christian civilization stands, and ultimately priming the waters for the arrival of some new unifying faith and culture that will eclipse and ultimately snuff out their own?

Posted by: Robin the Hoodlum | Mar 7, 2005 6:36:45 PM

May I suggest that Joe Klein is simply on Frank Luntz's mailing list? The following is from Sidney Blumenthal in Salon -- the bold is mine:

Republicans, says Luntz, should never use the word "privatized." They should substitute "personalized." "And PLEASE remember that you are NEVER talking about privatizing Social Security, nor are you advocating INDIVIDUAL accounts. You are talking about creating PERSONAL retirement accounts." Republicans should also talk about "personalized accounts" as being about "the future," he says, and remind people that "Social Security was built for a different America."

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Mar 7, 2005 7:09:13 PM

"you [are not] advocating INDIVIDUAL accounts. You are talking about creating PERSONAL retirement accounts."

Methinks Frank is losing it.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Mar 7, 2005 9:06:46 PM

I think we need to do more than dissect Klein. If we wish to frame our position, we need to lay claim to the mantle of modernity he assigns to the GOP. One way liberals succeeded in the 1930s was by arguing that their policies were not only modern, but technologically inevitable.

Obviously, the fact that Social Security is an old program makes it difficult for Dems to position themselves as "the wave of the future." But I think they can easily argue social insurance is an essential cushion for a economy that is simultaneously increasingly interdependent and flexible (i.e. unstable). Yes, a smaller percentage of people work in factories than in 1930. But millions now work at the whim of a global market. It's not unreasonable to want some safety net.

Posted by: AWC | Mar 7, 2005 9:21:12 PM

Klien is a rock.

Posted by: Movie Guy | Mar 8, 2005 2:18:16 AM

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