Providing Security to Expand Opportunity

Democrats need a clearer and more forward-looking economic vision, and I argue that they should embrace a vision that combines a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity. This vision?which I call an ?insurance and opportunity society??is starkly opposed to the ideal of an ?ownership society? outlined by conservative critics of the welfare state. The premise of conservative?s ownership society is that we can only be free to pursue the opportunities in our lives if we do not share risks with others. An insurance and opportunity society, by contrast, is based on a very different premise: that we are most capable of fully participating in our economy and our society, most capable of taking risks and looking toward our future, when we have a basic foundation of financial security. In this vision, economic security is not opposed to economic opportunity. It is its cornerstone.

In The Great Risk Shift, I argue that an insurance and opportunity agenda must include the preservation and improvement of existing social insurance programs, like Social Security, but simply cannot end there. Our framework of social protection is overwhelmingly focused on the aged, even though young adults and families with children face the greatest economic strains. It emphasizes short-term exits from the workforce, even though long-term job losses and the displacement and obsolescence of skills have become more severe. It embodies, in places, the antiquated notion that family strains can be dealt with by a second earner?usually, a woman?who can easily leave the workforce when there is a need for a parent at home. Above all, it is based on the idea that job-based private insurance can easily fill the gaps left by public programs?when it is ever more clear that it cannot.

This means the emphasis should be on portable insurance to help families deal with major threats to income and big blows to household wealth. It also means that these promises should be mostly separate from work for a particular employer: a commitment that moves seamlessly from job to job. Yes, this will sometimes mean that government has to take the lead, but it will also mean a system of economic protection that?s more family friendly, more conducive to having kids, more supportive of obtaining new skills, more accommodating of employers buried under the cost of their benefit obligations?in short, more supportive of a large productive workforce that will lessen the strain on programs for the aged. It also means a system much less imperiled by the demographic shifts that have placed Medicare and Social Security in danger.

Instead of slashing existing protections, in sum, we should work to include families in the bargain?by, for instance, expanding Medicare to younger Americans, upgrading unemployment insurance to reflect the changing character of job loss, and ensuring that 401(k) retirement plans are broadly distributed and are capable of providing guaranteed benefits for the remainder of retired people?s lives.

I won?t go into the detailed agenda that I lay out in The Great Risk Shift here. I will, however, mention one novel proposal I have developed that I call ?Universal Insurance??a kind of umbrella insurance policy protecting working families against catastrophic drops in income or budget-wrecking health costs. I have outlined Universal Insurance in considerable detail for the Brooking Institution?s Hamilton Project, and I encourage those interested to find out more about the plan on the Project?s website As you will find if you visit the proposal, my estimates suggest that Universal Insurance would cost much less than what the government now spends to subsidize 401(k) plans each year. In turn, it would lift more than 3 million Americans out of poverty, and cut Americans? chance of experiencing a 50 percent or larger income drop in half.

All these changes will not come without struggle, of course, and the struggle will be fierce. Yet we should not forget the principles at stake. If we acquiesce to the ?creative destruction? of American-style capitalism, then we also have to accept that many Americans, at one point or another, will be hit with disasters they cannot cope with on their own. Providing protection against these risks is a way of ensuring that the dynamism of our economy is politically sustainable and morally defensible. It is also a way of ensuring that Americans feel secure enough to take the risks necessary for them and their families to get ahead. Corporations enjoy limited liability, after all, precisely to encourage risk-taking. But while today we still have limited liability for American corporations, increasingly we have full liability for American families.

This must change.

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