Not long ago, my wife and I were delayed in an airport in a university town. Across from us, a young woman settled herself to wait, pulled out her cell phone, and over the next half-hour or so proceeded to call everyone she knew. From what we could hear, she was calling just to say, “Hi, I’m waiting in an airport, what are you doing?”
A sociobiologist might see this as a fascinating vestige of primate grooming behavior-an evolved form of the monkey troop’s obsessive lice picking. An economist, on the other hand, would extol it as a productivity miracle. The revenues of companies like Verizon and the multiply reborn AT&T were going up, the cost per minute and megabyte of communication was going down. She was even exchanging pictures with her friends as she idled away time in the airport!
That little scene contains clues to what may be the central public-policy paradox of our time-how to square a quarter-century of strong, nearly uninterrupted economic growth at low inflation with the destruction of the social safety net-pensions, health care, unemployment protection-and the pervasive sense of personal economic insecurity.
Two new books shed light on the problem from different angles. The Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker is a leading scholar of the rise and fall of America’s traditional employment-based social-benefit system. Hacker’s The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs,...