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Tuesday, March 22, 2005
"What a terrible thing it is to lose one's mind. Or to not have a mind. What a terrible waste that is."
Matthew Yglesias' fascinating thought experiment, in which his higher brain function is nefariously swapped with that of Terri Schiavo, inspires me to take a new perspective on the pro-life mind.
Their religion tells you that your true worth is in your soul, that your body is only the source of sinful impulses that should be resisted, that your body is evil. When your body has finally broken and died, the important bit, the only bit that is actually you, goes to heaven or is punished eternally.
Isn't it interesting, then, that they spend so much of their time defending the dignity of the part that isn't important? They go on and on about the dignity of the unborn fetus (which, in nearly all of the cases that animate them doesn't even have a cerebral cortex), and they go on and on about the goggle-eyed ragdoll that is Terri Schiavo. Although people with functioning cortices die in their millions around the world for preventable reasons, this crowd gets itself whipped up over empty shells.
Maybe, as their actions to preserve Schiavo would seem to suggest, the soul is released from the body the latter dies. Wouldn't it be tragic for her if the world worked in accordance with their theology? Her soul, still in its mortal state, would be still alive, chained to that useless body, unable to express itself or even sense the world around her. If they're right, I can't think of any nonsadistic reason they might have for wanting her to persist in this state.
Friday, March 18, 2005
Blind Cruelty = B.C.
I just wanted to add to Matthew Yglesias' eminently sound rebuke of Eugene Volokh's case for retributive cruelty a few small observations.
Matthew is correct in the pragmatic sense, that official sanction for the carrying out of such impulses is detrimental to societal unity by fostering a culture of grudge-holders. It would also tend to the enshrinement of martyrs, the existence of whom would likely act as levers for disaffected groups to legitimize their beliefs. It is instructive to look to the aftermath of the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, neither of which was a sanctioned, purposeful action on society's behalf, and yet contributed to the belief on the part of Timothy McVeigh and others that blowing up a federal building was a reasonable response. Carrying this line of thinking to its logical extreme, I wonder how far the ideas of a certain Jewish carpenter's son would have spread had the Romans quietly killed or imprisoned him.
I'd also like to suggest that followers of that martyred individual who advocate such forms of punitive retribution find another religion. I mean, that's the whole point, that in the face of such treatment, you're supposed to overcome your natural impulses toward revenge and strive to love one another, even unto one's enemies. If you don't even aspire to this, you can in no sense account yourself Christian.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Social Security Debate
Tanner's earring. Catches the light, huh?
Last night I saw the Paul Krugman-Michael Tanner-Josh Marshall Social Security debate at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and wanted to jot a few things down while they're fresh in my mind.
The title of the debate was "Social Security: Is it Really a Crisis?" It was very loosely structured as moderated by the rather unbecomingly partisan (our side, of course) Vered Mallon. Also, it wasn't very clear what Josh Marshall was doing there--nominally, he was there as some kind of political analyst, yet Krugman repeatedly apologized for going into "numbers" and "economics." Structurally, the whole thing on the left side of the issue seemed muddled, and the two-on-one (three, if you count Mallon) setup seemed gratuitous, given Krugman's mere presence.
There was nothing muddled about the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner's role, however. He was there to advocate privatization of Social Security, to pooh-pooh the idea that true add-ons have any merit, and to contradict himself as much as possible. Well, the last bit was my impression. It may not have been intentional.
The debate began with Tanner admitting up front that privatization had nothing to do with the solvency of Social Security. This was both smart and stupid: smart, because Krugman would have utterly embarassed him, and stupid, because he then didn't have any reason for being there. He kept alluding to the financing problems the system would have to deal with: when it was going to go broke, how much it was going to cost the government to deal with it, the number of retirees, etc., but always in the context of the need for privatization, so he had to stop short of making his point. Krugman never let the point slide, relentlessly characterizing privatization as an ideological preference, rather than a practical necessity.
The debate format allowed Krugman to get up to speed and really flesh out his arguments, as opposed to the over-the-top catch phrase-laden performances he sometimes gives on television. I overheard one of a trio of early 20-something guys behind me suggest to his friends that if they had a game where they drink every time Krugman bashes the Bush administration, everyone would be drunk in 10 minutes. By my count, they wouldn't have finished their first beer by the end of the debate.
He repeatedly hammered home the point that Social Security is an insurance plan that allows Americans to share the risks of death, injury, and poor lifetime earnings. If that's not the democrats' main talking point going forward, it should be.
I almost wanted to feel bad for Tanner. I mean, going toe-to-toe in a debate with a Nobel-worthy scholar in front of a hostile audience is the worst kind of gig. But he was a standard-issue drone, insensitive to having his glaring logical inconsistencies and outright contradictions pointed out to him, self-importantly cheesy, and visibly dishonest. He may have believed in in some greater purpose that was served by the things he said, but Krugman repeatedly pointed out instances where Tanner had said multiple mutually exclusive things, and it never fazed him. He just kept on beating the same old tired drum.
In his introduction, Tanner claimed that a poll released that day had indicated that 54% of Americans favored private plans. I could see Krugman ask Marshall whether such a poll existed (given that the most recent polls show about a 35% approval rating), and both of them shaking their heads and shrugging in turn.
Josh said he thought the privatization debate was (paraphrasing--hand cramps) about as close to dead as you can get. It was never a good idea, and the Republicans pushed it because they bought their own spin and thus were completely blinded to what the general public would think of it.
Curiously, Tanner didn't even reply to Josh's persuasive case that the ultimate aim of the privatizers was the complete dismantling of Social Security. He made some weak claim that disability benefits, as they exist now, were a part of every plan, but that was it. He didn't deny he wanted to get rid of the program. I don't know if he was saving himself for Krugman, or if he just couldn't make himself say the words.
There was an interesting back and forth between Tanner and Krugman on the subject of whether or not Social Security recipients were supplicants to the government. Somehow, with 4% of their income going into private accounts and 8% into traditional Social Security, according to Tanner, workers would be transformed from beggars into proud individualists. Krugman drily dismissed him.
Tanner made a lot of noise about the inheritability of private accounts, and, unfortunately, neither Paul nor Josh explicitly made the point that inheritability would really only mean something if you die before you're 65. Krugman did do a great job of explaining how Bush's plan works, he just didn't counter the inheritability argumant effectively.
The best moment of the night had to be when Krugman invoked the notion of moral equality, when one doesn't have to defer to others merely because of their wealth. The mere fact of knowing that you can support yourself gives you dignity and standing in society. Once that's gone, equality becomes impossible.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
Price Indexing for the People?
(Please note: I'm no economist. I have somewhat of a general grasp of how things work, but that's it. So the following is just noodling, and if I happen to get something right, it's probably by accident.)
Andy Xie of Morgan Stanley has an interesting hypothesis (scroll down), that China's size, fast growth rate, and functionally limitless pool of labor will make it a fundamentally different influence on the developed world economy of the future than previous arrivistes such as Japan and South Korea:
When a small economy like South Korea begins to develop, it is quite reasonable to assume that its prices (e.g., wages, property prices, or the cost of a haircut) will rise to the same levels as in developed economies. South Korea has a population of fewer than 50 million. If it invests to join the global economy, global demand will be met by Korean supply at the margin. As South Korea’s labor force is less than 5% of the OECD labor force, it will reach full employment quickly -- and the extra global demand will pull up its wages to international levels. Rising wages will cause inflation, and asset and goods prices will also converge towards international levels.
This idea takes its place alongside recent wage trends in the United States (and, possibly, the rest of the developed world, although I don't know enough about it to say), which has of late experienced flat or slightly negative real wage growth in an expanding economy. This has variously been attributed to companies arrogating to themselves productivity gains that have historically gone to labor, globalization (see China and India), weak labor organization, and the destruction and withering away of labor-friendly regulations, among other factors.
With none of these trends looking likely to reverse themselves any time soon, it's difficult to see where real wage growth in the U.S. is going to come from in the future.
On top of this, the U.S. economy is looking ripe for a big interest rate hike, further currency depreciation, and a massive squeezing-out of investment in favor of debt service. In other words, inflation is coming.
All of this is prelude to a reexamination of a central liberal tenet in the Social Security debate: that indexing benefits to prices instead of wages, as the Bush administration advocates, is a Bad Thing. If the above-noted trends continue, workers in the abstract could find themselves better off under price indexing if wage growth slows or stops in an increasingly inflationary environment. If wages are flat and inflation high, the current system of wage indexing would provide progressively lower and lower payments to retirees.
Of course, in the real world, there will be a huge temptation on the part of an increasingly straitened federal government to game inflation numbers, and any significant rise in SS benefits relative to inflow (and the balance of the non-SS budget) would eventually necessitate higher taxes or benefit cuts. Maybe continuation of wage indexing is the pragmatic course, not because it would provide SS beneficiaries with higher payouts, but the reverse, which would tend more toward the system's future solvency.
I don't know which would be the better course to follow, or favor any particular approach, but I haven't seen this idea mooted in the SS debate, and think it's worth a look by those better informed than I.
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Attack of the Imaginary Naysaying Racists
Last Thursday, Bush said of those opposed to his Social Security plan “They say certain people aren't capable of investing. … Sounds to me like a certain race of people living in a certain area.” It's the exact same formulation he used last April 13 in defending the Iraq war's then-emerging new justification:
Some of the debate really center around the fact that people don't believe Iraq can be free; that if you're Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can't be self-governing and free. I strongly disagree with that. I reject that, because I believe that freedom is the deepest need of every human soul, and, if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.
Instead of talking about this problem that has these characteristics, and therefore needs to be fixed in this way, his appeal is to the fact that (mythical) people say his chosen 'solution' cannot possibly succeed (for appallingly stupid reasons), while neglecting to respond to the arguments his critics have made. Which leaves only an appeal to a general, undifferentiated desire to see Bush have his way. The very idea that someone out there would try to frustrate poor George's plans by saying they're impossible, well, that's just unfair, even if no such thing was ever said.
The whole argument hinges on the idea that what he's trying to do is unquestionably right and good. Oh, and, as I pointed out the first time around, on racism:
It's about getting the words "different," "color," "brown," "white," and "Muslim" out in the open. They're not like us. It's nothing we don't already know, but the repetition in the context of the possibility of having democratic government is useful to Bush. Setting up a dichotomy between white democracies (are we, really?) and brown dictatorships/theocracies is a rhetorical device that equates the supposedly neutral "white" with the unquestioned good of democracy. Nice trick, that.
(I should have added that it would be interesting to hear his analysis of what went on behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, when all of those nice, white folks lived under totalitarian regimes.)
What is being said is that certain people, poor people, aren't currently capable of investing because they don't have any money to invest. That's true regardless of what "race" they are, or the "area" in which they live. It's interesting to note that, in Bush's mind, 'poor' resolves to 'people of a different race living in certain areas.' It makes plain that he takes for granted that the assumed race for all Americans is white, and that other races can be assumed to live in other 'areas.' Given that Bush has repeatedly made reference to blacks getting a raw deal under Social Security, it's apparent which 'race' he's talking about.
Independent of all other considerations, yes, it would be nice to see the poor, of whatever race, able to take advantage of the benefits of investing enjoyed by their wealthier fellow citizens. As Bush has vastly reduced the burden of taxation on investment income relative to wage income, it's practically a moral mandate that the poor be allowed to share in the benefits. However, under his proposed private accounts, effective taxation is vastly higher than on any other form of income: all principal and interest, up to 3% above inflation, merely replaces a like portion of the previous level of defined benefits.
Under his proposal, the entire "investment" scheme is tightly scripted and controlled: people decide how much of their Social Security contributions, up to 4% or $1,000/year, they would like to put into private accounts, and into which of a few very conservative options they'd like this money to go. Does Bush really mean to take the idea that blacks can't handle these simple decisions seriously to the extent that he feels he has the duty to go before the American people and say it ain't so?
He's the first one, the only one, to even allude to this line of 'reasoning.' He doesn't address any of the actual objections to privatization, i.e., that it does nothing to fix the system's finances, that many people could find themselves worse off because of it, that it would force huge amounts of additional borrowing, that it has the potential to seriously distort financial markets, etc., this argument must be what he imagines his opponents are thinking. As such, it says a lot more about how his own mind works than it does about those of his opponents.
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
So we win Social Security but lose bankruptcy. Is that victory? Winning Social Security only leaves us where we were. It doesn't make anything better. Our side held the line against a deadly serious assault, and then we caved on the principle of human dignity. I'm disgusted, and joining the faction against these craven 'democrats' being elected to anything again, ever. Ok, well, at least president.
We're becoming a banana republic right before my eyes. Nothing made it out of debate into the press. Theoretically, it's possible to get yourself into a debt that it's impossible to work off under this bill. More likely, those who declare bankruptcy will find their economic growth severely stunted, in the service of usurious creditors.
It's ironic that those who trumpet the ownership society are paving the way to a debtor nation.