Social Security: An Inconvenient Truth

English: Scanned image of author's US Social S...
Social Security card. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first “top ten” Republican presidential nomination debate consisted almost entirely of empty calories, and it’s easy to see why. The event was put on by Fox “News,” its dominating presence was Donald Trump, and its focus was, simply, on who could get most militaristic about Iran and immigration.

Issues of substance? Fuhgeddaboudit … except for one brief exchange between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor (and Fox talk show host) Mike Huckabee. Between the two of them, they revealed the narrow and dangerous range of thinking on the future of Social Security that characterizes both major American political parties. Even Bernie Sanders, allegedly a fire-breathing socialist, can’t seem to think outside that range on Social Security. A quick roundup of the positions:

Huckabee thinks that Social Security can and should be “saved” by switching from progressive federal income taxation to the “Fair” Tax, a 30% national sales tax.

Christie thinks that Social Security can and should be “saved” by increasing the retirement age by two years over a period of 25 years (i.e. every year or so, the retirement age goes up by one month) and “means testing” (i.e. stopping Social Security checks to senior citizens with retirement incomes in excess of $200k and $4 million in liquid assets).

Sanders thinks that Social Security can be “saved” by un-capping the tax that supports it. Right now, only the first $118,500 of each individual’s income is taxed for Social Security purposes. Sanders wants to remove that ceiling.

Social Security has long, and rightly, been characterized as the “third rail” of American politics. Those who touch it tend to die spectacularly gruesome political deaths. It has to be talked about, but nobody’s willing to talk about it outside the context of “saving” it.

That fear may be justified, but it’s also incredibly bad for America.

The ratio of retirees to current tax-paying workers is inverting — Baby Boomers are retiring, having had fewer children than their own parents.

Social Security’s  “trust fund” consists entirely of IOUs from a government already more than $18 trillion in debt and showing no signs of ever learning fiscal responsibility.

None of the gimmicks proposed by the likes of Huckabee, Christie and Sanders changes those fundamentals.  Even Social Security’s trustees predict insolvency by 2035, and their bookkeeping looks suspiciously optimistic.

Here’s what the politicians don’t want to tell you: Social Security is going to end.

Even if the US government hadn’t operated it as a Ponzi scheme, spending its revenues and paying old claims from new revenues, the demographic changes of the last 50 years would have made it untenable. And even absent those demographic changes, well, Ponzi schemes always collapse sooner or later.

It’s going to end. The only choice is whether it ends with a bang (total collapse and sudden mass destitution among the elderly) or a whimper (phasing it out with minimum possible harm to those counting on it).

Any politician who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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The GOP, the Boxes, and the Uber

English: Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2...
Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2009 on Pell Street, looking west towards Bayard and Mott. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

On August 4, Vikas Bajaj devoted a New York Times op-ed to the politics of Uber. The headline contends that “Republicans Are Trying to Turn Uber Into a Partisan Issue,” and that companies like Uber and Airbnb based in the “gig economy” rather than the 9-to-5 realm “hardly fit into the kind of neat ideological boxes in which Republicans would like to put them.”

Bajaj then attempts to turn Uber into a partisan issue, fitting it into the Democrats’ neat ideological boxes. Republicans spotlighting startups with hi-tech cool and youth appeal is exposed as a ploy to distract from their reactionary stands on issues like same-sex marriage. This is in no way like Bill Clinton playing the sax on TV while rubber-stamping the Defense of Marriage Act away from the cameras.

To Bajaj, Uber’s “aggressively challenging or flouting taxi regulations” appeals to Republicans’ hostility toward the regulatory state (ignoring the key role of Democratic stalwarts like Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in trucking deregulation misses an opportunity to score partisan points.)

Bajaj’s model is the detente between New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and Uber, two brash upstarts whose confrontational image is rapidly yielding to accommodation with the status quo. Not that de Blasio’s radical imagination ever approached that of true mavericks like Paul and Percival Goodman, whose 1961 remedy for Manhattan’s traffic congestion featured specialized half-length, electric-powered, 40-MPH cabs.

Bajaj notes that conservatives have backed municipal restraints on Uber, showing how “the political influence of established local businesses and labor groups” trumps professed ideology. Indeed. Bajaj points out support in Uber’s management for Obamacare “which Republicans love to hate” (but the templates of which Republicans like Mitt Romney designed to offload labor costs).

Professionals benefit in obvious ways from prohibitions on less skilled and informal competition. But contra the mythology of overpaid, underworked employees running the asylum, labor has always been a subsidiary partner in the corporate liberal coalition, in capital-intensive industries where it accounts for a relatively small proportion of operating costs. The same grassroots pressure that compelled General Motors to accede to United Automobile Workers can be applied to Uber.

Bajaj concludes that if economics doesn’t do the job, demographics will, with diverse millennials a captive constituency of the Democrats. Thus, as the Goodmans observed, voting is “according to ethnic and party groupings. The rival programs are both vague and identical.” In the 1970s, the Times was so charitable to the nascent libertarian movement (whose political party already officially supported same-sex marriage) that two of its young voices were given space in The New York Times Magazine to call JFK “one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties.” Mentioning that Uber’s CEO “holds libertarian views” only to lump them into the red-state side of the aisle, Bajaj is four decades behind the times. Where we’re riding, we need neither Republicans nor Democrats to build roads.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

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August 1945: Let’s Talk About Terrorism

Nagasaki, Japan. September 24, 1945, 6 weeks a...
Nagasaki, Japan. September 24, 1945, 6 weeks after the atomic bomb attack on that city, the second atomic blast in history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 6, 1945, the United States of America became the first — and, to this day, the only — nation to use atomic or nuclear weapons in actual hostilities (as opposed to testing). The unconditional surrender of Japan quickly followed, bringing an end to World War II.

For 70 years now, the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings have occasioned debate on whether or not those bombings were necessary, and whether or not they were justifiable.

Many World War II veterans  — and others — stand on simple necessity to justify the bombings. A US invasion of Japan’s home islands, they argue, would have entailed a million or more US military casualties, and even more Japanese civilian casualties than are attributed to the atomic attacks.

The argument is facially persuasive.  As of August 1945, my grandfather and my wife’s father were both serving in the US Navy in the Pacific.  There certainly existed a non-trivial likelihood that either or both of them would have died in subsequent battles had the war not ended. For obvious reasons, we’re grateful they came home alive.

The persuasiveness of the argument fades when we consider the facts: Conditional surrender had been on offer since late 1944, the condition being that Emperor Hirohito remain on the throne. The US fought two of the war’s bloodiest battles — Iwo Jima and Okinawa, at a cost of tens of thousands of Americans killed — then unleashed Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan’s civilian population, rather than accept that condition. But once the war was over, Hirohito was allowed to remain Emperor.

That aside, words mean things, and neither our happiness at our ancestors’ survival nor any military argument for insisting on unconditional surrender and dropping atomic bombs to get it changes the character of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Terrorism, per WordNet, is “the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature.” The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings meet that definition in spades.

US president Harry S. Truman  ordered, consciously and with premeditation, the murder of somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 civilians in pursuit of his political goal of unconditional  Japanese surrender.

Whether or not an act constitutes terrorism doesn’t depend on whether or not its goals are laudable. Every terrorist and supporter of terrorism in history, save a handful of thorough nihilists, has justified his or her atrocities on the basis of the desired outcomes, claiming that a few innocent lives sacrificed now means more innocent lives saved later.

But innocent lives are not ours to sacrifice. Murder is murder and terrorism is terrorism, no matter what nationalist or patriotic colors we wrap them up in and no matter what ribbon of “necessity” we stick atop them.

Even if we accept the “necessity” argument for the murders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they remain something to regret and to mourn, not something to justify or to celebrate.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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