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02/12/2005

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Judge Richard A. Posner explains the difference between liberals and conservatives here.

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Richard A. Posner, Professor of Law at the University Of Chicago and federal judge, in his discussion on social security explains the differences between liberals and conservatives: liberals think that the average person is good but dumb, conservati... [Read More]

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GMB

This is a problem with the left having an almost hidden agenda with re-distribution. They bring this in to all sorts of areas whereas the goal of trying to engineer a little bit more equality of wealth and income should probably be dealt with explicitly. so that it can be done with vastly less overhead. There might be some rigging of the tax system and perhaps a negative income tax in the context of a very lean government.

But instead we get this massive overhead and the ruination of all sorts of industry and decisions. From Social Security to education to the healthcare industry. Decisions in all these areas compromised by an unwillingness to acheive their equality agenda in an explicit, honest and low-cost way.

David

In my opinion, Judge Posner's caricature of "liberals" and "conservatives" is misleading and quite possibly destructive. First, the notion that liberals, and not conservatives, trust the "intellectual elite" is simply wrong. Conservative scholars like Posner and Becker are part of the intellectual elite. The federal government today is run by a group of highly educated, "elite" neoconservatives, many of whom have an ideological agenda to turn back the clock to 1897. Remember, the social programs of the new deal empowered the working classes and took political and economic power away from the conservative elite that had run the economy and had largely run the government (except for a few years now and then, such as the Jackson and Wilson presidencies). The notion that liberalism is an "elitist" philosophy is precisely backwards.

Let's give both sides here the benefit of good intentions. Conservatives believe that individual choice and unregulated markets generally produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Liberals believe that capitalism, while generally a good economic system, has flaws that need to be corrected. For instance, monopolies can destroy "free" markets; too much corporate power can lead to sweatshops; unregulated securities markets can lead to Hoovervilles.

The same is true with the social security debate. Many conservatives believe that private choice will produce the best results; liberals believe that there will be too many losers from private choices, and that those who benefit from capitalism have a duty to take care of those who don't. It's not just a matter of someone being too lazy or shortsighted to save their money. It could well be a matter of someone being born into a poor family, receiving a poor education, and not having the ability to adequately save for retirement. That's why FDR created social security as a redistributive system. Liberals shouldn't run from that fact; they should defend it as the morally correct idea.

I do not think that most Americans would tolerate the elderly starving in the streets, regardless of why they could not support themselves in retirement. We could simply have welfare for the retired, just as we have welfare for those of working age. Or, we could have a system (like we do now) that helps everyone a little bit and helps those of lesser means more. Remember, social security is based on wages; so it does reward those who work hard and succeed in the market. It just evens out the distribution a little, so that more people can enjoy their golden years. Liberals should stand strong and embrace that as a noble program. Then, we can discuss the most efficient means of delivering the program.

GMB

Bad history. It was capital accumulation and free enterprise that empowered working people. Hoover was an interventionist and his and his successors policies are why there was a great depression rather than merely a recession.

The collapse itself is to do with a fractional reserve gold system that had been subject to federal Reserve intervention to expand credit and was in line for a monetary collapse. And the only way to get out of it would have been to get prices right down and accept the bankruptcies or to reform the system radically.

What we can say with 100% certainty is that the depression was not the result of lack of intervention. That would be the exact opposite of the truth.

John Moore (Useful Fools)

As a conservative, I found "Conservatives recognize that people can be unlucky" to be lacking in debates on the critical area of "health care" - more properly called health care payment services ("health insurance"). While this is a bit tangential, it is in the same vein as Social "Security."

Were a person with chronic health problems were to lose his job, he could not buy medical insurance. There would be 18 months of federally mandated COBRA (with the COBRA administrator using every trick in the book to cause him to lose eligibility). Then, if the requirements are followed to the letter, he could force any other insurance company to take him on, but that company is free to charge 4 times the normal premium. Finally, after a period of time, that company can cancel the insurance, or using certain techniques, move the sick insured individuals into high risk pools, pricing the insurance beyond their ability to pay.

I have been through this up until the end of my Cobra. Were I to start a small business (my goal), I would leave my family with tremendous financial exposure. All medical costs would be paid by us, no matter what the amount (a friend had a $150,000 bill just for breast cancer chemotherapy in an uncomplicated, low stage case). We would pay the retail rate, not the negotiated rates that PPOs and HMOs pay.

For example, we recently had rabies shots, which unfortunately started at the ER. The rabies vaccine charge was about $425/dose. The retail cost of human rabies vaccine at Walgreens is $200/dose. The Immunoglobulins were charged at $5400! One younger member of our group did not have health "insurance." She may have to pay that grossly inflated rate. The pricing is due to the captive patient effect, and the cost shifting from those who cannot or will not pay to those unfortunate enough not to have negotiated rate insurance plans (i.e. those caught between having a job and getting medicare). Again, conservatives do not address this issue.

As a consequence, I and many skilled older people cannot retire, or go into consulting like I would prefer. I am a slave, indentured to the US medical payments system. My ability to create capital is limited because of my indentured servitude (until I get Medicare). My ability to create jobs is limited. Conservatives either do not understand this, or fail to address it.

A reasonable social goal for a country like ours is universal health care availability. We have that now, contrary to popular belief. Unfortunately, the related payments system could have been designed by a devout Marxist. If you have money when you get sick, you won't for long. If you don't, you still get treated. It is a great leveller - rewarding sloth and penalizing savings, investment and hard work. 50% of bankruptcies are related to medical bill payments. Conservatives need to understand the perversities of this system.

Hence another important goal is to have universal health payments insurance, so that bad luck doesn't financially destroy people who have acted responsibly. That we do not have, and conservative pundits and policy makers don't seem to understand that. Insurance companies (and I work in the industry) cannot, under current market conditions, provide it.

The problem is adverse selection - i.e. people not buying insurance until they get sick. The only reasonable response is for the companies not to insure sick people or those likely to get sick. For example, if you have ever taken one Prozac, for any reason, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Arizona will not sell you insurance (last time I checked). As genetics gets more precise in its predictions, risk will be so individualized that many people might as well just spend all their savings before the hospitals get them! This is hardly a desirable Conservative outcome.

All of this has powerful side effects in the economy. "Age discrimination" is certainly partly driven by the need to lower insurance costs, since a company as a whole pays rates based on history and risk. Thus more older wage earners end up in the private market, giving positive feedback to the problems of affordability and uninsurability. As the odds increase that an individual will not have insurance when hit by an expensive illness, the incentive to work and save save dries up.

There are ways to solve these problems without socializing either health care or health [payments] insurance. In an anti-conservative sense, they do require some coercive action by the government.

The problem can be solved by:

Forcing everyone to have health [payments] insurance with certain minimal standards.
Providing help in buying insurance to those who cannot afford it. Today, those people are getting their care in the ERs of the country at maximum cost to everyone else.
Preventing employers from buying policies for their employees - they can supply the money and logistical services like payroll deductions, but not the selection or purchase of policies.
Forcing insurance companies to insure all comers at the minimal standards, and to charge the same for everyone.
Some more complex rules to counter-game practices that would otherwise arise from the insurance companies (such as artificial risk pools), and to deal with individuals who do not buy the insurance.

Some additional measures would help, including MSA's which will be *the* model of health care payment within a short time if industry pundits are right. But they do not provide universality across jobs, so they do not solve the problem. Conservatives are only attacking part of the problem.

Where are the conservatives on this one? I am unlucky. I've paid my "share" many times over, but could lose my savings should I become unemployed and sick.

The fact that the left is even worse on the issue is no excuse for the averting of eyes by conservative policy makers.

Wes

...liberals think that the average person is good but dumb, conservatives that he or she is "bad" (in the sense of self-interested) but smart...

The idea that people can be classified as "good" or "bad" and "smart" or dumb" is fundamentally a conservative idea.

Imagine a person with perfect genetics (but still human) so that the person had optimal intelligence and health and fitness and imagine that this person had a perfect family life and a perfect education. What choices would this person make?

Would such a person choose to live a perfectly ordinary life or would they choose a life of achievement and become extremely rich (a Donald Trump) or extremely popular (a Britney Spears) or would they choose a life a community service (a Mother Theresa) or even perhaps a life of religious fundamentalism? Clearly it is not humanly possible to do everything so they would have to choose a particular lifestyle.

Basically, there's no agreement on what choices such a person would make. A liberal would say that until there is a way to know for certain what the best lifestyle is (and it's not just left to each individual to choose a lifestyle arbitrarily), then it is presumptuous to classify people as "good" or "bad".

Just as a conservative would claim to be able to distinguish who is "good" and who is "bad", a conservative would also claim to be able to distinguish who should be rich and who should be poor. In particular, a conservative would say that if you just let people take as much as they can for themselves with any methods they can think of short of stealing from each other (capitalism) then the people who end up rich are the people who should be rich and the people who end up poor and are the people who should be poor.

When someone bakes a cake, for example, there is some justification in saying that that person should own the cake (or have the right to sell it) becaue they did the work of making the cake but natural resources are a different matter entirely. When someone buys a piece of beach front property and then sells it at a huge profit later, for example, typically they have done no work to make the property more valuable - the profit came from increased demand due, ultimately, to population growth. What would be more fair would be if all property (and natural resources, in general) were owned by everyone in the world collectively and if someone wanted exclusive use of a piece of beach front property, for example, they would pay rent to everyone else in the world and that rent would be used to provide a basic level of food and housing to everyone in the world.

A liberal would argue that because the current allocation of natural resources is unfair and because allocation of natural resources plays such a huge role in determining who becomes rich and who becomes poor then it is not at all clear that the people who are rich should be rich or the people who are poor should be poor so there should be a system in place to make sure that no one is so poor that they starve on the street.

The liberal idea is that since there's really no way to know for certain who's good and who's bad then eveyone should be provided with basic rights.

Mantautas Jonas

I would like to discuss exactly what laws are, because the debate seems to revolve around the consequences of a law to the minority. If 55% of the citizens pass a law, the 45% who were opposed or non-committal must obide by it, which might be to their detriment. That's the way the American system works.

Laws are rarely passed unanimously, so there'll always be an underrepresented minority who rail at the injustice of the system. The issue of how to deal with minority rights will never be completely solved to everyone's satisfaction. Whether they are liberals or conservations, the minority faction always strives to have their concerns addressed.

As Judge Posner so astutely observed the underage population has no vote in how laws are passed. While obviously an infant would incapable of making sound judgements, the same was said about women and slaves two hundred years ago. Interestingly in Thailand there were reports of people being openly paid for their votes, which is not allowed in the US. However money is used in more subtle ways to buys votes, i.e. advertising, canvassing, etc.

Judge Posner hits the nail on the head in pointing out the minority group will always justify their position with convincing arguments. Who forms the majority changes though: in one generation it might be conservatives, while the succeeding one will be liberals. Technology and demographics see to that.

The electorate needs to be flexible because the needs of the constituents constantly change. Issues of intellectual piracy were nonexistant before copying machines, tape and video recorders, computers, etc. Living conditions are vastly different from the isolated rural societies and urban fortresses of the 1700's. Laws must constantly adapt to because those in the majority today might constitute the minority tomorrow and they would have to live with the retribution of the former underlings. To have a stable system the minority needs always to be respected, no matter how much power the majority holds.

Corey

Posner, your good/bad, dumb/smart dichotomies create 4 possible combinations and you left two out.

I think that people are inherently good, but also smart. For this reason, I support direct democracy and democratic control of the methods of production. I oppose the elite of any persuasion. This puts me left of the "liberals" in your scheme, and ensures that I have to fight to even be admitted into the terms of debate.

Lassiez faire capitalism is NOT a doctrine of the masses, everyone used to know that. There is no choice where sharp inequalities exist. Coase doesn't even apply because it is absurd to talk about equality of bargaining power when a corporation can "cut costs" by firing you and you will go into bankrupcy because of your families medical bills if you get fired. At will employment? Just try to opt out of it.

Conservatives are responsible for the idea that there is a "natural" unemployment rate. Wall Street encourages companies to maintain an "efficiently sized" (minimal) labor force, because that is supposed to maximize "profits". But profits are a redistribution of wealth as surely as taxes. It is absurd to call everything that the liberals would do a redistribution and presuppose that money moving under a conservative system is just responding to the natural order of things.

All this goes to ensuring that it is always painful for a worker to lose her "at will" job, perpetuating the inequality on behalf of those who hold and dole out access to capital.

No one deserves to be poor, I do not care if they are judged good or bad by the power elite. The bitter irony here is that a great deal of the activities that lead conservatives to decide someone deserves to be poor are the result of the desperation of being poor.

And conversely, when a capitalist rises to the top of a public/corporate enterprise and extracts millions of profits for his personal use, neo-economicons are quick to defend his right to "enjoy HIS profits." But of course they are not HIS profits, his possession of them is an appropriation, justified by the false preferencing of possession of capital over the labor of the masses.

So yes I do think the average person is competent to manage money for retirement. However, they are also compent to ask the government to hold it in a stable public trust, because they value security in this case more than choice of investment portfolio. Because they specifically do NOT want their retirement savings to be subject to profit taking and risky reinvestment.

Considering that Bush is operating on a 51% "majority", it is irresponsible to the ideals of democracy for him to make such sweeping changes on behalf of the entire population without a referendum. Claiming that conservatives trust the masses is like saying that facism makes the trains run on time. Conservatives trust the masses to bless inequality when told that personal responsibility is the highest ideal of humanity. Liberals say that personal responsibility is the nice way of saying selfishness but still endorse inequality of "enlightenment" because it makes them feel smarter. BOTH conservatives and liberals engage in undemocratic paternalism on a wide scale, the only difference is in the language used to sell it.

Talin

It's not that I believe that people are "dumb", but rather that they are fallible, which is an entirely different thing. All forms of human organization and decision making are fallible. The prisoner's dilemma, tragedy of the commons and the NIMBY principle are examples of the traps one can fall into if decisions are left entirely to individual self-interest. Other forms of decision making (the market, elections, think tanks, study groups, bureaus, etc.) are also fallible, but they are each fallible in different ways. Thus it seems to me that we need a balance between these different types of decision making in the hopes that the various flaws will cancel each other out.

Wes

Capitolism faces the Brave New World problem: not everyone gets to be a high power corporate executive earning millions of dollars a year in "incentive" plans - a lot of people also have to do soul destroyingly monotonous work doing things like cleaning toilets on the night shift at the local shopping mall making barely enough to live on.

Maybe Capitalism can claim that it allocates people most efficiently to the jobs that must be filled but that's like having a justice system that requires exactly 10% of the population to receive the death penalty each year. Sure, maybe the guy with the oustanding parking ticket deserved to die more than the guy without the parking ticket and maybe such a system would provide powerful motivation to obey the law but that doesn't mean that the guy with the parking ticket deserves to die.

A conservative would argue that because the corporate executive is more qualified to be a corporate executive than the minimum wage employee that therefore the minimum wage employee deserves minimum wage (and certainly such a system is a powerful motivator to work) but fundamentally that's the same logic that leads to the conclusion that the guy with the parking ticket deserves to die.

Maybe eventually technology will be used to make every job's labor equally effecient so that a single person working the night shift at the shopping mall can clean enough toilets to earn as much as a corporate executive earns in "incentive" plans. When everyone in the world can earn the same hourly wage as a corporate executive then it may begin to be possible to determine who should be rich and who should be poor. Somehow, though, capitalism doesn't seem to be very good at investing in the technology to make this happen.

Comparing the United States to the former Soviet Union might lead to the conclusion that even if capitalism doesn't allocate wealth fairly - it at least motivates people to accumulate wealth. The proplem is that the former Soviet Union had a much more corrupt government than the United States so a more fair comparison would be between the former Soviet Union and Indonesia which has roughly the same size population as the United States and has been aggressively capitalist (with regular communist purges) for the the last 50 years. Such a comparison leads to the conclusion that it is more the level of government corruption than the type of economic system that determines the success of a country's economy. In fact, comparing democratic country's with varying degrees of socialism and capitalism, (scandinavia with the USA for example) it is not at all clear that greater amounts of capitalism lead to higher standards of living.

Conservatives argue that if people are provided with basic needs of living by the government then no one will work. It's actually more subtle than that. Suppose the government were to provide everyone in the United States with $20,000 a year to live on. What you would see is that those people who were earning hundreds of thousands a year doing pleasant interesting work would continue to work but that those people who were only earning a few thousand a year working long hours doing unpleasant work would choose not to work. The problem with welfare, then, is that it makes it harder to force people into the night shift toilet cleaning jobs.

The issue for liberals isn't whether social security is privatised but whether - just as WMD were used as a justification for setting up military control of middle east oil - privatization will be used as a justification for doing away the the idea that there should be some social support for the poor to counter the worst effects of unfairness in income levels that is part of capitalism.

David

One of the flaws of neoconservatism that it assumes we live in a meritocracy. If that were true, then it could be argued that people deserve what they get, no matter how good or how bad. Of course, the current President is a poster child for the fact that ours is not a true meritocracy.

On the flip side, one of the flaws of the left is that it assumes we live in an aristocracy, where the "underprivileged" are doomed to generations of failure without government help. That is not entirely true, and our former President is a prime example of that fact.

In truth, the United States today is somewhere in between. Those born into wealth and privilege have it easier. Those born with less can make it, but the road is harder. One of the reasons that they can make it is because of the degree of redistribution in our system already, such as public education and welfare. But an equally important reason is that America likes success stories, wherever they started.

Conservatives need to understand that government, taxes, and yes, redistribution, can help make the "American dream" more possible for everyone. Liberals need to understand government cannot do everything and that motivation must come from within as well. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The greatest danger to the vibrancy of America is blind ideology, of all sorts.

Fred

David, since you attack "blind ideology," I must ask you to stop using the word "neoconservativism" when you have no idea what it means. This debate has nothing to do with neoconservativism and, as far as I can tell, no neoconservative has taken part in it. Even if one did, I don't believe there's an official take neoconservatives have on this issue. It's bad enough how people caricature the other side without you tossing in a term that merely signifies those you disagree with.

BrianF

Where does your young self/old self argument fit into the taxonomy? It seems to be an argument for forced savings,but for that to work individuals must be time inconsistent and sufficiently myopic that they will not voluntarily take advantage of any precommitment mechanisms which might be available. If they are time inconsistent but aware of the fact, and not myopic, they will pre-commit, so a forced savings mechanism just adds a layer of administrative cost on top of actions that they would have taken anyway.

David

Fred - before you go telling me that I do not understand "neoconservatism," why don't you tell me what you think it means? I think you will find it much more rewarding to debate the merits than to issue ad hominem attacks.

I obviously touched a nerve. I will guess that the reason is that you are one of the many neoconservatives on this weblog. I'm very happy to shake things up and try to make people think outside the box. That is when real progress gets made.

And for the record, my understanding is that "neoconservative" (not a precise term) refers to the modern, post-Reagan era of conservatives. They are generally economic libertarians, believe in an aggressive defense policy, and are less socially conservative than the rest of the Republican party. That's just a quick "caricature," to borrow a word from Judge Posner.

Fred

I don't like getting involved in long threads that go far off the topic, but I'll try to answer your question.

The meaning of the word "neoconservative" has spread lately to be almost anything people don't like, and is more often used as a pejorative than a description, but not long ago it had a reasonably precise meaning.

There was a movement, particular among certain Jews (especially Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz), though not limited to them, who grew disenchanted with the Left and by the 70s split from it. They were staunch anti-Communists, strong supporters of Israel, and felt America was a force for good in the world. They supported interventionism to spread democracy, human rights and, to some extent, free markets. Whether they or today's Left best keep the spirit of liberalism alive is an open question, I'd say.

Neoconservatives have had influence on American foreign policy, though it's hard to know how much difference they've made, since they've rarely held high positions. For instance, Bush's cabinet in his first term did not have a single true neocon. But that didn't stop critics from claiming this movement had somehow hijacked the Administration, or bizarrely stating old-school conservatives like Rumsfeld and Cheney belonged to their circle.

Some neocons go along with conservatives on smaller government and social conservatism, while others tend not to go so far; in any case, this has never been central to what distinguishes them. (Compare this to, say, Libertarians.) That's why it's so silly to call plans and ideology that has long been favored by straightforward "conservatives" as "neoconservative," as if this somehow either describes it better or taints it.

David

Fred - I think it is highly relevant to distinguish "neoconservatives" from old-line conservatives or from today's religious conservativews. Neocons tend to be libertarian, but not quite fully libertarian. They tend to believe that their policies truly benefit the common man, as opposed to old-line conservatives who idolized weath and privilege. And they tend to be more socially liberal than the religious conservatives. They are an important group, with an identifiable ideology: faith in free markets (perhaps the "blind faith" I mentioned earlier), egalitarian to the core (but not always willing to admit the entrenched biases of society), and basically anti-statist on everything but the military. I didn't mean it as a derogatory term any more than I meant to use "liberals" as a derogatory term. It is simply a more precise term than conservative or Republican, and most intellectual conservatives these days fall into the neocon mold. BTW, I disagree with you 100% about Bush: he has many neocons in high places. In fact, I would say that his administration is the first truly neoconservative one. This is neither good nor bad; it is simply a reflection of where the intellectual leadership of the Republican party has migrated.

Also, why do you find it relevant to mention that certain neoconservatives were Jewish? Not to make accusations, but in my experience, only anti-semites take care to make such references for no apparent reason. I see no reason why Krisol's religion has any relevance to this discussion.

Martin Bento

Judge Posner, my objection to your old/young dichotomy is that it was inconsistent to what you had said earlier about government incompetence about estimating individual utility curves. If the government is inadequate to estimate present utility curves, how does it estimate future ones? Admittedly, I wrapped this up in my response to Becker, rather than making a separate comment in your thread, so you may not have caught it. What I said was:

"In a previous discussion on another blog, I asked Judge Posner how he could object to a ban on smoking if he did not believe in free will. He said:

'because I don't expect to be made better off by being told not to do things by government officials who have a much less exact knowledge of my utility function than I do'

How is a government too incompetent to measure whether the joy you get from smoking is worth the risk supposed to measure the values of phantasms that will not even exist for decades. If government cannot even evaluate your utility curves now, how can it estimate your future utility curves, even better than you can?
"

As for the question of whether liberals thinks man is more stupid than evil, I think there is some truth to this, but that is does not capture the true difference between the two positions (although I view neither position as very coherent). For my part, I am cynical of human virtue in general and find that this position leads me straight to the Left. For example, conservatives seem at least as fond as liberals of "Hanlon's Razor": Never attribute to malice what could possibly be explained by incompetence, which I find a very poor heuristic. Likewise, I think support of the Iraq War largely hinged on whether you believed the President in his claims to have non-public, certain knowledge of Iraqi WMD's and that Saddam was working with al queda, posed an immediate threat, etc. I was cynical enough to believe the President was lying and did not (and do not) support the war. Many liberals, but many more conservatives, were more inclined to offer Bush the benefit of the doubt.

In more general terms, a skepticism of human morality can make one more suspicious of great inequality of power. Money is power: it is the ability to cause things to happen in accordance with your will. If you are suspicious of concentration of power, but modern social organization seems to require it, then you will want it to be socially controlled, either by being placed in the hands of democratic, or partially democratic, governments or by being highly regulated when in private hands, neither of which are conservative positions.

I would also like to point out that arguments for wealth redistribution are not limited to the moral. For example, in a previous thread, Dr. Becker argued that monetary awards should vary with the person's wealth, essentially to reflect the differing opportunity cost of the injury. I disagreed with this, but if we are to adapt such a standard, then we should apply it consistently. If a legitimate goal of government is to maximize utility of the population (and, if this is not a legitimate goal, then nothing should be defended on the basis of "growth"), then every time money is taken from a richer person and handed to a poorer one, utility, and therefore the true value of that money, is increased. The optimal distribution, then, would be an equal one. Of course, there are other senses in which such a distribution would not be optimal: there is an incentive problem, for example. However, given a certain size of pie, the optimal utility distribution (assuming a parabolic utility curve, which seems likely) is equal. A certain amount of inequality may increase the pie sufficiently to increase the median, but would only be optimal to the extent that it could be demonstrated to do this - to increase the median, not just the nominal total. Under this scheme, I could even see arguments for Becker's position, though it would be of much less consequence with economic inequality so sharply reduced.

Alexander Crawford

First I would like to apologize to the hosts of this blog, and to Mr. Posner in particular.

It is my opinion, sir, that you are not being shown the respect you have every reason to expect from adults who've chosen to insert themselves into public debate on this site. Aside from those few individuals to whom the concept of showing courtesy to a host is obviously foreign, it is also my opinion that several posters are exploiting the impersonal nature of this medium much as demagogues exploit the impersonal nature of a mob. When shamelessly using Ad Hominem to insult others, at least have the courage to post your full name.

I am posting with my real name, by the by, and am listed.

I have never been a student of either host, nor do I recall meeting either socially. I would like to respectfully suggest that these gentlemen are in no way obliged to participate in this forum, and that they are doing those of us who are not their students a kindness in allowing us an intellectual familiarity that we have not earned (and which their students no doubt resent). Kindness should be met with kindness, or failing that, silence; (an important aphorism to remember for those unfamiliar with our State).

This blog is by definition an experiment, but the opportunity will cease should our hosts decide participating to be more a test of their patience than their wits. And as childish, ill considered, rude, or intemporate contributions don't demonstrate the possession of either trait by their author, why should they merit the dignity of a reply?

"It is by taking part in transactions with our fellow-men that some of us become just and others unjust; by acting in dangerous situations and forming a habit of fear or of confidence we become courageous or cowardly. And the same holds good of our dispositions with regard to the appetites, and anger; some men become temperate and gentle, others profligate and irascible,by actually comporting themselves in one way or the other in relation to those passions. In a word, our moral dispositions are formed as a result of the corresponding activities. Hence it is incumbent on us to control the character of our activities, since on the quality of these depends the quality of our dispositions. It is therefore not of small moment whether we are trained from childhood in one set of habits or another; on the contrary it is of very great, or rather of supreme, importance."

Aristotle, Nic. Ethics

Alexander Crawford

Whew... Not much policy coverage on Social Security reform, but there's certainly a lot of concern over polemics. Why? Why is Judge Posners casual and half hearted summation of the basic sides, whether accurate or not, seen as grounds to abandon the question of SS policy to take a swipe at whatever side isn't your own??

I am a Libertarian. I have used tax loopholes to avoid paying Social Security contributions as soon as it was clear that the program would likely go bust before I retired. I do not disagree with the concept of a Federal Social Safety net, and in fact would be willing to contribute were the system reformed. I am horrified by the false and cynical claim that Social Security is a "retirement fund" or a "savings account", as it is not.

I would begin by pointing out that Social Security, unreformed, will go bust in 30-35 years. Doing nothing is not a responsible attitude, unless one already has a savings for retirement and pension and doesn't need charity or doesn't want it.

I would also point out that because black-American men have an average life expectancy below retirement age, there seems to be little about the SS program that black men have reason to think is fair. Obviously "average" life expectancy is a statistical gimmick to a degree, but even so... knowing this statistic I would (and do) believe it a matter of good faith to advise black friends NOT to contribute to a so-called "Social Security" program when there's a legal way to get around paying. Why should an average black man pay 5-7% of his hard earned money, while his employer pays another 5% (which they just subtract from his salary)... why should he give that 7-12% of his money to some 80 year old white broad to live in up in Florida when it's unlikely he'll even live to 65? Doesn't the average black man, knowing the statisticians are already against him, have a greater responsiblity to set aside enough to provide for his wife and kids should he die at 60, than to support some strangers retirement today?

"Well my dark skinned friends, I'll give you 40 acres and a Mule when you turn 65, with INTEREST, and you won't even have to remember to make the monthly payments! I'll just "withhold" them from your paycheck! You'll never notice it's gone until you're over 65, when you'll never have to work again! If you live to be 115 years old, you'll have gotten paid for 50 years after paying 1/10th for only 35 years!" (Sound familiar? Well I can joke, but it doesn't seem honest to me.)

Next. Why are millionaires paid social security benefits? I'd love to be a millionaire myself, don't get me wrong, but I fail to see what paying money to people who don't need it qualifies as "social justice" or a "safety net" (I think Dick Cheney can afford his own safety net, don't you?). I understand that tens of thousands of people over 65 were lied to by dishonest politicians and I agree that they have every reason to be angry at the politicians that lied, and continue to lie, about the nature of a "safety net". A retired cop getting a $70,000 a year pension does not need another $5000 a year. A retired teacher on a pension of $40,000 a year is not "starving on Americas streets". Above a certain yearly income, well above the poverty line, old people taking money they don't need are abusing the system and being greedy.

The other benefit of cutting off payments to people who don't need them, it that the system would be able to pay old people who DO need public charity with a more respectable amount. I'm very tired of Progressives who see nothing twisted in paying rich people money they don't need, while complaining that reforming the system will cause starvation. Have any of you Trotskyites actually been to a retirement jail, I mean home, and seen how the people actually living on their monthly SS check have to scrape by? Maybe it's time that the people who're being punished for believing the New Deal asked for a New New Deal, because it doesn't seem like such a great deal to me.

I don't know about "conservatives" and "liberals", being a Libertarian, but I know the LP tries to be the party of Reason. There are times when Reason supports believing one thing, and times when Reason recommends a different policy. There is almost never a perfect solution to a problem, but if those who oppose reforming Social Security cannot see ANY injustice or discrimination unless it's related to Bush somehow... and I strongly suspect this at times... then ok, you keep your hate and support your injustices like good Hegelians. But accept the consequences later when people who DO want Justice finally get it.

I don't know about "liberal" and "conservative", but as a Libertarian I can promise I will always listen to Reason; And that I prefer ugly Truths to pretty Lies, even regarding myself.

lincoln

I would like to make the point the benefits from social security are set by Congress and can be modifed by the same.There is a very old book in which one of the characters makes the point to another that, "Man is a politcal animal".His adversary replies,"Listen ,Cy ,my friend, man is not only a political animal;he's also an economic animal".Let me make this point.When tax revnues from social security are less than the payouts,there will be a restructuring of benefits.I would like to see something happen before then,but I'm not optimistic.

Martin Bento

Alexander, it may be that the reason this discussion has wandered off-topic is that this is the fourth thread on SS reform we've had, and many have already had their say. The Becker thread preceeding this has more related posts. The way this blog is structured, Becker and Posner each start a thread with his view of a subject, and each has a thread responding to comments. Hence, four threads, typically, per topic. I'm not criticizing, just pointing this out.

In any case, Posner's comment gets at a more fundamental and quite interesting question, so I don't see the problem in discussing, and don't really consider it off-topic, since it is something Posner said in the post to which we are responding.

As for means-testing social security, conservatives seem quick to point out that means-tested welfare schemes provide a disincentive to work. This is one of the great criticisms of AFDC-type plans. If the subsidy is reduced as income increases, even if the reduction is less than dollar for dollar, the marginal gain from working is less than in the absence of the subsidy. But when we turn to social security, which avoids this problem by not reducing benefits to those of greater income, we are told that programs such as these should be only for the "truly indigent", and that the better-off beneficiaries are free riders. You can't have it both ways. If you believe social security should be means tested so that its sole purpose is to prevent serious impoverishment, then you have no objection to other welfare schemes that do the same, and should immediately move to the left of the Democratic Party and advocate repeal of the Clintonite welfare reform of the nineties, abandoning all those quibbles about the incentive to work.

The argument about blacks not living as long is a poor one because it is only legitimate if this remains a permanent condition and because it addresses only nominal quantity not utility. The black man who opposes social security on this basis is committed to his group dying young to justify his position, when it seems clear that most, if not all, of the reasons for the short black lifespan are social, not genetic, and therefore should be curable. Social security is also mildly progressive, and I would like to see an actual study showing that black people pay out more than they get in, rather than blanket assertions based on the single data point of lifespan. Some of the factors that reduces black lifespan are: propensity to die young from violence (typically before much is paid in), large amount of time spent in prison (not paying in), depression from chronic un or underemployment, you get the picture.

Libertarians are in my experience as dogmatic as Marxists, who also claim to have reason on their side.

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