Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, April 29, 2005

THE RIGHT MESSAGE

What Bush said last night seems, for some reason, to have finally forced the numbskull press to notice that a Republican-led Social Security reform will make benefits more progressive-- a step in the right direction from the liberal point of view. This refocus of the debate is welcome and should work to Bush's advantage.

The simplest, most basic way to say what's wrong with Social Security is to point out that the most regressive tax on the books funds one of the least progressive transfer programs in the system-- it robs the poor to pay the rich. Every year, billions of dollars are extracted from workers who are struggling to make ends meet, and paid out to elderly people who have substantial incomes and lots of assets.

The only argument in favor of this scheme is one that my commenter Tom West offered a while back:

Let us assume that we want a general safety net for the old who, deserving or undeserving, are facing poverty in old age and no way to escape it.

If the SS program is not universal, there's every possibility that like every other program directed towards the poor, there'll be a strong incentive to cut it because it doesn't affect the "average person".

Those who constructed SS realized that the only way to get the public to buy in to the program was to provide the benefit to all, so that we don't resent the heavy cost of keeping our elderly out of poverty.

Making some numbers up, we might save a 1/3 the cost of SS by making it means tested, but in doing so, the political will might not be there to tax at rates more than 1/2 of the current rates. The net result is a cut of benefits to those in need.


Stated baldly, the cynical and undemocratic nature of this argument becomes clear. It is assumed that helping the needy elderly is the right thing to do, yet the public is too greedy to recognize this, and will cut any program they personally do not benefit from. The governed will not consent to pay taxes to help the elderly poor, so they must be tricked. It is assumed further that we won't "resent" the heavy cost of keeping our elderly out of poverty as long as some benefit is paid to us-- even though paying benefits to the affluent and to the poor (indeed, worse: paying larger benefits to the affluent than to the poor!) is a far greater burden than just keeping the elderly out of poverty, which is not a "heavy burden" at all by comparison.

This argument in favor of the Social Security status quo, and it is really the only one there is, is an argument by political operators to political operators. It can only be made by people who assume they are talking over normal people's heads. It can't be used to convince voters. Imagine:

VOTER: Why do I have to pay this 12.4% payroll tax?

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: Because we need the money to keep the elderly out of poverty.

VOTER: But most of the money doesn't go to the elderly poor. It goes to middle-class and affluent elderly, who are better off than the average person paying the payroll tax.

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: That's true. But we can't just give the money to the poor and needy. If we did, only the poor and needy would want to keep the program.

VOTER: I would want to keep the program if it were just for the poor and needy. I agree with you that we should keep the elderly out of poverty. I just don't think my tax dollars should go to pay benefits for affluent retirees.

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: You may say that, for now. But we know that people are really pretty selfish. If they didn't get a benefit from the program themselves, they would want to scrap it, and they wouldn't care if they threw the elderly out into the street.

VOTER: But you can't make everyone benefit from the program. If you want to redistribute to the elderly poor, people with higher incomes are going to have to pay more in than they get out, in present value terms. So if voters are as greedy as as you say they are, won't they throw out the system anyway?

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: We're hoping they won't be smart enough to figure out that it's a losing deal for them.

You can't make this argument to someone's face. If that's your position, you have to hide it, and all you can do in public is obfuscate. If Republicans keep banging on about progressivity, about how we shouldn't be taxing the poor to pay benefits to the rich, the public will come round.

Liberals think that their cynical-idealistic argument for Social Security is justified by the fate of other Great Society programs, especially AFDC, which voters soured on and threw out because most people saw them as benefiting other people, not themselves. They see welfare reform as proof that voters are greedy and selfish, and can't be trusted to support sensible, humane, pro-poor policies.

But the real problem is not with the voters, it's with the liberals and their policies. The Great Society programs were bad for the poor, bad for the economy, bad for the country, and broadly disastrous. It was because of the liberals' hubris and incompetence that voters turned on them, not because of voters' selfishness or greed. Their cynical defense of the politics of Social Security is their way of hiding from their own failures. It's also the ugliest side of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party will cave in over this issue-- but will it be now, next year, or ten years down the road?

10 Comments:

  • I will point out that "cynicism", as you call it, exists on all sides. For example, I'm certain that Bush believed in the necessity of invading Iraq. Is there anyone who paid close attention that really believed Iraq was an imminent danger to the United States?

    Every rational supporter of the war I talked with coming up to the invasion didn't argue the imminent danger point except as the pretext needed to obtain public support for the invasion. Remaking the Middle East was the real reason.

    Only the worst of the pro-war crowd thought that people were stupid for not seeing the necessity of invasion in the same light they did. Policy requires marketing. Failure to market a policy properly condemns it to death. Of course, marketing in and of itself is not sufficient. There has to be meat behind the sizzle.

    Your article also gives the impression that Democrats must have a great contempt for the public because the majority don't support the party's policies. This is nonsense. Just because I disagree with the majority on a large number of issues doesn't mean I believe the majority are idiots, greedheads, or evil. There's far too much of attitude (on *all* sides) around. Indeed, it is possible to have divergent opinions without evil intent :-).

    However, I will (1) try and persuade other to my cause, and failing that, (2) try to advance policies that *I* believe are correct by the means available at my disposal. I also fully expect those supporting opposing ideas to be doing the same. After all, why believe if you're not going to support.

    In my book, using marketing to support your policies is not called cynicism. It's a recognition of a diversity of opinion, in which you believe yours correct.

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 1:59 PM  

  • Well, first, thanks for reading, and thanks for replying, and I also feel like I've violated the rules of blog-hospitality a bit by quoting your comment in such an unfavorable light.

    The Iraq war is a tricky question. My take on the WMD argument is here; basically, I argue that the WMD argument was 1) for the UN's sake and 2) a way of hedging our bets: we didn't know for sure whether the Iraqi people would actually welcome us as liberators, but we KNEW that Saddam had WMDs (a no-brainer; otherwise why would he risk being toppled by throwing out the inspectors?!) and if the liberation thing didn't pan out, we could just disarm the country and save face. If the Bush administration could have told the American people the democratization goal at home without broadcasting it to the world, I think they would have, but they couldn't. And you obviously can't let the UN's league of dictators know that you want to spread democracy. That said, the Bush administration DID make it clear that liberation was a major goal of the war, particularly after it was clear that the second resolution didn't pan out. The rumors of bait-and-switch are greatly exaggerated.

    My post DID suggest that the Democrats, in thinking that the public would vote against any program that they didn't perceive to be benefitting them, showed contempt for the public, and maybe this is unfair. Perhaps Democrats think that just because a person doesn't want to support a social safety net for the elderly poor with his tax dollars doesn't mean he's "an idiot, greedhead or evil." (nice phrase :)) Principled libertarians, for example, should oppose an anti-poverty program among the elderly because of their conception of the essence of limited government and liberty. Maybe liberals recognize that as a smart, good-faith position even if they disagree with it. (One would hope...)

    And yet a principled libertarian would not be persuaded to support an anti-poverty program for the elderly just because he got a benefit check from it too; on the contrary, he would oppose the program even more strongly if benefits were also disbursed to the middle and upper classes.

    And this is why I stick to my original claim that there's something cynical and undemocratic about the main liberal argument in favor of Social Security's current structure, by which benefits are disbursed more generously to the rich than to the poor. Social Security is far less efficient as an anti-poverty program because it disburses most of its benefits to the middle classes and the affluent. From a political philosophy perspective, it's very hard to justify paying the proceeds of a regressive tax to affluent people who don't really need it. The middle classes and the affluent can't come out ahead, on net, by getting benefits, relative to a program that only subsidized the poor and paid no benefits to the middle class: paying benefits to them means levying more taxes on them.

    Marketing has a bad reputation for a reason. Of course to some extent it's just the normal marketplace of ideas, persuasion and counter-persuasion; but there is spin and trickery involved too. To me, it almost sounds like the majority of the benefits that Social Security pays out are a "marketing" ploy to get political buy-in from the middle classes and the affluent for a program whose only real purpose, to liberals, is to help the poor. To extend to this strategy the boilerplate defense of persuasion and counter-persuasion in a democracy is to give it very undeserved flattery.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 5:51 PM  

  • Lancelot,
    When we know we cannot pay future benefits as scheduled, I agree that there is something wrong about the strong Democratic opposition to figuring out an alternative.

    And plainly speaking, whatever alternative anyone can come up with must protect the poor when we will be paying less benefits overall. Keeping the government pay-out portion of the benefit targeted heavily towards those who need it the most preserves the "insurance" nature of the program. I can't see how any possible solution of the social security mess can be reached without including such a provision.

    The private account portion of the Bush plan moves significantly more assets in favor of the higher wage workers, so there is benefit in this plan for all. We can't raise payroll taxes any more. They are far too regressive. We have already been forced to essentially pay those taxes for the poor with the EITC program, so opposition on the grounds that this is not a "fair" modification of the program ignores the obvious truth. It already isn't "fair". No good marketing policy grounds itself on a misstatement.

    Also I would like to point out to Tom that Bush himself said in the State Of the Union address that the danger wasn't imminent and that he couldn't wait until it was in Iraq. That's stating the matter to the whole country pretty plainly. The admin never really argued imminent danger. They argued danger, and Saddam's consistent history, and failure of containment by all other means.

    That's a matter of record, supported by the news coming out of Iran and North Korea now. These technologies are just not that out of reach - virtually any country that wants to develop WMD and rocket delivery systems and puts sustained effort into it will succeed.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 5:53 AM  

  • I also feel like I've violated the rules of blog-hospitality a bit by quoting your comment in such an unfavorable light.

    Just to be clear, I'm in no way offended. Honoured, in fact.

    There's nothing quite like finding a well-written blog by someone who's opinion one respects, yet almost completely disagree with :-). One learns far more than from blogs of people with identical beliefs.

    As for Bush and imminent danger: I'd agree, he did not use the term, but I'd have to say that everything around it was pretty clearly meant to indicate exactly that. It was a little more elegant than "I did not have sex with that woman", but the intent was about the same.

    Certainly it was rather eye opening that the majority of Americans thought Iraq was behind the World Trade Centre attacks, and I suspect that Administration chose not to clarify that misunderstanding to further their Iraq goals and avoid further damage of Saudi relations.

    Secondly, and perhaps sadly, depending on your point of view, I don't think there was *any* way that Bush could have sold the war to Congress or the American people on the "building democracy" stand. With casualty counts estimated to be much higher than they actually were, the support to send a hundred thousand Americans into harm's way for a very theoretical goal was not nearly enough.

    Again, it was marketing. And I don't really consider it horribly evil in as much as I don't believe either side often outright lies. They merely shade the truth to obtain support for a course of action they believe in the best interests of Americans. (Yes, I'm an optimist at heart.)

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 1:34 PM  

  • Certainly it was rather eye opening that the majority of Americans thought Iraq was behind the World Trade Centre attacks,

    Tom-- You should probably provide a link when making a statement like that. I've encountered polls like that, too; but on an issue like this the wording is very important, and it would be nice to be able to go back to it. Did Americans believe that "Iraq was behind the World Trade Center attacks," or did they believe that "there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?" (a somewhat weaker statement)

    Personally, I never believed those claims anyway. The press would occasionally cite them as evidence of Americans' pathetic ignorance, or of Bush's deceitfulness.

    If you think about it, there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. First, the sanctions against Saddam were part of what made Osama so mad at us. Second, Saddam and Osama were both representatives of social pathologies tied to Islam, and even if these were very different, they also had certain commonalities-- hatred of Israel, desire for military glory a la Saladin, and so on. Third, more concretely, al-Qaeda agents had traveled in Iraq and talked with representatives of Saddam's government. (Sorry, I should be providing links for all these things, especially after I suggested that you should...)

    Anyway, if a pollster had asked me "Was there a connection between Saddam and 9/11?" I think I might have taken the question casually, as "Did 9/11 provide a good reason to overthrow Saddam?" and answer "Yes." Or I might have thought Some snotty journalist is trying to rack up poll numbers that will weaken Bush, and it annoys me; well, I'll show him, and answered "Yes." Or I might have thought, well, not a direct connection, but certainly the two are connected in a number of ways...

    In short, I don't think those polls are necessarily good evidence of normal Americans' ignorance.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 3:41 PM  

  • Well, if you are going to insist of letting facts get in the way :-), I suspect that indeed the statement was along the lines of "was there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?"

    And yes, the poll numbers were probably inflated to make the journalist's point, but I also noted that the administration really did try to tie 9/11 in when the connection was peripheral at best. i.e. marketing.

    My main beef with Iraq is that it leaves the US unable to seriously threaten real, present threats such as the nuclearization of Iran and NK. Unless a miracle occurs, I seriously doubt that anything less than a direct strike could now mobilize the American citizenry to support military action of non-obvious nature. It's small wonder Iran and NK are much more belligerent nowadays.

    Threats work. Carrying them out often less so.

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 7:50 PM  

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