Towards A Good Samaritan World

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Michael Barone thinks John McCain is Bush's likely successor. Wow, I hope so! Barone writes:

McCain addressed two issues that have the potential to divide the Republican base: spending and immigration.

On spending, he said that to offset the spending of Hurricane Katrina and to prevent what "may be the largest deficit in history," Congress should revisit the highway bill—the big transportation bill passed earlier this year—and should consider delaying or repealing the Medicare prescription drug bill. On both of these issues his positions are to the right of the Bush administration's: After all, Bush signed both bills.

McCain's position on the highway bill is consistent with his longstanding and mostly futile attacks on pork barrel spending, but he has more allies this time: Members of Congress like Sen. Richard Shelby and (!) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have said they'd delay spending on projects in their state or district. The pork-busters movement of which I have written may be gathering momentum.

As for the Medicare prescription-drug bill, Democrats have been trashing this legislation persistently, and it isn't very popular in the polls. The prescription-drug benefit is scheduled to go into effect next year. Republicans passed this bill because Bush and House Republicans didn't want to go into the 2004 election cycle as opponents of a prescription-drug benefit. But now they don't see it as much of a political plus. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The nice thing about Bush's move to the fiscal left is that it allows a maverick candidate like John McCain to be on his right. McCain is admired by the mainstream media and by Democrats. He's a candidate who could bring home 60% of the electorate-- a president who would be bold on the issues but have popular support massive enough to preside over something like a national consensus. And yet he opposes pork and wants to cut spending. Brilliant! He wasn't one of the Social Security reform skeptics, either.

And he's to the left of Bush on immigration. That won't help him with the Republican base. Let them keep their eyes on the pork. For me, of course, immigration is the wedge issue: if I can tell clearly which candidate will do more to liberalize immigration to this country, that candidate will have my vote regardless of any other positions.


I just published another article at Tech Central Station: "Iraq and the Police Principle." In this one, I argue (1) that the Iraq War could have helped establish a generalized credible threat against totalitarian regimes everywhere, forcing them to reform from within in order to avoid Saddam's fate, but that by running up the costs of the war by assuming responsibility for reconstruction we've weakened ourselves and lost the ability to make that credible threat, (2) the Pottery Barn Rule-- according to which we have a responsibility for reconstruction-- is a fallacy, and (3) that if we want to get out of Iraq without losing face, Nixon set an example which "deserves careful study." In particular, we could emulate his visit to China by Bush going to Iran; and we could emulate Nixon's bombing of Cambodia by bombing the places in Syria and Jordan where backers of the insurgency are hanging out-- if extradition fails, that is. (Hopefully the threat would be enough.)

I've had a guilty conscience since publishing it, for two reasons: 1) I've advocated a pull-out, even if I repeatedly emphasized that what our soldiers are doing in Iraq is a noble mission and I admire it, and even if I didn't really specify when, and 2) because I advocated a move that might be interpreted as giving US blessing to a totalitarian state. And 3) because-- would bombing Syria and Jordan spread the war and make a real World War III? (Not if we had a rapprochement with Iran first, I think.) I don't see us actually bombing Jordan. Jordan is a good country as Middle Eastern states go, but if your principles is that those who harbor terrorists are making war on you, it helps to apply the principle consistently. However, in practice it would be easy to press Syria harder; and if we bombed Syria, that would make the threat of bombing credible enough to Jordan that they'd probably flush out the ex-Baathists without our actually attacking them.

As for the pull-out, the Nixon allusion is a sort of mixed message: it does envision us pulling out, but not fast, really: Nixon began withdrawing from Vietnam immediately, but took four-and-a-half years to do it.

For all my misgivings, I stand by the point I made. We need to make our target global totalitarianism and tyranny, and that means rebuilding our military strength and pushing hard for changes in international law, or failing that, at least changes in US military doctrine that are as politically embedded as possible.

Btw, how would a rapprochment with Iran work? I think we might do well to get India to broker it. India has been drawing close to Iran, for the same reasons, I think, that I recommend America do it: India's enemy is Sunni, and the enemy of my enemy... India's new closeness to Iran is spoiling a very promising potential alliance. If we also made peace with Iran, then we wouldn't have to quarrel with India. We could back them for the Security Council, perform joint military exercises, develop a full-fledged alliance.

An alliance with Iran would also help to increase pressure on Pakistan, which is probably where bin Laden is, and in any case a lot of the Taliban are there. Yes, Musharraf is our ally and probably better than the alternatives. But if we could scare the Pakistanis by settling our differences with Iran, it might make them more inclined to cooperate.

Would Iran accept? That America is "the Great Satan" is part of Iran's national ideology. We may be popular with the people, but there's no reason that should endear us to the government, which is at daggers drawn with the people. However, if we were trying to settle differences and Iran refused, Iran would look pricklier and more hostile. Of course, they could sell it as having delivered a humiliation to an imperious great power-- and we would look a bit desperate and pathetic, perhaps, making approaches to a former enemy and getting rebuffed. But at least that would help dispel our warmonger image.

However, I think we could avoid that outcome, with the help of India and the Shias in Iraq. We could ask both of these groups, with whom we have good relations, to talk to the Iranians and put in a good word for us, encourage them to come to the table. They'd do it: the Indians love us, and the Iraqi Shiites owe us, and they know it. Also they want us to keep our troops in there so that we can keep fighting the insurgency. And the Iranians would listen. They want good relations with their fellow Shias in Iraq, and they need good relations with India, which is an important trading partner. If our intentions were peacemaking ones, India might deliver a credible threat that they would cut off trade with Iran if Iran was going to insist on maintaining hostility. (India needs-- and wants-- us more than they benefit from any arrangements with Iran.)

It would be a huge triumph for Indian foreign policy to broker a reconciliation between Iran and America, and they would know it, advertise it, take pride in it. If you can do the superpower a favor, you're a big player! Indians would love that. And anything that increases Indian self-confidence-- South Asia's great, peaceful, democratic, semi-Anglophone, pro-American power-- is good.

Would it be immoral to make a deal with a regime which murders dissidents. Neither a "yes" or "no" to that question is satisfactory. If you say "yes," does that mean we can't trade with them either? But not trading punishes the subjects of the regime more than the regime itself, which is cruel and unfair. If you say "no"-- well, a lot of our deals with such regimes in the past have seemed pretty immoral. There's a danger that if America draws closer to the regime, we might become less popular with the people. But we might become more popular, too, if we handled it right. First of all, we could lace the trip with lots of apologies. Bush could make a grand speech apologizing for the 1953 coup. He could also make a lot of grand apologies for the West's (ha ha France and Germany) role in arming Saddam, which would be another chance to make the case for the Iraq War (ha ha France and Germany). The Iraq War would be the proof of how stupid we were to support Saddam before, and how at long last we saw the error of our ways and made proper penitence-- the best argument for the war, probably, and one that most people haven't heard. We could lace these apologies with hints that we still disapproved of Iran's form of government. But we could make out that our admiration for Iranians' culture was great enough that the attraction overwhelmed any misgivings we had about the regime.

Would this make Iran more or less likely to go nuclear? I don't care. I've never thought we could do much about Iran going nuclear if it wanted to. It would be nice if we could, I suppose.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Angela Merkel underperforms in Germany's elections, though the CDU is still narrowly the biggest party. It's not clear to me why a grand coalition should be as bad as everyone says, given that Schroeder also had a half-hearted commitment to reforms. The Free Democrats performed better than expected at 10%. But Germany's lackluster politics contrasts with Koizumi's brilliant pro-reform election victory last week in Japan.

Japan may be on the verge of another brilliant, historic transformation, like the Meiji Restoration and the post-World War II recovery. Their cultural collectivism seems to take the nation in big multi-generational cycles, but they're obviously capable of dazzling achievement. Hopefully Germany can parallel Japan's transformation, but the odds are mediocre at best.

That said, it'll be good to be rid of Schroeder. His tepid reforms deserve modest praise, but a guy who doesn't know the right side of the Chirac-Bush/Blair feud is a guy the world is better off without.


Here's the most controversial passage in Bush's Hurricane Katrina speech last week:

Our third commitment is this: When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created.

War on poverty. Great society...


I spent two and a half weeks in Baku. I was delighted to discover on my arrival that everyone in Baku, the capital, speaks Russian fluently. I felt right at home. In the provinces (or the districts, the Russian/Azerbaijani word "rayon" is hard to translate precisely) Russian is also widely spoken, but not by everyone, and others speak it badly.

Is Russian under siege in Azerbaijan? One friend of mine there said that Bakintsy (residents of Baku) won't forget Russian, "not in 100 years." Some send their children to Russian-language schools. Certainly I didn't notice in Baku what I noticed in Uzbekistan and in the Azeri provinces, that young people knew Russian less well. And I noticed a lot of conversations between Azerbaijanis that took place in Russian-- Azerbaijanis, that is, for whom Russian is apparently either a native language or so well-developed as a second language that they prefer it to their native language. There was a time when Russian aristocrats spoke French in preference to Russian. But this made them alienated from their people. It's hard for me to believe that Baku can remain Russian-speaking while the countryside forgets Russian, unless they form some sort of neo-colonial link with Russia.

A report I read ranked Azerbaijan as the most corrupt country in the former Soviet Union (a notoriously corrupt region of the world) in both of two types of corruption: state capture and administrative corruption. Locals know it, and if you get them going they'll express their outrage at the political class and the wealthy (two classes that largely overlap). Life has gotten worse for most people since the end of the Soviet Union. The birth rate has fallen sharply with the end of Soviet welfare-state-type subsidies, to well below replacement rate. The education system has deteriorated. Azerbaijan lost a war with Armenia and lost a chunk of its territory, or rather, had a chunk of its territory occupied: the Armenian occupation is not recognized, and officially the land is still part of Azerbaijan. A million refugees from those lands are now scattered throughout the country. So there's nostalgia for the Soviet times.

About the refugees, one taxi driver told me, to my horror: "They're not people." He said it repeatedly. "The Russians [who used to live here]-- very good people. The Armenians-- very good people. This trash [the refugees]-- they're sheep. Not human." To call a person a sheep is more disdainful in an Azerbaijani's mouth than to an English-speaker, since mutton is the most common food in Azerbaijani restaurants, and shepherding one of Azerbaijan's traditional livelihoods.

Azerbaijan is part of a long string of Turkic nations and minorities-within-nations, stretching from Turkey in the west, through Azerbaijan and, to the north, the Tatar people within Russia, to Turmkenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to the Uighurs who make up most of the population of Western China-- and some of whom have migrated illegally to Beijing, where I once ate their food in a Uighur restaurant on the outskirts of the city; and including also Iraq, with its Turkmen minority, Afghanistan, with an Uzbek minority, and Iran, which rules the southern half of the Azerbaijani nation. These nations share language, food-- meat dishes, with the English phrase "shish kabob" being understandable in Azeri-- religion-- Islam, generally Sunni though unlike most Turks the Azeris are (mainly) Shia, and not generally of the fundamentalist kind that characterizes Iran and the Arab world-- a certain restless style of music with a mood of longing, with lots of melodies in Phrygian mode and minor chords, and a love for ligting up the night and enjoying it. The Turks spread in the role of "barbarian conquerors" of more sophisticated empires. The post-Soviet Turkic nations bear the Soviet stamp in administration, and in the supine attitude of the populace towards political authority. The level of development in Turkic nations declines as you move from west to east, with Turkey being the wealthiest, Azerbaijan the wealthiest of the post-Soviet states, and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan much poorer.

Despite the corruption, the intra-national racism against refugees, the lack of democracy, and the problematic neo-colonial relationship with Russia, Azerbaijan has a lot going for it. First, oil. Azerbaijan's oil is only projected to last 20 years, but in the meantime it will provide a huge boost to Azeri GDP-- 20% growth a year is likely in the next few years-- reversing the post-Soviet economic decline. Second, Azerbaijan has fairly good human development indicators left over from Soviet rule; the Soviets tended to do a good job in education and health. Third, Azerbaijan has remarkably beautiful natural landscapes. My favorite city is Ismailly, which, with the foothills of the Caucasus looming above the city, reminded me of Boulder, Colorado, only not as dry. The road to Ismailly goes over high mountain ridges, and forests and farmers' fields are haphazardly interspersed in a way that is not ideal for picture postcards, but which by mingling patches of natural beauty with homely human habitation makes the landscape tug at the heart even more perhaps than the scenes of pure nature that Americans preserve in our national parks.

Azerbaijanis look to the west now. Their nostalgia for Soviet rule is offset by their resentment that Russia supplied weapons to Armenia against them, and that the Russians sent tanks into Baku in 1991 to bloodily suppress demonstrations for independence. They resent the Iranians for oppressing their fellow Azerbaijanis; also, they are a secular society thanks to the Soviet influence. Armenia is a hated enemy. The government before this one was pan-Turkic but incompetent, so the current government does not emphasize ties with Turkey. At the same time, Azerbaijanis are impressed with NATO's intervention against Milosevic on behalf of the Kosovars, the local Muslims; our lack of pro-Christian bias contrasts favorably with Russians favoritism towards Orthodox Armenians. They substituted the Latin alphabet for the Cyrillic, so much that Cyrillic can't be seen anywhere in Baku. It's amazing to think that 15 years ago Cyrillic was universal. You see words like "market" at shops (the Russian would be magazin) and "petrol" at gas stations (the Russian would be benzin).

Still, I got the sense that the country doesn't know what to believe in or to hope for.

A Matt Yglesias post (hat tip Andrew Sullivan) sets off an interesting discussion about the future of the Democrats. Some of the comments are just your usual potty-mouth Democratic bile, but some are interesting, like this one:

Aha. Is not the key to not being in minority status is to keep in mind some kind of majority in everything you have in your "program." Getting out of minority means getting a majority, very simple...

Dems are not unified in much of anything, as evidenced every day in the blogosphere. Sounds to me like we have a socialist wing and a capitalist wing, and a we-must-fight-terrorism wing vs. terrorism-is-a-lie-created by the Bushies wing, and an anti-Patriot Act wing, also supported by libertarians, and a somewhat-pro-Patriot-Act wing concerned about terrorism, a withdraw-now wing vs. stay-the-course wing, etc.

We are still simply the "anti-Bush" party that Kerry lost enough middle votes with to lose. That's the only thing that unifies. There's no there there. It's a bunch of minorities fighting each other.

Oddly, this writer also makes the following claim:

in opposition, we have: Rove makes message, people stay on message. Rove says you can talk now Dobson, he talks; Rove says shut up Dobson, Dobson stews but has no where else to go.

It's strange to hear Democrats talking about how on-message and unified the Republicans are; my impression is that the Republicans are in the midst of a sort of civil war, with the neocons hated by the paleocons and libertarians, theocons also hated by libertarians, and with Bush in his own big-spending conservative camp that everyone is disgruntled with. Libertarians and paleocons (typically) disdain Bush and hate the neocons much more than they hate anyone in the Democrats' camp. And they're not afraid to say so. Who's "on message" here?

The writer concludes:

I see only two ways to get a majority back: go for votes in the middle, or if you want more ideological than that form a new strongly-libertarian-on-personal issues and stay-out-of-culture-wars-issues coalition with libertarian conservatives. To do the latter, one must give up on the social engineering plans and go more pro-small-business et. al., and have a few Sister Souljah moments with radicals, like Clinton did. Funny to do the former, you have to do the same thing! But no, the DLC is evil, no Republican lite fur us, we just know that if we revive the tax-and-spend big-Federal-government-dream that a new socialist majority will rise to the barricades out of the ashes. Believe it and it will be true? :-) [sarcasm]

This suggests that "go for votes in the middle" is an alternative to the "form a... coalition with libertarian conservatives" option, but I wonder if the author really meant that. The Democrats already "go for votes in the middle," and so do the Republicans. Bush did it through programs like the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind, which put him to the fiscal left of America's center. As long as the Democrats stay on the fiscal left of Bush, Republicans will have the upper hand on the size-of-government debate. Their only hope is to get the votes of misguided clever libertarians like Andrew Sullivan, who think that the solution to an over-large government is to vote for the greater of two evils.

Of course, Andrew Sullivan really switched sides because of gay marriage. The Democrats maybe can pull some libertarian votes from the Republicans on cultural issues even if they are at odds with libertarians on amount-of-tax-and-spending issues. Trouble is, they'll lose other votes-- and they'll probably lose more than they'll gain.

So if Democrats really want to "go for votes in the middle," they'll have to do get to Bush's fiscal right. Convincingly. And that's hard, because the Democrats are not very credible: the long retreat from Great Society liberalism has left them in a position where most of their leadership (John Kerry being a recently outstanding example) is out of touch with America, and so can't run on his real beliefs. Democrats can fudge and mask their beliefs in various ways, but Americans are pretty good at detecting this insincerity and don't like it.

So I agree with the writer who answers another writers remark that "We won't be able to send a unified message out until there is more respect for the party leaders from inside, and tolerance for more variety in those leaders," with the terse rebuttal,
"Or they [the Democratic party leaders] are replaced with people who don't suck." Except that the Dem reinvention, via an alliance with libertarian conservatives, would have to be underway before better leaders would be likely to surface, because right now the signals about what the party is and stands for are either weak or wrong.

This post, meanwhile, was brilliant:

[T]he McGovernite wing has to die off, or lose a substantial amountof its influence. That's going to take 25 years, at least. But all those salt-and-pepper haired, Angry People who think the 60s are unfinished business, and who thrust a moving target onto the national stage over his position on one issue, are a ball and chain that keeps the party unable to move nimbly. They aren't going anywhere, and they are taking the party with them, so to speak. As long as a substantial portion of middle America sees those people as what the DP is about, the party is going to struggle.

And that's what the Sister Souljah moments are for: blasting those people off the stage. ("Sister Souljah" is a rapper whom Bill Clinton denounced for the values she was peddling, like the Dems should have done for Michael Moore last year.)

Friday, September 09, 2005


I'm a bit bemused by all the charges of incompetence against the feds, and Bush, in their reaction to Hurricane Katrina. I guess there's probably some truth in it, because the critiques are coming, not only from Paul Krugman but also from Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks and Gerard Baker (though the conservative voices blast the Democratic mayor and governor more than the president). But really, how do people figure out whether this government response was particularly incompetent or not? What's their ground for comparison?

Democrats want you to believe that they would have done it better. Are we just supposed to take their word for it? It seems like asking the public to take their word for it that they're superior to Republicans is a pattern with Democrats lately. Some Republicans have a similar game: they're pointing to Rudy Giuliani as someone who would have done the job well. I wouldn't mind if a result of this crisis is the rise of Rudy Giuliani. But he might be a false hero.

The lesson of this is simpler and more intuitive. Big Government is incompetent. Not just when Bush is in the head of it, nor because of Governor Blanco or Mayor Nagin. In general. Maybe there are occasional exceptions, when an inspired leader takes charge, rides roughshods over the rules and legalisms, risks getting skewered by lawyers and journalists later, and gets something done. But in general. Big Government is incompetent. Didn't we always know this? Didn't the delay at the passport office, the boring-ness of your friend's government job, the connotations of the word "bureaucracy," get you wise to this long ago? The journalists are trying to make us feel surprised and indignant. Surely we know better, don't we?

More specifically, bureaucracies, and especially public-sector bureaucracies, are bad at thinking creatively, at adapting to new situations, and above all at speed. My wife and I wanted to get married and come to America together in the spring of 2004. We were apart for seven months waiting for government paperwork to be processed. It's been another eight months and we still haven't gotten her job permission. For us in the meantime: lots of emotional angst, boredom, frustration, and tens of thousands of dollars of lost income. Waste, waste, waste. That's bureaucracy, that's government. Duh.

And yet a hurricane comes along, and this impulse appears in a lot of us to think of the government, not as the hulking bureaucratic annoyance, the byword for waste and inefficiency and paper-pushing persecution of normal citizens that we know it is in our commonsense mode, but as a Big Brother, wise and strong and caring. And when it doesn't turn out to be like that, we get mad. We need to learn to silence the naivity within.

While the government was incompetent, individual citizens weren't. Some inspiring stories:

My office became so frustrated with the bureaucracy that we often turned to private companies. They responded more quickly and flexibly.

After our staff visited communities to assess local needs, Budweiser delivered truckloads of water and ice. Ford provided vehicles for search and rescue. Every company we contacted provided goods and services without compensation...

Spending my days on the ground in Louisiana last week, I did not see much television. But I understand that some media let the violent and destructive acts of a few overshadow the many acts of compassion and heroism.
Contrary to the pictures you may have seen, the vast majority of New Orleanians did not take to the street with weapons--far more risked their own safety to help neighbors and strangers.

When first responders said they needed more flat boats to pick people out of the water, they were overwhelmed by the line of volunteers. When people at a shelter in Baton Rouge announced they needed drinks, within hours they were flooded with more Gatorade than they could possibly use.

Churches throughout Louisiana opened their doors to take in evacuees. Individuals organized a network to open their homes to strangers, using phone trees and the Internet to link up those in need with those who care. Evacuation centers are flooded with volunteers and supplies.

Many rescue and relief workers, themselves victims of Katrina, have not left their posts for days. Health-care staffers have hand-ventilated patients. Law enforcement officials braved high waters and violence. People from all over the nation are contacting me, especially people in areas recently devastated by their own tragedies, to offer assistance.

We should know better than to look to the government to save us. We should look to people, to each other. And for those of us with religious inclinations, to God.

Friday, September 02, 2005


As far as I'm concerned, the GOP has three champions for president in 2008: John McCain, Rudy Giuiliani, and Condoleeza Rice. McCain is a symbol of the most admirable side of what the Bush administration has unexpectedly become: a brave hawk in foreign policy, supportive of immigration, a soldier's ethos of honor and patriotism. Rudy Giuliani has an odd and unique background as Republicans go: thanks to his New York roots, he not only symbolizes America's response to 9/11, but he breaks the mold of red-state Republicanism and represents the hope for a broader, majority party. As for Condi, one obvious qualification is that she's a black woman, and thus if she won the election, she would achieve the spectacular feat of breaking the gender and the racial glass ceiling for the US presidency at the same time. But she's also talented, extremely highly educated and intelligent for a Republican presidential candidate, and closely identified with Bush's signature contribution to foreign policy, the war on terror.

I mention these three more for what they symbolize than for any actual leadership or managerial capacities they have that I'm aware of. Which is okay. I think the president's symbolic role is as important as any. However, the policies with which these three are identified are also admirable, and in particular, liberal: in Rudy's case, urban renewal (in an unduly suburban country, not to say Party); in McCain's case, on immigration; in Condi's case, liberation. It would be nice if "liberal Republican" were neither an oxymoron, nor a term of scorn, nor an allusion to appeasement of Great Society paleoliberalism, but instead connoted a different, and more faithful to history, interpretation of the word "liberal," referring to a belief in free-market capitalism and spreading freedom and democracy. Giuliani, McCain and Rice are all liberal Republicans in this, the best sense of the term.

Any of them would be likely to attract a large number of Democratic votes and win in a landslide, thus serving to provide the "national unity" that has eluded the Bush administration. If the Republicans nominate anyone other than McCain, Guiliani, or Rice, it will be a missed opportunity and I for one will be disappointed. (But I could change my mind. There's a long time yet for good candidates to appear.)

So I was disappointed to read about this.


With the hurricane disaster, Bush and Congress have a big new task to deal with, and yet another pretext for abandoning the Social Security reform project that Bush embarked on earlier this year. Yet ironically, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans provides a good metaphor for the state of the Social Security system.

In New Orleans, the experts knew long in advance that there was a disaster in the offing. New Orleans was six feet below sea level, like a bowl, and could easily be flooded by a storm surge. Likewise, experts know perfectly well that the US has a huge problem of unfunded liabilities: we've promised trillions of dollars more to future retirees than we will collect in taxes. Yet in each case, most people have ignored the issue, while some who should be in the know and concerned have adopted a sort of blithe assumption that we'll muddle through some how. After all, five or six feet of water doesn't sound that bad, does it? A lot of us are tall enough to stand in that! Likewise, the 27% automatic budget cut that will occur in 2042-- that's not so bad, is it? The reality is that a sudden, forced 27% cut in Social Security benefits because of the system going broke would be as disastrous as five or six feet of water in New Orleans.

But then, the date "2042" is actually a red herring. Since Congress can change benefits at any time, promised benefits are of little relevance: what matters is where the state of public opinion is such that the incentives of the political center on balance favor reducing funding. If the program is deligimitized in the eyes of rising generations, as no doubt will happen since young people have already largely written off the benefits they will supposedly receive, then when these generations come of age, they'll tip the majority of the electorate against the program. Politicians will then be ready to abandon it. This could all be accelerated by some future recession or financial crisis, or any crisis that would affect the government debt.

And, like Hurricane Katrina, the victims of the future collapse of Social Security will be disproportionately poor and members of minorities. The white middle classes already save, and they'll have better information about the magnitude of the future crisis. Like the better-off New Orleanians who drove their cars out of the city well ahead of the storm, these people will own valuable homes, as well as stocks and private annuities, and they'll escape the Social Security crisis relatively unscathed. But poorer people, and maybe blacks, will have placed greater reliance on the system, and they'll expect the federal government to come through for them. Moreover, they'll have little room to cut spending. So when the Social Security system runs out of money and large across-the-board benefit cuts occur, they'll have fewer other options.

As in Hurricane Katrina, the stakes may ultimately be life and death. People in nursing homes will be unable to pay the bills. The homes will go broke. Maybe cities or state governments will take them over; a few crooked bosses (the nursing home industry is not always attractive to honest people even now) will take the money and run to Brazil or Switzerland; the homes will get tied up in bureaucracy as their residents die.