Share and Share Alike

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My mother never taught me to share…that is, until she first taught me about private property. It’s a wise insight, which few adults share.

How many times have we seen an adult offer a toy or treat, and place it in the no-man’s-land between two absorbed four-year-olds, admonishing them to “share”? Their eyes light up with wonder; then, the wonder seamlessly metamorphoses into greed. Hands dart, each kid grasping to arrogate the goody to himself. But only one succeeds.

The loser, suddenly realizing he’s missed out, looks around perplexed, weighing his chances of liberating the goody from the other kid. Depending on relative size and age, he either makes a bold grab for the goody or starts bawling loudly in the direction of an adult, hoping for vindication. It’s only natural — the tragedy of the commons in miniature.

Sometimes, the adult has an inkling that one essential step might be missing from the lesson of sharing when it is taught this way; that is, one must own something before one can share it. So the adult adds a necessary but insufficient bit to the lesson: she’ll hand the goody to one child in a pretended ritual of conveyance, while at the same time insisting that he must share it. In other words, the treat isn’t really his — its . . . who knows?

Such mixed signals can only create conflict. The kid, believing the treat is his, refuses to give it up. So the adult intervenes, forcibly taking it from the now-bereft child and handing it over to the other kid, meanwhile lecturing both on the virtues of sharing.

There’s a perverse lesson here. The kid who didn’t originally get the goody learns the benefits of having an authority figure forcibly redistributing largesse from one person to another. The other kid learns — as Jimmy Carter once so eloquently put it — that “life isn’t fair” (not a bad lesson in some other context).

But a necessary prerequisite to sharing is still ownership, i.e., private property. We can see from the above examples that ownership is instinctual; it must not be undermined by taking the gift away after it’s been given.

When a child is given something, the adult should emphasize that the gift is the child’s to do with as he pleases, that no one can take the gift from him. This teaches the child the sanctity of private property; like his own, other children’s things are off limits. This is a lesson much more important than sharing, for it teaches integrity.

Sharing, by definition, is a voluntary act; if it’s not voluntary, it’s simply extortion. The only way to teach a child to share is by example — being careful not to cross the line into guilt — a huge temptation.

It can take a while to achieve the desired results. After all, ownership, as a new experience, must first be savored — for an indefinite period of time — in order to be properly imprinted. Only then can the concept of sharing be introduced. Even then, there is no guarantee that sharing will take place, because sharing is, by definition, a voluntary act.




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The Palin Perplex

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During the recent brouhaha about Sarah Palin's description of Paul Revere's ride, economist Walter Williams commented:

"There are a lot of things, large and small, that irk me. One of them is our tendency to evaluate a presidential candidate based on his intelligence or academic credentials. When Obama threw his hat in the ring, people thought he was articulate and smart and hailed his intellectual credentials. Just recently, when Newt Gingrich announced his candidacy, people hailed his intellectual credentials and smartness as well.

"By contrast, the intellectual elite and mainstream media people see Sarah Palin as stupid, a loose cannon and not to be trusted with our nuclear arsenal. There was another presidential candidate who was also held to be stupid and not to be trusted with our nuclear arsenal who ultimately became president — Ronald Reagan. I don't put much stock into whether a political leader is smart or not because, as George Orwell explained, 'Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.'"

First, let me say this: Dan Quayle was no John F. Kennedy, and Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a philosophy that guided all his decisions. He did not have to ponder the short-term ramifications of specific small decisions, because he knew and trusted the long-term effects of adhering to laissez-faire principles. He could sleep well at night, knowing he was being true to his philosophy. We need leaders who are willing to suffer short-term pain in exchange for long-term success.

Now, as to Williams' specific point: Sarah Palin may indeed be very intelligent. Yale and Harvard are not the only academic choices of intelligent people, and I would be criticizing myself if I criticized her for starting and stopping and restarting her college career at institutions that aren't considered "the best." Lots of us make unconventional choices. So I won't criticize her choice of Boise State as her alma mater.

I worry, however, about the fact that she considers "What did you learn from your visit?" and "What newspapers do you read?" to be "Gotcha questions," as she calls them. Those are pretty simple "getting to know you" questions, to which she gave surprising answers.

I worry more about the fact that she often spins her stories — such as the ones about the executive plane and the bridge to nowhere, which she had to "adjust" after she became John McCain's running mate.

I also cringe at her delivery — the way she says so many things with a knowing wink, expecting us to "get" her by what she doesn't say, more than by what she does say. Lots of people like her style and consider it folksy. It just puts me off. Simply put: she may be perfectly intelligent, but I, personally, have no confidence in her. Maybe that feeling will change at some point. I'm not burning any bridges. Or building them to nowhere. So maybe I'll make a U-turn at some point and join her big bright bus.

But not while she's still winking at me with that knowing, gotcha smile.




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Weiner — For What He's Worth

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A few days ago, the modern-liberal media were full of people calling Anthony Weiner “one of the brightest members of Congress.” Yes, really. Google it, and you’ll see.

It’s sobering to think that these people might have been right. Maybe the other congressmen aren’t even as bright as he is. The difference is that he proved his stupidity by his absurd mismanagement of his own life, while his colleagues have proven it by their absurd mismanagement of the country.

Of course, you can be smart; you can be slick; you can be highly verbal, and you still may not be very bright.

But let’s not think about brightness. Let’s think about niceness.

Niceness doesn’t inspire me. Yet it’s worth noticing. A person who has decent manners, cultivates some empathy with other people’s feelings, is ashamed to tell gross lies to other people . . . that’s a nice enough person. That’s a person who is worthy of some respect. Niceness of this kind doesn’t require much effort. And it’s a logical prerequisite for high public office.

Now here is Anthony Weiner, who has no niceness whatever. In fact, he is one of the most obnoxious beings on the face of the earth. Having pushed the wrong button and sent a compromising picture of himself to thousands of people, what did he do? He lied. Not only did he lie, he accused political opponents of victimizing him with dirty tricks. He attacked people who asked him whether he had sent the picture, associating them with pie-throwing clowns.

That was his instinct. That was what he did immediately, without any compunction, self-righteously, aggressively, and determinedly, until he realized that more evidence of his absurdity had been found. Then he told what he regarded as the truth, and cried in public about his “panic” and his bad decisions.

The die-hard supporters of this leftist demagogue now attempt to dismiss his troubles as merely sexual and private in nature. But his strategy — immediately chosen and ardently pursued — was to lie about and accuse other people. Not only did he refuse to answer the commonsensical questions of news people (while holding press conferences supposedly designed to entertain their questions); he ridiculed and insulted them. Meanwhile, he sent messages to one of the women who had the goods on him, carefully instructing her how to lie to the media, and making little jokes about it. At the time, the biggest personal regret that Weiner divulged to the media was his fear that people were paying attention to his own moral problems instead of his attacks on the moral corruption of Republicans.

Weiner rose in the esteem of his fellow “liberals” by acting as the crazed pit bull for the Democratic former majority in the House. He made a career out of charging at the camera, barking and snarling about the scandalous conduct of the Democrats’ political opponents. Ron Paul and a few other members of Congress know how to argue for radical positions without demonizing people who commit the sin of disagreeing with them. Weiner, however, had no argument except demonization. Typically, he appeared in public with his mouth shrieking and his arms scissoring up and down, the image of a 21st-century Jacobin, scourging the Enemies of the People.

He was unsparing in his attribution of foul motives to all who disagreed with him. Here’s a report from Feb. 24, 2010. It’s typical. I quote from newser.com:

"‘You gotta love these Republicans,’ Weiner said. ’I mean, you guys have chutzpah. The Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of insurance companies.’"

Challenged by a GOP congressman, Weiner reconsidered his statements.

“‘Make no mistake about it,’ he said, enunciating clearly, ’every single Republican I have ever met in my entire life is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.’ Weiner was unapologetic about the remarks in aDaily Kospost afterward, which, CQ Politicsnotes, also contained a plea for donations and a link to a fundraising page.”

And of course, Weiner specialized in accusations that his opponents were not only wrong, but lying. Speaking of people who questioned the wisdom of Obamacare, he said, “First, they start by making stuff up.”

Then, on June 6, Weiner held a press conference in which he finally admitted, because he was forced to admit, that he had (in his suddenly demure phrase) “not told the truth.” He said of his lies, “It was a dumb thing to do . . . . Almost immediately, I didn’t want to continue doing it.” Yeah? Did you see the famous news conference in which he not only gleefully lied, but gleefully called a news person a “jackass” because his outfit was asking some obvious questions?

No, I do not care what happens, has happened, or may ever happen with now-Congressman Weiner’s formerly private parts. For all it matters to me, he can show them to whomever he wishes, at any hour of the day or night. He can romance anyone he wants to romance, in any way he wants to do it. God bless him as he pursues in peace his goal of pleasure.

But that doesn’t obscure the fact that Congressman Weiner is a total, complete, absolute fool. And that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the modern-liberal media respected him, interviewed him, assiduously quoted him, apologized for him, cultivated questions about the ease with which he might have been covertly attacked by wicked political forces, and so forth and so on, and are still purveying approaches and perspectives and points of view according to which he should not be blamed for the nasty piece of work that he is and always, obviously, was. Alas! that such a warrior for righteousness should fall victim to his private flaw. That’s the chant we hear today. But the real flaw wasn’t private.

What this affair has revealed, besides the congressman’s supposed assets, is how easy it is for people who have more words than brains to advance the careers of others like themselves, representing them as the brightest our country has to offer, for no other reason than that they pander to the political prejudices and hatreds of the allegedly educated class.




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Who’s on the Inside Track?

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It seems amazing that the mainstream media ignored a recent IMF report that now estimates that China’s economy will surpass that of America in five years. That’s right — China’s real GDP will exceed ours by 2016. This adds to the cloud already hanging over the U.S dollar — because of our twin habits of printing dollars like mad (pardon me, “quantitative easing”) and running massive deficits (pardon me, “investment spending”).

What is really stunning is that only a decade ago our economy was triple the size of China’s.

As the Chinese become dominant, questions arise. How will this authoritarian regime conduct itself vis a vis the other nations in the region? Will it look to expand its imperial reach? Will it look to exact revenge against Japan for past injustices? We can only guess, but given the treatment the Chinese have meted out to the hapless Tibetans, the explosive growth of China’s military, the cynical way China helped Pakistan (the archenemy of China’s perceived rival India) develop nuclear weapons, as well as the missiles to deliver them, and the way China uses North Korea as a thorn in the side of its perceived Pacific rivals Japan and the US — the future looks challenging.

I said that it “seems amazing” that the media hasn’t mentioned the surprising closeness of our economic eclipse by the Chinese. In truth, however, it is not amazing. The mainstream media is the cheerleading squad for the Obama regime, and the fact that China has made such strides is in great measure due to the extended recession and feeble recovery caused by Obama’s policies. Compare America’s persistently high unemployment and anemic growth in this economic recovery to the features of past recoveries, and you will be depressed by the difference.

America has retreated from classically liberal economic policies, even as China has used them to grow rapidly, even in the context of a corrupt political regime. For the results, we have only ourselves to blame.




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Duh . . . Winning!

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I became a Republican so I could vote, in the 2012 primary, for the most libertarian-congenial candidate. Already I am wondering whether this will do any good.

Do I want to be lectured on morality by serial adulterer Newt Gingrich? Can I trust America will be safeguarded from creeping Sharia law by some moralist like Rick Santorum? May I hope the federal takeover of our healthcare system will be rolled back by Mitt Romney, whose plan in Massachusetts so inspired Obamacare? And behind the wild rhetoric and Bride-of-Chucky eyes of Michele Bachmann, can I be certain rationality reigns?

Both the Republican and the Democratic “teams” are in the same league. The overriding concern of both parties is the league’s survival. Each will win a few, each lose a few. But they are both deeply invested in the league — and in the big show it gives the fans.

When Team Red is in ascendancy, libertarians should probably reach as many as possible of those fans in blue jerseys with the bags over their heads. When Team Blue is back on top, we should peel off as many as possible of their disgruntled opponents.

It’s tempting to think there must be a shortcut — that one entire franchise can be purchased by reason and principle. Some will follow reason and principle, but many will not. In every era, many in the citizenry are simply fanboys and fangirls in red or blue jerseys, rah-rahing for their side.

Libertarians tend to want to change the game. We don’t usually think of politics as a game, which may be why we fare so poorly in it. We view the public square as a place for debate, for the engagement of thinking minds. If we sign up to play on one team or another, perhaps we lose something greater than a game. We may lose the chance to make politics something more than the silly, childish bloodsport it has always been inclined to be.

To win maximum public support, libertarians need players on both teams. I’m becoming less optimistic about the prospect of simply capturing the Republican flag and giving up on the Democrats. When I speak with left-leaning friends and relatives, I find them more willing to listen than many libertarians realize. The term “libertarian” has been tainted for them, freighted with all sorts of nonsense that has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe. But they understand government force, because it has been used against them and they live under the constant cloud of its return.

We have been seduced into hoping the GOP has finally gotten it, because it’s become fashionable for people in that party to call themselves libertarians. Some really do understand what that means, but for a frightful number of others, this is only the latest ploy for winning back power. Once they can take the bags off their heads, they’ll return to calling us dope-smoking hippie peaceniks and accusing us of opposing all that’s holy. They’ve done it too many times for us not to suspect they might do it again.

If we want a clearer picture of where these newly-minted Republican “libertarians” want to take this country, we need to pay closer attention to their presidential popularity polls. If polls can be believed as to the general direction of the party, any one of the players currently enjoying big numbers in the GOP will end this exercise in vanity with a second Obama term. Yet polling also shows that no more than half the population wants that. What do they really want instead?

All the leading contenders peddle the notion that more power will win the game, that if they’re nominated, their team can be champ again. If most Republican voters were not still stuck in this fantasy, they would be supporting very different people. But those who will really decide the contest are in the swelling mass of independents who are disaffected with the very idea of league play.

These people give every indication of being more open to libertarian ideas than they have been in years — perhaps ever. They lean libertarian, but describe themselves — in increasing numbers — simply as independents. They are no longer content merely to root for a team. If we don’t want to lose them, perhaps we shouldn’t join one.




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Explaining the US Debt Crisis — To My Teenagers

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Hey kids, pause American Idol for a moment and let me "lay some wisdom on you," as your generation likes to say.

It's about the US debt and what it means to you. If you pretend convincingly that you're fascinated by what I have to say, we'll go out for pizza, OK? Great.

Now, it’s hard to wrap our heads around billions and trillions of dollars, so let’s bring these numbers down to a human level so we can get some perspective. Let's scale it down to the size of a family budget. We'll divide the actual numbers by one billion, and talk about months instead of years.

So let's pretend that we are a family of criminals [the US government] living in a pretty rough neighborhood [the world].

Our family takes in a lot of money [government revenues] by picking pockets, mugging, and running shakedowns and con games. Heck, we even do some counterfeiting. And we spend it all as soon as we get it [government expenditures]. But every month we need $1,500 more than we take in. So every month I borrow that shortfall [the deficit] from the neighborhood loan shark, and we spend it.

The funny thing is, I already owe him $14,000 so far [the debt]. But he’s been pretty patient, for a convicted homicidal maniac [the Chinese government]. I guess he’s been cleaning up his image.

What’s worse, I’ve been running a pyramid scheme that's gotten a little out of control, and people are beginning to catch on. I've already promised about $100,000 [total unfunded liabilities], spread out over the next few months, to pretty much everyone in our extended family [voters with entitlement programs]. Some are well-off and won't miss their share, but some are desperate and could really use the money I scammed. Either way, they’re all going to sue me when they find out — but too bad, I already blew the money long ago.

Anyhoo, I sat down with Mom to figure a way out of this mess. I [a Republican] bravely proposed spending $100 less this month, but she [a Democrat] screamed, “What about the children!” and said it would be an unacceptable cut in our standard of living. She said we should open more credit cards in your names [borrowing], mug more people [taxation], and try some more counterfeiting [“quantitative easing”].

Finally we agreed that things will work out somehow. We just need to spend $30 less this month [the 2011 budget deal].

So I called up the loan shark and explained that he’ll eventually get all his money back —  we crossed our hearts and promised on our kids' lives  —  if we can just borrow another $1,470 this month, while we figure things out.

I figure we can always just give him counterfeit money, so we're good!

By the way, he said to say "Hi" and that he's really, really, looking forward to meeting you kids soon.

So that's what the debt crisis is basically all about. Now, who's up for pizza?

What? Whaddya mean you're not hungry?




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Taxing the Ether

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Here’s the instinctive mindset of the Democratic Party: “If it moves, tax it. If it doesn’t, tax it even more.” If you need proof, consider the frantic attempts by desperate Democrat governors in high-tax states to tax commerce conducted on the internet.

One story about this comes out of California, notoriously one of the most economically ignorant and fiscally incontinent states in the nation. It appears in a Los Angeles Times editorial lauding the efforts of Democrats in the state legislature to try to apply California’s outrageously high sales taxes — nearly 11%, counting state and localities together — to purchases on the internet, targeting especially the dominant internet retail giant Amazon.com. The LAT (always an affirming voice for redistributionist tax-and-spend government) argues that the state is “owed” millions in tax dollars for sales over the net. The paper, natch, supports a bill by Berkeley Dem Nancy Skinner to require internet retailers to collect sales taxes.

The LATviews this as fair — what is the difference, it asks, between buying your shoes at the local store and purchasing them at a store based in Nevada? And, the rag pompously avers, this is the law.

It cites the 1992 Supreme Court ruling (Quill Corp. v. North Dakota) that held that out-of-state mail-order companies (and presumably, by inference, internet retailers) with no physical presence (i.e., no actual stores or warehouses) in a state could not be compelled to collect sales taxes from customers in that state — although the court allowed states to try to collect taxes from such customers directly. So this is the law.

According to the LA Times, people who buy over the internet are both legally and morally (morally?) obligated to pay sales taxes on their purchases. It argues that Amazon and other online stories deliberately encourage consumers to evade their legal and moral obligation by failing to inform them of that obligation on their websites. Not only must the internet help to suck in taxes; it must also lecture people about their ethics.

In an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Gov. Quinn cost his state jobs.

The LAT not only endorses legislation that would require any internet company to collect sales taxes from purchases by Californian customers if that company has any affiliates (suppliers) in the state; it also recommends a national bill that would explicitly require all internet companies to collect sales taxes on half of all states that want their citizens’ purchases taxed—and which of them wouldn’t? The LATconcedes that so long as the Republicans have a check in Congress, such a bill won’t ever be passed, but the grand vision is of every vendor of five-dollar trinkets to become an IRS agency, assiduously divvying up its surplus value in accordance with the 50 tax codes of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia.

At the time the LAT piece was published, rumors were circulating out of Sacramento that the state Board of Equalization — the agency responsible for collecting California state taxes — would be hiring computer geeks to find out ways of looking at internet traffic to discover which criminal Californians are daring to buy on the web. This, needless to say, caused considerable consternation—not to mention considerable concern about the morals of internet aficionados who would thus be involved in killing the internet.

But the LAT’s case is patently defective. Why the devil should a business like Amazon, which uses none of California’s police or fire services (since it has no bricks-and-mortar locations in the state), much less its educational enterprises, have to pay the state a nickel? And why should Amazon customers within the state have to pay any more than they do right now? They already support the schools with their property taxes. Their sales taxes, collected at the stores that actually exist within the state, support the police, the fire department, and the other agencies that protect those stores. Where does one’s moral and legal obligation stop?

And the consequences from trying to tax the internet are likely to be counterproductive to the states that do it, as a piece in the Wall Street Journal reports. The WSJ — which understands economics approximately a thousand times better than the LAT understands it — points out the obvious: if a state (like California) tries to saddle (say) Amazon with collecting sales taxes for that state because Amazon has affiliates within it, then Amazon will just drop those affiliates.

Indeed, as the WSJ piece recounts, this is just what happened recently in Illinois (a state in even worse fiscal shape than California, if that be possible). The tax-happy Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed a law applying the state sales tax to internet purchases in Illinois, and it took Amazon only a few hours to announce that it was immediately halting purchases from and affiliation with the 9,000 small Illinois businesses with which it had been doing business — business profitable for Illinois as well as for Amazon.

So, in an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Quinn cost his state jobs. Either a discontinued affiliate will stay in Illinois and see its sales plummet (which will then necessitate cutting its workforce), or it will — as some are already doing — move to an adjacent state (such as Indiana) that manifests less tax madness.

Rhode Island, which like Illinois and a few other states (Colorado, New York, and North Carolina), had earlier passed an “Amazon tax bill,” has collected only peanuts in extra sales tax revenues. A study by the Tax Foundation shows that when you factor in the lost jobs from affiliates cutting back, closing down, or moving away, the state probably lost revenue.

The LAT editorial suggested that to prevent internet companies from dumping affiliates in a state that imposes an Amazon tax, what we need is a federal law forcing all internet companies, wherever located, to collect taxes from all customers, wherever located, and remit those funds to the customers’ respective states.

That insipid argument is based on the absurd premise that if we pass a national Amazon tax, Amazon couldn’t drop all of its national affiliates. But it sure as hell could, and just move its central operations to (say) Mexico and all its affiliations to businesses in other countries. That would be yet another example of government greed, triumphant.




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Poverty and Crime

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If you’re like me, you have been instructed, from your youth on up, that crime is caused by “conditions” — meaning economic conditions, meaning poverty. You’ve also been told that crime can be reduced, or even eliminated, by the abolition of poverty — which, of course, can come only by means of massive government action.

These were some of the ruling theses of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which continues in its thousand institutional forms unto this day, more than four decades after he declared it.

The theses were always vulnerable, on their face. What do you mean by “crime”? Do you mean a Hollywood producer’s rape of a female staffer, who is too afraid to report the crime? Do you mean a party in West LA, where rich people snort a barrel of coke, and are never caught? Or do you mean a guy who’s pushing weed in Fresno, or a girl who’s arrested for prostitution on the streets of Grand Rapids? Do you mean crime that’s successfully prosecuted, or do you include crime that never gets recorded?

And the thesis has long been vulnerable to the evidence. Johnson’s War on Poverty immediately preceded an enormous wave of crime. The hundreds of billions of dollars that American communities spend on welfare has not demonstrably reduced the incidence of crime, however you want to define that term. Most serious analysts believe those dollars have increased it, by fostering a culture in which principles of individual responsibility are no longer considered necessary.

But wait a minute: what is “poverty,” anyhow? What’s the standard? What’s the definition? Was “poverty” the welfareless condition of virtually all Americans in the 1920s? If so, was it the lack of government welfare that induced millions of people to violate the Prohibition laws, and some thousands of them to kill and maim their fellow-citizens in pursuit of profits from that violation? In a larger sense: isn’t poverty relative? The poor of the 1950s were much richer in absolute terms than the poor of the 1920s, yet fewer people were sent to prison in the 1950s. The poor of the 1980s and 1990s were richer still; yet a much larger proportion of the populace went up the river in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1950s.

Now comes the following announcement from a website in my town (voiceofsandiego.org), about the FBI’s new report on crime in America during 2010, the year of a great depression, especially here in far southern California:

“In San Diego, the number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — dropped 5.3% from the previous year and the number of property crimes — burglary, theft and vehicle theft — dropped 4.6%. (Nationwide, violent crime dropped 5.5% and property crimes were down 2.8%.)”

The author adds a reference to the prevailing wisdom:

“Nationwide crime declines in recent years have continued to puzzle criminologists, who expected worsening economic conditions to lead to more crime.”

Experts might be puzzled, but no one with any sense, or historical perspective, would suffer their fate. Officially recorded crime went down during the 1930s — the time of the Great Depression. Why shouldn’t it go down in 2010?

We can’t quantify the sources of crime, but we should know this: crime, and the definition of crime, has less to do with “economic conditions” than with community mores, individual opportunities, and (in a reverse sense) government action. When the government declares alcohol or drugs to be illegal, “crime” automatically results. But when individuals and communities hunker down in order to get through a period of relative poverty, crime may well diminish. Only God knows the exact linkages, but it’s not puzzling that people whose families are making less money than before may respond by doing something legitimately and dependably profitable rather than something criminal.

Indeed, as William Blake commented two centuries ago, the idea that poverty causes crime is a slander on poor people. It ought to be resisted by every person of generous mind, and especially by all of us — and there are many, many of us — who have struggled to come out on the other side of bad “economic conditions.”




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Keeping an Eye on the Iceberg

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I have often reflected on the looming fiscal disasters that are Social Security and Medicare. As several recent articles suggest, our economy is still heading toward the financial iceberg.

The first report comes from the trustees of these two Ponzi programs. It shows that the financial outlook of both has worsened dramatically over just the last year. It confesses that the so-called Medicare trust fund will be empty by 2024, five years earlier than predicted by the trustees just a year ago. Assuming current revenues, and no unusual increases in the costs of medical care (a dubious assumption indeed), Medicare will only be able to pay 90% of its promised benefits after its trust fund is depleted.

Social Security is also in deep trouble. Last year, it started running a deficit between taxes paid in and benefits paid out. The trustees’ report indicates that from here on out, this deficit will be permanent, and will rapidly increase in magnitude. As another report notes, Social Security will exhaust its “trust fund” by 2036 — one year earlier than last year’s estimate — at which point it will have to slash its benefits by 23%.

This second report confirms a prior reflection of mine that the separate trust fund for the Social Security Disability Insurance program will actually be gone by 2018, if not sooner.

Yet another recent piece sheds light on why SSDI is going off the cliff so quickly: at least some of the 1,500 judges who administer the program just hand out “disability” awards without any real scrutiny of the merits of the claims being made.

This fascinating story centers on Judge David B. Daugherty, who routinely rubber-stamps all requests for disability that come before him. Last year, of the 1,284 cases he saw, 1,280 were greeted with benefits. This year, he is being even more generous with our money, awarding benefits in all 729 cases received. Judge Daugherty has often listened to 20 cases a day, spaced 15 minutes apart, and many from one local lawyer to whom he appears to be particularly sympathetic. His near-100% record awards contrasts with the average of 60% for the system as a whole.

Daugherty is just a particularly egregious example of an entitlement system run amok. Many of the SSDI judges award taxpayer money to claimants without any hearing at all, or merely by looking at the medical evidence submitted by claimants’ attorneys. The SSDI paid out an amazing $124 billion in benefits last year — and the sum will only balloon, making it the first of the entitlement programs to go bust (in a technical sense: naturally the taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab).

Of course, the point needs to be re-emphasized that all these so-called “trust funds” are just government IOUs issued to cover the surpluses they ran while the Baby Boomers were at their peak earnings. The surplus funds were spent running the government. The “trust funds” are thus the moral equivalent of the “special purpose entities” set up by the crooks at Enron to hide its debt. Their function is to push debt onto entities that are apparently separate from the main organization, which actually owes it. Alas, since Congress exempted itself from the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the feds can get away with this fraud (a point I have explored elsewhere).

The accelerating deficits have moved no less a luminary than Tim Geithner, our incorruptible Treasury Secretary and head of the Social Security and Medicare trustees, to tell us that the report makes clear that we need to act “sooner rather than later.” Yeah, but Geithner didn’t indicate how his call for action squares with the views of his boss Obama, who has steadfastly refused to state where he would cut entitlement programs — even as he created a huge new one in the healthcare field.

The few brave souls who have called for reforming the entitlement programs — most heroically Republican Congressman Paul Ryan — have gotten scant public or media support. (Even Newt Gingrich has attacked Ryan’s call for reform, calling it “right-wing social engineering.”)

The estimable economist Veronique de Rugy, commenting on the recent trustees’ report on the Medicare-Social Security mess, makes the point that these Ponzi schemes transfer money from the young to the elderly population. What she doesn’t note is that the reason they are still so generally supported is that the elderly vote religiously, while younger people vote only sporadically — and children, who must in the end pay for all these deficits one way or another, have no vote whatsoever.




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Doomsday Update

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May 21 has come and gone, and so far as I can tell, Judgment Day has not occurred. Whether that’s good or bad is a debatable question.

What is not debatable is the discrediting of one of the world’s best publicized prophecies, and one of the few prophecies specific enough to be fully disconfirmable. I refer, of course, to the Family Radio network’s prediction that the Rapture and the beginning of Judgment would occur on May 21, 2011.

Harold Camping, Family Radio’s “Bible teacher,” went down with his flag nailed to the mast. Throughout last week, he told callers on his daily call-in program that he wouldn’t even consider questions about the possibility that the Rapture wouldn’t happen on the 21st. On May 17, for instance, he remarked, “If you were talking to me three or four years ago, I would have said, well, there’s a high likelihood [of climactic events in 2011]. . . . But beginning about three years ago, God has shown us proof after proof and given us sign after sign. . . . I know absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt whatsoever, that it is going to happen on May 21. . . . It is absolutely going to be May 21. The Bible guarantees it, without any question. So we cannot countenance any other idea. It is absolutely going to happen.”

Liberty provided one of the first nationally published heads-ups and explanations about this matter in its December issue, in the article entitled "An Experiment in Apocalypse." Early this month I continued the discussion. The topic has proven surprisingly interesting to our readers, as it has to millions of other people, worldwide. I am receiving a lot of requests for updates, and I will provide them.

The really interesting thing, of course, isn’t the fact that Family Radio has been proven wrong. The interesting thing is seeing how individuals and institutions respond to the disconfirmation of ideas that they regarded as fully justified by reason and authority. Full evidence about Family Radio’s response will take a while to come in. Its offices were closed over the weekend (starting on Friday, May 20), and all or almost all programming from then till now has been prerecorded. (I write in the early evening of May 22.) The swarm of media attention simply washed over the recumbent form of Family Radio, occasionally sweeping out one or another follower who discussed his disappointment in vague, colorless terms.

But we can expect to learn more, and I have already learned some things. One interesting thing to me is the fact that throughout May 20 and 21 — even as late as 6:30 p.m. on the latter day — the station was still broadcasting invitations to call up and order “Judgment Day, May 21” pamphlets and bumper stickers — thus making itself even more ridiculous than it would have become, had it simply ceased all ads for mail-order material several days before.

Nevertheless, even the most ridiculous things in life happen because somebody decides to make them happen. Somebody — and a number of people would have to be involved — decided to keep running those ads. Somebody scheduled them. Somebody provided them to local stations. Somebody at the local stations ran them. In only one instance (at 1:25 a.m., PST, on the purported day of Rapture) did I hear evidence that an ad might have been spiked by the national network or my local station, with four minutes of music substituted. As I write, Family Radio’s website still declares in bold letters: “Judgment Day, May 21, 2011: The Bible Guarantees It!”, and its clock says there are “00 Days Left.” Yet someone at Family Radio switched Camping’s prerecorded lecture, which runs on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, from one of his constant Judgment Day diatribes to a discussion of divorce (he’s against it) that was broadcast “25 or 26 years ago,” according to the prerecorded announcement — which also says that copies of the divorce lecture will be “available this week” if you call or write for them. Divorce is exactly what would interest you, on Judgment Day or immediately afterward, right? It should be noted that on May 10, a woman called in to ask Camping about that very topic, divorce, and he told her that “it’s all academic,” because the world was ending and her husband wouldn’t have time to divorce her anyway.

Absurdity upon absurdity. But what do these absurd contradictions mean?

They may show the depth of institutional inertia, even within a relatively small, voluntary organization, an organization, mind you, that is operated by zealots, not by the pension-pursuers at the DMV. The thinking may have been, “We’ll just keep running whatever we’ve been running, whether it makes sense or not. That’s what we do” — even if it makes our own cause ridiculous. If Family Radio can achieve inertia like this, imagine what a government can do, in the face of all the evidence against its theories and programs.

The contradictions may, however, indicate something exactly opposite to inertia, but equally significant. They may indicate that dissenters within Family Radio, of whose existence there has already been a good deal of evidence, decided to assist the organization in rendering itself absurd, thus making the ousting of its current leadership more likely. These people could have halted the post-Doomsday ads for Doomsday literature; they could have snaked out some lecture that wasn’t about (of all things) divorce. But they used their individual initiative to do something more complicated.

That’s a guess. But here’s the idea, in brief: what happens within organizations and individuals is a contest between inertia and initiative, each with its own set of rewards: security, stability, and conservation of energy on the one hand; new opportunities (for power, for revenge, for simple rightness) on the other. If enough data emerge, the next stage of Family Radio’s existence will constitute a fascinating experiment in conflict, institutional and individual.

I will keep on this beat. My own prediction is that Mr. Camping will be ousted from leadership during the coming week by irresistible forces of change in the organization he founded. But this prediction is disconfirmable. Stay tuned.




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