Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sympathy for Alan Simpson

I was cleaning out the message files in my cell phone this morning and came upon a series of messages I had received on Friday concerning former Sen. Alan Simpson's remarks about Social Security. For those who do not know whereof I write, he is reported to have made offensive remarks in an email to the Executive Director of the Older Women's League, including a comparison of Social Security to "a milk cow with 310 million tits," and the suggesstion that she call him when she got an honest job. While I find Mr. Simpson's remarks more appropriate for a Howard Stern or Dice Clay monologue and believe he probably ought to resign as Co-Chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, I must say there is merit in the underlying frustration with the mentality of many Social Security beneficiaries that he so crudely expressed.

One of the most frequent comments one hears concerning Social Security from current or future beneficiaries is, "I paid for it and I deserve to get what I paid for." Taken at face value, there is nothing with which I can disagree in that statement. What it ignores is the fact that most retirees receive many times their personal contributions, plus interest, over their remaining lifetimes after retirement, which means they are living free off of others who are still working. I do not have the particular numbers for Social Security, but I doubt they are much different from the SC Police Retirement System, of which I am a current beneficiary. I have been retired two years and have already received more than half the total contributions made by my former employer and me plus all the accrued interest. If I live past age 59, and I think I probably shall, other law enforcement personnel will be supporting me for the rest of my life.

Is that unfair? Not necessarily -- I worked to support other retirees and was glad to do it, knowing that my time would come. What is unfair and unreasonable is to expect the system to continue without modifications (other than those that would be to the advantage of its beneficiaries). In particular, three changes I think should be considered reasonable under certain circumstances are an increase of payroll taxes, indexing benefits negatively to other retirement income and increasing the retirement age, in that order.

Currently, Social Security payroll taxes (FICA) are taken only from the first $106,000 of earned income each year. Employers must match those withholdings. My first suggestion to make Social Security more financially stable is taxing 100% of earned income at the current rate, with a possible exemption on matching contributions above a certain level for employers whose ability to stay in business might be jeopardized by the increased tax. Of course, people in the highest income brackets would be less likely to get back all they had put in, but all insurance plans are based on the assumption that the total premiums paid in will exceed the total benefits paid out. Social Security is insurance against homelessness and starvation in old age.

My second suggestion is aimed at Mr. Simpson's "greedy geezers," the wealthy retired who continue to draw their Social Security because they think they earned it or just because they can. Ronald Reagan drew his full benefit for the last five years of his Presidency because he was over the age of 72. Can you imagine an auto insurance company refunding all your premiums every year you do not file a claim? That company would not exist long, unless it got federal bailouts. Social Security benefits should be phased out as income from other sources, earned and unearned, increases. They should also be phased out for retirees who are sitting on assets they could be using to support themselves in old age. The idea that a Bill Gates or George Soros should ever collect a dime from Social Security is so ludicrous as not to merit comment.

My final suggestion seems to be the most inflammatory, but for the life of me I do not understand why. When Social Security was created in 1935, few people lived beyond the age of 65. Most Americans agreed those who did should not have to worry where they would sleep or what they would eat from day to day. It was, compared to the Social Security of today, a modest program to prevent homelessness and starvation among the elderly. I doubt that many young workers begrudged the elderly a cent of what was deducted from their pay. But life expectancy in the U.S. is continually increasing while the birth rate continually declines. Allowing an ever increasing population of older workers with ever increasing lifespans to stop working at 65 and live longer and longer off the labor of an ever decreasing population of younger workers can rightly be called nothing but a plan for the enslavement of the young by the old. If I must wait until I am 67, 70, or even 75 to collect my benefits, that is preferable to having the system collapse because it is unsustainable. It is also morally preferable to forcing young workers into serfdom for the benefit of older folk who can still look out for themselves.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pinker's Blank Slate: Part 1

I have begun reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) at the behest of a friend who declares that it is the antidote for the sloppy, mentalist reasoning that stands in the way of a well-ordered and scientifically based civilization. Having studied B.F. Skinner and being familiar with the prescientific notions of human consciousness and personality that he critiques in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), I approach Pinker with the expectation that I shall find little new and much that claims to be.

Acknowledging the generally recognized unfairness of critiquing a book one has not read - but also confessing that I lack the organization and self-discipline (sorry, Prof. Skinner: I don't know a better way to express it!) to complete a project of this magnitude in the accepted way - I propose to address it publicly much as a student in a philosophy class would: by making assumptions about where the author is going with an argument and arguing with those assumptions. Subsequent posts will reflect my changing understanding of Pinker's arguments and, in the end, a hoper would hope to find a fair and balanced assessment of Pinker's thesis.

On with the first installment.
For the sake of those who are unfamiliar with the notion of the Blank Slate and others, like myself, who have not considered it for many moons, I should begin with a brief summary of The Doctrine.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke (1632-1704), the father of British Empiricism, argues that all knowledge is the result of experience via the senses:
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. (cited in Pinker, p. 5)

Locke's argument that all knowledge must come from the senses is generally recognized as the foundation of the empirical sciences and, even though Empiricism as a philosophical theory of knowledge was considered dead after David Hume (1711-1776) exposed its inherent contradictions, empiricism continues to be to popular epistemology as Newtonian mechanics is to baseball, billiards and bowling - fundamentally flawed but utterly useful. Though Locke never used the term Blank Slate, which can be traced as far back as Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the fit was too good to ignore and Blank Slate it became, finding its way into and dominating 20th century humanistic psychology and educational theory.

My first presumed quarrel with Pinker is on page 6. He writes, "During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities." If that is the case, I might agree it is not a good thing, but I must be convinced of that. I suspect Pinker is setting up a straw man so he can knock it down. More on that in a future post.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An Obaminable Easter Message

A*bom`i*na"tion, n. [OE.
abominacioun, -cion, F. abominatio. See
Abominate.] 1. The feeling of extreme disgust
and hatred; abhorrence; detestation; loathing; as, he holds tobacco in

2. That which is abominable; anything hateful,
wicked, or shamefully vile
; an object or state that excites disgust and
hatred; a hateful or shameful vice; pollution.

Antony, most large in his abominations.


3. A cause of pollution or wickedness.

Syn. -- Detestation; loathing; abhorrence; disgust; aversion;
loathsomeness; odiousness. Sir W. Scott.

From the 1913 Webster Unabridged Dictionary -- copied from http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext96/pgw050ab.txt

The word abomination is overused in Christian circles, but I think it aptly describes the interweaving of Passover/Easter with self-congratulation in President Obama's April 3 weekly address. The President's slide from exaltation to banality begins as he praises the "peace of mind" that comes from working for a paycheck and touts his administration's reversal of the "devastating slide" of the economic crisis of the last eighteen months.

Thou Art Covered

"Our health is the rock upon which our lives are built." No, this is not a modern translation of Jesus' words in response to Peter's Confession: "You are the messiah, the son of God." It is President Obama's trite and inartful attempt to cast health care reform, for which I am grateful, as the Central Saving Act of his Presidency. Christians and Jews; Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims; atheists and believers alike should be equally disgusted by this crass blending of ecclesiastical and civil religion. Even the Clintons acknowledged, in answer to Harry and Louise, that "we're all going to die." No health care system can change that fact and I, for one, hope I shall be remembered for more than my reasonable copays and eyecare coverage.

Ecclesiastical religion has its pitfalls: it provides cover for unspeakable crimes by trusted shepherds; it entices the faithful into a fantasy world and away from the liberating discoveries of science. Civil religion is fraught with danger as well: it relegates those who see no relationship between god and country to second-class citizenship and harnesses religious bigotry to justify acts of intolerance and agression. But this sloppy stew of priggish platitudes should offend sacred and secular sensibilities alike.

One can hope or pray, as one chooses, that President Obama will spare those who actually listen to his weekly addresses any further displays of this sort. They insult the people and cheapen his image.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Science with an Agenda

CNN reports today that a new long-term study from Princeton implicates high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in obesity. Critics from the processed food industry and big Agra are piling on to criticize the study as flawed.

I have not read the study report or its critiques, but this behavior on the part of those with a vested interest in corn production and sales reflects a pervasive problem in the modern scientific world. Researchers are not left to study what interests them and add to the deposit of human knowledge -- they are expected to investigate what will serve some other than scientific purpose and woe be to the researcher who publishes information that is unfavorable to any large industry or interest group.

I recall a time when researchers at Bell Laboratories, under the aegis of pre-divestment AT&T, were told to investigate and discover, with no mandate to produce results that would shore up Ma Bell's bottom line. This was as near pure science as any in my lifetime, I think -- the ethic being that all knowledge is good and ultimately useful. The practical benefits included the transistor, the photovoltaic cell, fiber optic cables and a series of educational films directed by Frank Capra. Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent and The Strange Case of the Cosmic Ray did more to build curiosity about the natural world and respect for those who devoted their lives to discovery for its own sake than all the lectures, textbooks and journal articles we were required to endure in our years of formal education.

Perhaps the researchers at Princeton were seduced by their proximity to the Institute for Advanced Study, which still prides itself on doing pure science. They must have thought, "If they can do it, so can we." They can, but at their own risk. Had they kept their results secret rather than trying to do the socially responsible thing -- had they not felt obliged to warn the public that daily consumption of HFCS might not be a good idea, there would be no controversy. They stepped on some very rich toes and that is always fraught with peril.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Praise of Old Books

“Government doesn’t grow the private sector. Business grows the private sector.” Kirkman Finlay III

This quotation, reported at The Pulse of Columbia ("The Gloves Are Off") reflects the conventional wisdom of most Americans for whom broadcast or cable news is the lens that mediates reality. Most would probably take as axiomatic that public sector means government and private sector means small business and corporations. But this has not always been the case.

As I read what Mr. Finlay said at a debate of mayoral candidates in Columbia Monday evening a bell rang, not at ringside but in the back of my mind. I recalled having read recently an analysis of the public sector that included privately owned corporations in that class of human artifacts. Where could it have been? I have never read Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto is buried under some forty years of memory. No -- it was another old book: not so old as Karl Marx but perhaps older than the young Mr. Finlay.

The value of reading and re-reading books is that, some day, an idea from them will present itself as an ameliorative for the hybridized, mass produced thinking of modern civic discourse. Two millennia and more after the writing of Ecclesiastes, there is yet very little that has not seen the light of former days. Most of what we call "new" is not. It is a modification, a reconfiguration -- sometimes a perversion of that which has been with us longer than we know. Such is the case with our notion of the public versus the private sector.

Ask any high school graduate or mayoral candidate the difference between the public and private sectors and you are likely to get the same answer: government and its agencies are public; everything else is private. I have never heard it said otherwise by any professor, plumber or politician. But I have read otherwise, in a little book published in 1969. Few people who read this have read or even heard of A Critique of Pure Tolerance. It is a set of three essays by an analytical philosopher, a sociologist and a Marxist giving their respective assessments of the role and value of tolerance in modern pluralistic societies. I picked this book up for a second reading recently, read the first essay and put it down -- meaning to finish it "soon."

This evening, when I read the Pulse article, I was reminded that there is another understanding of the public sector that extends beyond civil government. A few moments of reflection brought the likely source to consciousness and I sought it out. It is from Robert Paul Wolff's "Beyond Tolerance." Half-way in he cites an older book, On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill to summarize Mill's idea that, in a free society, the individual must be permitted to do exactly as he or she pleases, regardless of the opinions of others, except as the actions of the individual affect other individuals. It is a technical exposition of what I was told as a child: my freedom to swing my arms (or a bat) ends where any part of another person's body begins. Had I attended kindergarten, I am sure I would have been exposed to utilitarian philosophy there.

That, for Mill, is the private sector: what an individual does in the privacy of his or her own thoughts, habits and actions that does not impinge on the same right of any other individual or bring demonstrable harm to the society as a whole. Mill continues: "...[F]rom this liberty of each individual follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals...for any purpose not involving harm to others...." And that, for Mill, is the public sector -- the realm of cooperation among individuals, whether as government, corporation or private fellowship, that some times or all the time affects other individuals or the society as a whole.

Now Mr. Finlay may have meant, when he spoke of what does and does not grow the private sector, that government does not have the ability to increase individual liberty, but that business does. I suspect, though, that he equates the private sector with the economy which, in Mill's libertarian philosophy, is in the public sector because it is the concern of everyone.

Here's to old books!