Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Monday, January 24, 2011
What should be done? I think the Deficit Commission report was a good start, but something has to come out of it, and it has to begin with the big boys: Medicare, Medicaid, and especially Social Security. There have been many suggestions for better efficiency with these programs, and all of them should be looked at. In the case of Social Security, age of eligibility changes should be looked at and, ultimately, enacted. 65 was a good age when the program began. Now it is a significant drain on the fund and should be increased to a graduated rate between 67 and 70 (25% benefit at 67, 50% at 68, 75% at 69, and full at 70). This will help to keep the fund from depleting as quickly as it is expected to. Also, a person's benefit should be tied to how much the person (or beneficiary) paid into the fund. For retirees who are in danger of running out of benefits, a separate safety net insurance fund will be set up, collected from a small companion tax that will be collected along with the Social Security tax from every worker. For example, a person's benefit would be determined by a 4% tax on wages, and an extra 1% will be collected as a broader safety net fund for those who outlive their benefits. Finally, a significant tax benefit should be set up for any retiree who denies the Social Security benefit. If you are well-off enough that you don't need the benefit and you have enough integrity to voluntarily give it up for the good of the system, you should be compensated in some significant way. A large tax break on your estate or other assets would be appropriate.
I'm not too familiar with the arguments for privatizing Social Security. I can imagine that it would be just like a 401(k) in the way that it would be a voluntary contribution rather than a mandatory tax. I don't see this as being a very sustainable solution. Except in times of economic pressure, we as a nation are not very good at saving money. A private retirement fund is no different. I can imagine that the structure that I proposed in the previous paragraph would be more conducive to a privatization than the way we currently do it, but I can't really imagine it having anywhere near the broad social benefit that it does now.
Well, it's obvious that this little experimental conversation starter of mine will end up taking several posts. I'm not about to overwhelm you (and myself) by trying to put all of my ideas here. We'll start with Social Security and move on to other policies soon. Now it's your turn to tell me what you think. Please take these as suggestions and not dictatorial decrees. Please give reasons why these policies would be beneficial and why they would be detrimental. Please stay away from cliches. And most of all, please be civil. I'll consider deleting any comment that doesn't follow these rules. Thanks.
Okay... give me your thoughts.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
It is pretty predictable how politicians on each side will react to this report. Those on the right will attack Medicaid and the reckless spending of the past 2 years. There will be no mention from them of the spending that has exceeded our willingness to tax since the early 1980s, and there will certainly be no willingness to add taxes now... or ever again! They will be less than vague when describing how to reduce that interest payment, and, of course, they wouldn't touch Social Security or Medicare with a 50-foot pole. Those on the left are so afraid of losing even more of their jobs in 2012 and beyond that they don't want to touch any of it. They'll lose any influence with the largest group of voters if they touch Social Security and Medicare, and they'll lose their base if they touch Medicaid. They'll discuss the balooning interest by saying some of the same vague comments about the debt that their rivals on the right will say. They'll mention the reckless spending of the Bush Administration and conveniently leave out the past couple of years, and they'll indicate the need to raise taxes... not now, but at some point in the future.
Obviously, we have a problem. Two of our biggest programs are exploding, yet no one is willing to deal with them. Retirees are now taking more money out of the system than they ever put in... some twice as much... and we don't seem willing to raise the age of eligibility or have an income cap. Even taking a look at where to save money with Medicaid is suicide for the Democrats. Maybe our politicians should be more concerned about the country than their political careers. Or maybe the biggest problem is that no one seems to be able to have a civil and inteligent conversation about all of this. My wife just questioned me about it all and played devil's advocate, and all I did was get defensive about it. Why? Is it so hard for us to admit that other veiwpoints have their merits and that we don't know everything there is to know? Is it really that satisfying to us to demonize others just to get that intoxicating feeling of superiority?
The next 10 years are going to define who we have become as a civilization. Do we have any remaining ability to see beyond the paradigm of Red vs. Blue? Can we still solve our problems? We have to begin by talking, and we have to suppress that urge to come off as superior; that need to be right all of the time. For all of the politicians who have done the "right" thing in the past 50 years, things sure have gone wrong.
I've been one of the biggest proponents in the past for big government, at least when it comes to supporting those who are least able to support themselves. I have been an opponent of government's subsidization for large industries, such as oil, automobile, suburban housing, and agriculture. I still feel strongly about those things. But we've dug ourselves into such a deep hole from 60-some-odd years of fiscal and social policy that doing what I think is right will have to take a back seat to doing what is necessary. Don't get me wrong... I do not think at all that eliminating these programs and privatizing everything is what is sustainable, let alone necessary. But I do think that cuts to these programs, along with entitlements and highways and agricultural subsidies and the consideration of elevated tax rates on millionaires and billionaires, are necessary. Everything has to be on the table and debated on their merits. We no longer have the time to play political games.
My next post will describe what I think needs to be done to get things going in a sustainable direction, as well as what our fiscal and social philosophy should be when we emerge from this crisis. But do not think for a second that I am saying it can only be that way and that no other opinions matter. Think of it as the beginning of a conversation. We need a starting point, and apparently it needs to start outside of the Beltway. I'm not so self-involved that I believe it will start with me, but maybe I can influence someone that can start it.
This is a crisis; make no mistake about that. We've downplayed it and distracted ourselves from it for too long. It's time to put our asinine political games and arrogance aside. Let's talk!
Friday, January 14, 2011
This article, based on a study by the National Association of Home Builders, is hopeful in some ways and kind of disturbing in others. On the up-side, it says what everyone already knows: the children of Baby Boomers, who actually outnumber their parents (why does no one talk about this???), do not want any part of a car-dependent lifestyle. Developers have known this for a while now, which has spurred them to start building condos and other housing closer to walkable commercial centers. The New Urbanists, for many reasons outside of the preferences of the silent majority generation, have begun developing entire traditional neighborhoods consisting of not just housing, but commercial and civic centers. Recently, car companies began to catch on to this trend, too, as they expressed worry over whether Gen Yers would actually buy their products. I happen to think we will continue to buy cars, especially when they transition from gasoline usage, just not in the insane, almost addictive levels that previous generations have. Much fewer than the majority of families living in neighborhoods with full amenities within walking distance, including good transit, will need more than one (and definitely not more than two) cars. Maybe to survive GM and Ford will have to return to the public transit business that they killed in the first half of the 20th Century.
I also like that developers are starting to nix home designs that include huge master bathtubs (can save a surprising amount of square footage there), more than one living room, and, if there are fewer cars, garages. What I was disappointed to learn about... though I'm not especially surprised... was the continual focus on designing the social areas of the house around the TV. Look, I've watched my fair share of TV in my lifetime (though not much recently), and I don't have a problem with the existence of TV or video games; but the whole culture of it has become ridiculous. Do we really have nothing better to do with our lives? If not, then maybe we should question what kind of story we're writing for ourselves (to borrow a concept from Donald Miller). I'm a big proponent of community-building and encouraging social interaction between people. Sorry, but TV and video games produce the opposite of these qualities.
But, I guess it's better to watch a lot of TV in a vital, mixed-use community where venturing out into the public realm (not surrounded by a ton of steel and glass) is more common than vegging in front of the tube in the burbs, where it's probably the most exciting thing you would have to do anyway. Oh, and by the way, if you think it is only the Gen Yers that want the walkable, functional, and social communities (if not in an urban environment, then at least in a suburb that is economically self-sustaining), then you are wrong by a mile. My own graduate research showed that as much as 90% of people (young and old, urbanite and suburbanite, rich and poor) prefer to live in these types of walkable communities. At the moment, most of what is offered is car paradise... but it looks like some much needed change is on the way.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
"The keys to increasing public transport use in outer suburbs are more frequent buses, running at least every 10-15 minutes, and not just in peak hour; better co-ordination with rail services; more convenient transfers; and fares that allow free transfers between modes."
Genius! With this masterful opus of innovative transportation policy, we can finally put aside the old debate and do what we like doing best in English culture: have our cake and eat it too. We can live in large houses on large lots in maze-like suburban pods out in the middle of nowhere and still keep the world from running out of oil by taking efficient and easy mass transit right from our neighborhoods to anywhere we want in our sprawling regions. Sounds almost too good to be true, but if they say so...
Oh, wait! There are a couple of catches to this grand vision. First, there's the problem that communities built for cars (and only cars), such as pretty much all outer suburbs are, how many residents are likely to take public transit when it is just so much easier and faster (yes, still faster, despite the more frequent buses) to drive? I'm going to step out on a limb and say: very few. One big reason for this: many people who live in suburbia wouldn't be caught dead on a bus or railcar. I don't mean to stereotype, but there are a lot of truths in stereotypes, and the truth here is this: if you love your suburbia, you probably also love your car to the point that taking even the most convenient public transit would be unthinkable.
Even if gas prices went through the roof (which they will sooner or later), this still wouldn't work. No matter how pricey gas will become, it will still not be worth it for people to spend 15-20 minutes on a bus to go 3 or 4 miles. Insanely high gas prices will do one of two things: make people move inward, where transit is more efficient and accepable; or the car companies will scramble to mass produce affordable electric cars, which will kill all efforts at expanding transit to outer suburbs for at least another 50 to 100 years.
Then there's the problem that we seem to be running into a lot lately: how in the world do you pay for extremely frequent, interconnected, and "free" (there's that word again!) transit service to miles and miles of cookiecutter-ness, with minimum lot sizes of 1/2 acre or more, without either raising taxes to levels that suburbanites don't want to pay or increasing fares to levels that no one, regardless of affinity toward transit, can afford. The obvious answer is: you can't. If this were possible, it would be happening somewhere outside of places like Toronto and New York, where people aren't so tax-averse. I can't help but assume that these two professors didn't think about cost or politics when they formed their elegant theory.
Sorry, chums, but I don't buy it! You can't make anything, let alone transit, to operate efficiently in the suburbs, the universe's pinnacle achievement of inefficiency, just like you can't fit a square peg in a round hole. Sure, you can sand down the edges and pretend it belongs in there, but it still doesn't really fit. Outer suburbs and efficient public transit don't mix. Period.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
I love it! Leave it to San Francisco to do what very few other places see the need for. Of course, this is very controversial, especially after all of the anti-government reactionary arguments flying around right now. And this will probably be sent to the courts and overturned, but I still want to revel in its accomplishment, however short-lived it may be.
I love the comment from the McDonald's lawyer about "this is not what our customers want." Well, duh! People who approve of your business model of marketing calorie-dense and nutrion-deficient food to kids are obviously not going to be the ones making a law such as this one. This is a spectacularly dumb comment. It is political, meant to stoke the fires of those who are inclined not to trust government in all its forms. It's like the Democrats complaining to the public after election day: "But this isn't what democrats wanted." Sorry chums, as much as I, a proud independent, sympathize with you, the people have spoken.
This gets at an important issue: does the public always have its own best intersts at heart? Natuarlly, we think so. We think that the will of the people is always best; this is the heart of democracy. But what happens when the will of the people brings about things such as unlimited corporate campaign contributions, lax gun laws for people without records (as if only people with current records will ever again use a gun in a malicious way), and more roads than we can possibly hope to pay for to maintain? Would a significant number of people actually say that these are good things? We voted for the politicians who made these things possible, and sometimes even voted for the laws directly, so they must be what we want, right?
I think we are drastically uneducated about the implications of the policies that the majority of us tend to support (education is the other heart of democracy). If we don't know enough about what we are voting for, then how can we claim that our "will" is a good thing? This San Francisco law is a case in point. If it is true that McDonalds speaks for "the people," then I think the people are just plain wrong. I'm all for personal responsibility; the parents should be the front lines of defence against their children consuming non-nutritious meals, but there are two inadequacies with laying the entire burden on the parents. First, the psychology of adding an appealing "free" gift to the product a company wants its consumers to buy is extremely powerful. I would argue that it borders on brainwashing. This is the "free good" phenomenon I've talked about in previous posts. When we perceive that we are able to get something for nothing (by the way, it doesn't exist), we go out of our way to engage in that "free" activity as much as we possibly can. The child throws tantrum after tantrum in public, embarrassing the parent enough to concede to their demand. Afterall, it's not that big of a deal, and the parent can get something artificially tasty and cheap as well.
Second, and perhaps most importantly these days, the undisputable fact remains that a cash-strapped parent can fill the bellies of two children with a couple of happy meals for the price that he or she could fill the belly of one child with healthier food. This is the result of the principles of commodity pricing and economies of scale combining to produce something that plays to our uniquely American value of "quantity trumps quality." It's genius, it's lucrative, and it's slowly killing us, especially those of us on the lower end of the economic ladder.
The mantra of "personal responsibility" seems to be winning the current debates, as evidenced by the massive shift to the right resulting from this week's election. I actually don't think it is such a bad thing to have a balance struck in the "environment-person" argument (is it the fault of the forces outside of the person or those inside of the person?). How can it really be only the person's environment that causes his or her behaviors when the person has a rational mind capable of making choices? And how can behavior only be determined by internal forces when behavior is, by definition, a reaction to or interaction with outside forces? We have to understand that there is always a mix of both going on (according to my argument above, there has to be; don't you agree?), or else we won't ever understand the root causes of anything and, as a result, will never begin to solve our various problems. So, here's my question: how far can and should we let this obesity problem go until we have to stop relying solely on the "personal responsibility" argument and start legislating healthier environments?
By the way, this same question could be asked about poverty, gun violence, suburbanization, cost of healthcare... the list goes on and on. What say you?
Sunday, October 17, 2010
The role of government is obviously a big issue right now in the public discourse, one which threatens the "political lives" of our elected leaders and the course of our country. Some say that the only goal of government should be to protect the rights of their people. Some wouldn’t even go that far. Still others think there is a role for government to play in almost everything. But how much of this debate is actually a true discussion about the consequences of each viewpoint? I happen to think most of it is sideshow coming from people who have a personal stake in others seeing it their way. Now once have I heard a politician in this election season challenge anyone to actually think about the consequences and discuss them with someone who holds a different opinion.
Democrats are telling other democrats that republicans "drove the car into the ditch," and after the democrats (and only the democrats) dug the car out, now the republicans "want the keys back." Funny, and partly true, but not helpful. And republicans are still calling democrats "socialists" and comparing them to our favorite despotic dictators. Not as funny, and not as true, but they’re just playing to their base of extremely xenophobic yet well-meaning voters. None of this is encouraging anyone to talk with each other.
I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago which was headlined by David Bradley, a community and economic development lobbyist who has been intimately involved with our Congress since Reagan took office. He basically knows everyone there on both sides of the isle and has a good relationship with many of them. He said that he’s never seen such a divide between the parties in 30 years. He took a very unscientific poll, but it is worth mentioning anyway. He asked legislators from both parties to estimate how many legislators from the other party they knew by name. They didn’t have to have a relationship with them or know anything else about them… just their first name. He kept getting the same number in response: 25%. Are you kidding me? Each legislator gets elected and paid handsomely to sit in the same room with other legislators to solve the many problems that this country faces, and yet they have no chance of solving them because they are too entrenched in their own political theater to even introduce themselves to someone across the isle.
I can’t influence our elected officials to talk with one another. I can’t think of any candidates for office in Pennsylvania that aren’t divisive in their campaign rhetoric. Even those in 2008 who I thought would be more inclusive (ahem, Mr. President) have not lived up to their end of the bargain. But I can do my part by providing a safe place for people to openly discuss the role of government, generally and specifically, in the lives of citizens. I don’t want any name calling or pejorative terms (mentioning made-up words like Obamacare and calling republicans "Repugs" are conversational non-starters), and I don’t want any accusations. No matter what your politics are and no matter how closely you hold those principles to your heart and think other views are just dead wrong, you have to know that, despite what some very loud social commentators not-so-subtly hint to, liberals don’t hate America and neither do conservatives. We all love our country and want to make it better; we just have very different ideas as to how to do that.
So, let’s start generally: What is the purpose of government? Why do you hold this view? What are the consequences, good and bad, of government having this purpose?
I’ll post interesting comments and reactions on the main page. Remember… don’t demonize each other: I will call you out on it.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
I came across an interesting article recently that explores issues of public goods and our attitudes toward them. You can read the article here:
There’s a lot more in this article than I want to discuss, but I do want to dig deeper into this issue of what we value. What do we put stock in? What means something to us, and how do we show it? Many say that the best way to determine what we value may be where we put our time and money. But I’m not so sure this is true anymore. Think about what you value most. Is that where most of your time and money is spent? The author has an opinion on this:
“What we value ... is cheapness. Rock-bottom prices. Low taxes. So we get tomatoes that taste like crunchy sponges, but at least we don’t pay a lot for them. Instead of percale bedsheets made in the
First of all, I don’t think we actually value cheapness. I think we truly value good food, good products, and healthy and well-kept communities. Instead, I think we have lost the understanding of the connection between those things which we value and the idea that they are worth paying for. In other words, when we buy the crappy tomatoes that have traveled thousands of miles so that food companies, and consumers, can get them cheaper, we have not lost value in good-tasting food; we have simply forgotten that good food is worth paying for.
And this brings up an important point: we’ve lost all sense of what is valuable. Even more, once we figure it out, we can’t remember the rational behavior involved in showing that the thing has value to us. The result: we can’t decide whether we value our tax dollars or vibrant, healthy communities more. And when we do decide, we behave irrationally. If we value lower taxes, we move out to the suburbs where we rack up infrastructure bills and abandon troubled areas, both resulting in higher taxes. And if we value healthy communities, most of us… well, we move out to the suburbs looking for that community, where the resulting infrastructure and city abandonment problems serve to create less vibrant and healthy communities (plus, more taxes). It’s amazing how backward we have become.
With all of the Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party stuff going on, a pertinent question to all of this is: What is worth being taxed for? Where should tax dollars go and where should they not go? And to test my own thought; If people should receive tax cuts in poor economic times in order to spur economic growth, then shouldn’t they also be taxed more during good economic times in order to shore up some security for the bad times to come? I’m interested in hearing what people have to say.
Friday, September 10, 2010
For those of you who might care, Hartzell alleviates those cares with perhaps the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard about traffic deaths: “…the 33,808 deaths recorded last year represent 3,615 lives spared, if you will, compared with the 37,423 people killed in 2008.” Wow! Is this really his idea of good news? He might as well have said, “But at least 310,180,000 Americans survived!” I guess when it comes to our highway system and the deaths that it causes, I’m a little more pessimistic. Try this for perspective: In 2009, the entire City of Easton died on United States highways and roads. Or how about this: 4 times as many people died on our roads last year than Americans who died between 2001 and the present in the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the two resulting wars. Or: Our traffic death rate is twice our murder rate, which itself is second highest in the world! How about this: While the death rate for rail passengers is currently 25 per 100 million miles of rail, our death rate for motorists, put in those same terms, is 1,338,136! And for good measure: Since our roads are subsidized at a rate of about $700 billion per year, or about $5,000 per tax payer per year, every 4,141 taxpayers literally pay for the death of 1 motorist.
And we’re okay with this, because we get relatively cheap subsidized gas, cheap goods transported by our subsidized trucking industry, and free parking. It’s what economists call a “free good,” a purposeful distortion of the market that takes away the demand ceiling so that we’ll continue to support industries that run our economy at perpetually higher rates every year. And it has been so successful that we are willing to put our lives on the line every day just to get a piece of it. Why? Because free goods predictably cause us to recognize that we are getting a massive deal every time we purchase that good (driving). And we all know that Americans simply can’t pass up a deal. To be fair, the rules of psychology show us that no one can, and our corporations and law makers know this all too well.
So, here’s my question: If the libertarian conservatives (and the Republicans who pretend to be ones) claim to be such pure free-marketeers and so deeply concerned about federal spending, why is a federal highway, industrial food system, and local free parking industry that receives over $700 billion per year in tax-payer subsidies (at 10% of our GNP, more than Social Security or Medicare) and kills off entire cities-worth of people not on their radars? Why does no one of importance (who can make or execute laws) ever talk about this? Is it because, as long as they don’t die on the road, they benefit from the system? Or is it because of their thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from said industries? This I would like to know.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
It is ironic, though not surprising, that many conservatives have come out strongly against the Mosque proposal. Two of the bedrocks of conservatism are local property rights and strong adherence to the constitution (remember the religious liberty clause?), yet many conservative (and then there’s you, Mr. Reid) politicians are so worried about winning a fast-approaching election that they are recalling the tragic events 9 years ago to condemn the very principles that they claim to stand for. Some are making ridiculous statements to make their case. Mr. Gingrich said that this proposal is akin to placing a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust memorial. An extreme political party is not at all comparable to a wide-spread, world religion. Instead, a more apt comparison could be made to placing a Christian Church (Nazis were overwhelmingly Christian) next to the Holocaust memorial, which I’m sure we wouldn’t have a problem with (I’m a Christian myself, so don’t think that this statement is anti-Christian). But that argument doesn’t win votes.
I’m actually in agreement with many in the Tea Party on this one. For all of their political shortcomings, in my opinion anyway, they actually understand the heart of this issue. Rand Paul put it in perspective well when he said that his own state would not be happy if New York inserted themselves into Kentucky issues, so he is sure that New York wouldn’t appreciate Kentucky doing the same. Even the man who doesn’t seem to “get it” gets this one.
Personally, I’m really concerned that this is such a monumental issue nearly a decade after the attacks. Yes, we should always remember what happened and make sure we do what we can to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, but why are we still so fearful? Fear of attack is one thing, but fear manifested in the discrimination of a religion whose peacefulness has, historically, been at least on-par with Christianity (remember the crusades, conquistadors, Holocaust, and the conflict between Ireland and Scotland, just to name a few) is of a wholly different sort. In our post-millennium brand of politics, we have let this fear fester instead of letting it go and moving on.
Many of the people coming out against this proposal are claiming that allowing this Mosque (by the way, it’s not actually a Mosque but a community center; but “Mosque” sounds scarier) to take root 2 blocks from (not “at”) Ground Zero will be a victory for the terrorists. Mr. Gingrich has even said that this idea was planned by terrorists just so that they could celebrate their victory. Come on, Newt! Even you aren't that paranoid! Contrary to what the talking heads are saying, I think that our fearful reaction against this plan has already assured their moral victory because it is a harbinger of the dramatic changes taking place in so many of the great American ideals. We are a mere, cold shadow of who we used to (and ought to) be. Terrorism has changed our way of life, and not for the better… and this is exactly what they wanted to occur.
But my opinion doesn't really matter, and neither does yours, because unless you happen to be a resident of Manhattan, it is officially none of our business.