US Social Security

by John Q on December 4, 2004

I’ve read lots of pieces on proposals to reform the US Social Security system, both positive and critical. Unfortunately, most of them include claims that are at best half-true and most of the rest assume a high level of knowledge of the issues. Over the fold, I’ve added a lengthy piece trying to explain the issues. Although I’m actively involved in debate on some of them, I’ve done my best to give a neutral presentation, at least until the final assessment of the proposals currently being discussed by the Administration and Congressional Republicans. This is primarily a matter of political judgement and can be summed up fairly quickly.

The Republican proposals involve accounting transfers amounting to trillions of dollars between different government accounts and newly created individual accounts. These transfers will almost certainly be packaged up with substantive changes to the Social Security system. Whether you support them depends on which you think is more likely:

* The transfers will be used to facilitate tough but necessary increases in contributions relative to benefits, eliminating the funding deficit. In doing this, the President and Congress will demonstrate their commitment to promoting the long term interests of the American people, even at the expense of short-term political pain

* The transfers will provide an ideal opportunity for all manner of pork-barrelling, from handouts to existing retirees to cosy deals for Wall Street investment banks, with accounting tricks being used to provide cover for a claim that the system has been restored to solvency

You may be able to guess which of these I think more likely, but you’ll have to read (or scroll) to the end to find out.

[click to continue…]

Progressive decline

by Henry Farrell on December 4, 2004

Kieran “mentioned”: Jonathan Coe’s vicious and funny take-down of Thatcherism, “What a Carve-Up” in passing a couple of days ago. It reminded me of a bit in Coe’s more recent novel, The Rotter’s Club, where he identifies the ‘death of the Socialist dream’ with the extinction of prog-rock.

bq. He giggled like a little maniac, and stared at me for a second or two before running off, and in that time I saw exactly the same thing I’d seen in Stubb’s eyes the day before. The same triumphalism, the same excitement, not because something new was being created, but because something was being destroyed. I thought about Philip and his stupid rock symphony and I swear that my eyes pricked with tears. This ludicrous attempt to squeeze the history of countless millennia into half an hour’s worth of crappy riffs and chord changes suddenly seemed no more Quixotic than all the things my dad and his colleagues had been working towards for so long. A national health service, free to everyone who needed it. Redistribution of wealth through taxation. Equality of opportunity. Beautiful ideas, Dad, noble aspirations, just as there was the kernel of something beautiful in Philip’s musical hodge-podge. But it was never going to happen. If there had ever been a time when it might have happened, that time was slipping away. The moment had passed. Goodbye to all that.

I don’t agree with the sentiment or the identification, but it’s an interesting and clever metaphor. I’m also curious to know from UK/Irish readers whether the sequel to the Rotter’s Club is as good as the first volume – hasn’t been released on this side of the Atlantic yet, I don’t think.

What will they think of next?

by Eszter Hargittai on December 4, 2004

Amidst all the election news of the past month from all over, I have had little energy to compile a post about a referendum taking place tomorrow in Hungary: extending Hungarian citizenship to Hungarians living outside of Hungary’s borders. (Pick any country around Hungary and you’ll find relevant populations from Slovakia to Romania, from Serbia to Ukraine). When a nationalist party becomes desperate in securing votes, it comes up with interesting ideas. Why not extend voting rights to all Hungarians across the globe? Those who left in 1956 or who live as frustrated minorities in other countries may be the perfect targets for their nationalistic message. Give those people voting rights and the party may be able to secure quite a bit of popularity in the future.

Apparently there are no details about what it would take for people to prove their Hungarian “origins” (seems like opening a can of worms to be asking that kind of a question in this area of the world). That may be one aspect that would allow the current government (made up of parties that are not backing this initiative) to temper the effects of a majority yes vote.

One facet of all this of additional interest to me is how the country would proceed with the voting rights of those living abroad. The only way those of us abroad can currently cast our votes is to go to the Hungarian embassy in the country in which we reside. Obviously, this leads to few votes from those not residing in Hungary. For the initiative to be really effective, they would have to tweak this part of the system as well.

The outcome of the referendum tomorrow will only count if at least a quarter of those eligible to vote – so about two million people – plus one vote for the same outcome.

UPDATE (Sunday, Dec. 5, 2:30pm CST): The referendum did not get the requisite number of votes with the same outcome to count. Out of 8 million 24 thousand eligible voters, at least 2 million 6 thousand plus one would have had to vote yes. With 95 percent of votes counted (36.8 percent participation), 1.39 million voted yes to expanding citizenship to Hungarians beyond the country’s borders, 1.32 voted no. Let’s not even think about how much this whole fiasco cost the country…

The dimensions of hell

by Chris Bertram on December 4, 2004

From the “FT’s review”: of Len Fisher’s Weighing the Soul :

bq. Weighing the Soul is a mine of delightful oddities, such as the origins of Galileo’s “scaling theory”, which is still used to estimate proportions when turning a model into an actual building. Early in his career Galileo was asked by the Pope to use his mathematical skills to work out the exact location and dimensions of Hell. His calculations showed it to be a cone-shaped structure with the point at the centre of the earth and the top a circle whose centre was below Jerusalem. The big structural problem was the unsupported roof, which spanned 5,000kms. Galileo claimed that the design used for the dome of the cathedral in Florence would do the job and was lavishly praised. In fact he rapidly realised that his calculations were wrong but kept it secret, only publishing the amended equations years later.

Everybody sing along – you know the words!

by John Holbo on December 4, 2004

Timothy Burke’s latest post needs a comment box. Well, now it’s got one.

The anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands

by Chris Bertram on December 4, 2004

The Financial Times’s Simon Kuper is always worth reading, and in today’s paper he’s published “the best article”: (by far) I’ve yet read on the anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands after the Van Gogh murder.

Draft Contribution to Tech Central Station

by Kieran Healy on December 4, 2004

So, there “appear”: to be _no_ explicit arguments in the “peer-reviewed scientific literature”: against the consensus position that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it, “Human activities … are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy. … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” The “Tech Central Station”: Op-Eds rebutting this finding must be in the hopper even now. To help them out, I have cobbled together one made up largely of statements in earlier columns by the likes of “Joel Schwartz”:, “James Glassman”: and “Iain Murray”:

*The Main Source of Hot Air is Plain to See*
Kieran Healy (assisted by Schwartz, Murray and Glassman.)

“As Tech Central Station readers well know, there are reasons to be skeptical of claims of substantial human-caused warming.”: A “recent article”: in the fringe leftist journal _Science_ discovers a puzzle: none of these reasons is to be found in a survey of 928 peer-reviewed articles published in the past 10 years. Its author concludes that “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.”

Remarkable, indeed. As you know, a “superb analysis”: by Ross McKitrick and Steven McIntyre showed that the famous “hockey stick”: finding — on which the consensus rests in part — was completely bogus, assuming you don’t know the difference between “degrees and radians”: and think that “temperature is not a physical quantity”: (Setting “missing temperature values to zero”: helps also, but is an advanced quantitative technique.) This is just the sort of nitpickery by which the notoriously left-wing scientific establishment keeps dissenting views out of the journals. The whole affair bears strong resemblance to the recent Bellesiles controversy. Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles won a Bancroft Prize for his argument that gun ownership in early America was not widespread. It took an amateur historian, Clayton Cramer, to point out that this claim could not be substantiated on the basis of actual gun-ownership records. In an exactly parallel way, it took an incompetent analysis by two non-experts to undermine the hockey-stick finding.

Had he worked for a “hack website”:, Hayek would surely have been the first to note that the very idea of peer-review, and the free sharing of data and ideas, positively reeks of socialism. The market, and not Lysenkoist scientists, should be allowed to decide the truth about climate change. The present situation is a discouraging spectacle to anyone who expected rational, scientific discussions, but climate change has become an issue teeming with emotion, and uncertainty is not a word the participants in the so-called “scientific community” like to hear. Just like “Dow 36,000”: is not a word I like to hear. Stop it. I told you, that shit ain’t funny.

Kieran Healy is unqualified to comment on matters of climate change, and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

(Hat tip: “Chris Mooney”: