Sunday, January 30, 2005

I've already written off Social Security

I don't plan to receive Social Security when I retire. According to a story I heard on NPR, it doesn't sound like many people under the age of 35 do. If so many people my age (I'm 27) don't plan to receive the benefit, then shouldn't this give us a large amount of political will to cut benefits for people of my generation to solve the problem? My one-year-old certainly isn't going to care if he ever receives the benefit. I'd rather see a Social Security System that is a safety net than a retirement planning option. I'd be willing to pay payroll taxes to support such a safety net for older Americans. I feel like I already do.

Mandating "loser-pays" is a bad idea

The article linked in this posting is all about what a bad idea it is to mandate that the loser in a civil lawsuit pay the legal expenses of the winner. I agree. This wouldn't be the right decision in every case and a mandate would discourage people from battling big opponents in court. We have learned in some high profile cases that money sometimes can win victories. Just look at O.J. Simpson. You'd hate to sue a big company and lose to some big money tactics and have to try to foot that bill.

However, I would strongly advocate a bill that places a strong recommendation for judges to impose a loser-pays penalty in cases he deems to be wholly without merit or frivolous in nature. It sounds like the law already allows a defendant to petition the judge for such redress, but having this strongly advised in the law (always at the judge's discretion) would be a good thing.

Senate Measure would offer benefits to the unmarried

I have been in favor of amendments and laws against gay marriage. However, I don't see a negative side to the bill discussed in this article in the Deseret News. According to the article:

"The bill would give those who cannot marry the ability to obtain one contract, registered with the state Department of Health, to visit a partner in the hospital, make informed consent medical decisions, dispose of a dead partner's remains and make organ donation decisions, and to have joint tenancy rights to property acquired while under the contract."

Essentially, the bill will bring several already available legal contracts under a single umbrella to simplify things for petitioners. For most Utahns, cutting red tape is probably a good thing. The measure stands to benefit "roommates who are not involved in a relationship or family members who share a home." Of course, same-sex couples would also be benefited. Just because there is a benefit to gays doesn't mean the measure is without merit. Roads and libraries benefit gays too, but we don't oppose those. (Okay, we'll leave the Legacy highway for another posting.)

My only exposure to the amendement is this coverage by the News, but from what I've read there is no good reason to oppose the measure. It may streamline government for citizens and that is almost always a good thing.

It seems the best argument against this bill is the "slippery slope" argument. In the language of logic, this is a fallacy of distraction. The proposed outcomes in a slippery slope argument could be true, but aren't assured and thus probably shouldn't be the sole basis for support or opposition to a measure. While it is true that people drown in lakes, that doesn't imply that there is never a good reason for having and using lakes. We must always weigh actual benefits and costs.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Utah Politics | Tax Reform

David Spackman throws out some really interesting ideas about changing the structure of our state and local tax system. Essentially, he advocates starting from scratch and using income taxes and usage fees in place of every other tax, including sales and property taxes. While I see problems in trying to make such a major shift in our tax policy, it is definitely worth considering and studying. I wonder if some of our Universities will make some studies of these issues and provide some meaningful numerical projections rather than vaugue hand-waving. I wouldn't be comfortable even experimenting with such a change without a lot of hard data.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Mass Transit Motivation

A writer to the Salt Lake Tribune posits: " The sad truth of human nature is that until a situation becomes extremely painful we will not change our ways." The writer's point was that we should stop building roads so congestion becomes painful (like it is in New York or Chicago) and people will finally be forced to move to mass transit.

I can prove the writer's "truth" wrong with two counter-examples. I ride the bus to work about 50% of the time. Why? Not because driving is painful, but because I love the chance to be able to get in a little leisure reading each day. I love saving money on gas. I love not having to worry about icy roads. Driving to work isn't painful. In fact, time-wise UTA is far more painful--taking more than twice as long to get from here to there.

Second, recycling. I want to recycle. When I lived in Orem there was an extra monthly fee to be able to recycle, but I was happy for the chance. It would be easier (i.e. less "painful") not to recycle, but I feel better doing it. I try to find opportunities to recycle whenever I can conveniently do so. I suspect many people feel the same about mass transit. They now the environmental benefits and they want to help.

Inauguration Spending

I thought this statement had been made and refuted sufficiently many times that we could stop this silly conversation. Apparently not. From a letter to the editor in today's Tribune:
"Yeah, but $40 million worth of celebration (Bush inauguration) is obscene. Millions are suffering in Asia, and the troops in Iraq lack the necessary armor to keep them safe. Our 'wartime' president should step forward and prove that he is genuinely concerned over the troops and recent world events."

I heard on the radio today that Clinton spent $120 million on his presidential library and attendant celebrations. Were these same people angry because that money was not diverted to "higher purposes"? I doubt it. They shouldn't have been angry then and they shouldn't be angry now. The celebration of democracy is a worthy reason for a ball. More to the point, it was private donations. If you believe in liberty, shouldn't you believe that people can spend their money any legal way they choose without being made to feel guilty about it?

Okay, I have to confess that there is a big part of me that cringes when I see people spending money on ostentatious homes or events. But the higher principle here is personal freedom and the incentives that make a free market work. I have to except extravagance as the price of a capitalistic society which is the best economic system we currently have.

Social Security: Ratios for solvency

David Tufte proposed an interesting idea. Whether he actually advocates it, I don't know.
"In principle this is an easy thing to fix. If Congress stipulated that the ratio of earners to receivers would remain at some fixed ratio (say 3 to 1), and that eligibility to join the group of receivers would be determined by the availability of slots that did not decrease that ratio, then social security would be sustainable forever."

While this is an interesting idea, it would mean that Social Security would have a very different meaning in 20 years than it does today. I've already heard one proposal to provide payroll tax credits for having children. These children, of course, are the ones that are funding the system and so, the theory goes, people should be rewarded for having them.

Serious questions remain for me about Social Security that must be addressed in any recommendation for reform. First, what impact will lengthing life expectancy have on the system? I was listening to Mike Leavitt's testimony in his confirmation hearing before the Senate to become the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. He noted that as govenor he hosted a luncheon for everyone in the state over age 100. He explained that for a little girl born today in Utah, she would have over 100,000 associates at the governor's luncheon in 100 years. There are a lot of people that are living longer--and that makes a real difference to evaluating a system like Social Security. I don't have the numbers to back me up, but I expect that people wouldn't quality for social security in Tufte's "slot" system until well beyond age 70. Can poor people really wait that long for a benefit? Wouldn't people with low-paying physical labor-type jobs be those that are going to have the shortest useful working lifetime and thus need retirement help sooner?

Tufte commented that Social Security is not a pension system. Perhaps this word has some more precise meaning for economists than that definition which is normally understood (from Princeton WordNet), "a regular payment to a person that is intended to allow them to subsist without working."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Seismic Peace

Keryn and I read a funny piece about someone making peace with their deli man after a heated argument on the subject of the recent tsunami. The author recounts the argument which started thusly: "I remarked, 'It looks worse than a nuclear attack.'
'That's what I think it was,' he responded. 'This wasn't an earthquake, it was an underwater nuclear bomb!'"
Keryn's response? "Doesn't he know how much bigger the energy released by that earthquake is than any nuclear bomb?" Reading a little further down the article we read, "Muhammed, I learned, is from Jordan (where he was a geologist) and is married to an Irishwoman." My wife, also a geologist, could only shake her head.

Buckle Up

We have the very sad story of a young man who didn't like seat belt laws and said so.
And if I want to be the jerk that flirts with death and rides around with my seat belt off, I should be able to do that, too.

Later the news is reported, only a few months later, of the same young man:
Kieper, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, died early Tuesday morning when the Ford Explorer he was a passenger in travelled off an icy section of Interstate 80 and rolled several times in a ditch. . . . Derek, who was thrown from the vehicle, was not wearing a seat belt.

James Taranto conluded his posting, "When you flirt with death, you run the risk that death has something more serious in mind."

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Unconstitutional Filibuster of Judicial Nominees

Senator Orrin G. Hatch claimed that the filibuster of judical nominees was "unconstitutional." I balked at that, figuring that the Senate can make whatever rules it wants since that is their constitutional privilege. However, Hatch went on to make the point clear and I must say that I am persuaded. "Democrats' new filibusters ... [are] unfair to senators who must provide the 'advice and consent' the Constitution requires of them through a final up or down vote."

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Save Social Security by... having more kids?

Grabbing a valid point and stretching it to absurdity today is Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation:
"There are many reasons birthrates are falling, but Social Security itself is likely a major cause because of the raw deal it creates for parents and the enormous subsidies it provides to non-parents. By raising and educating their children, parents provide the system with essential human capital. The cost of this contribution, in both direct expenses and forgone wages, is often measured in the millions.
"Yet parents get no compensation from Social Security, nor from the wider economy, for the investments they make in their children. Instead, Social Security pays the same benefits, and often more, to people who avoid the burdens of parenthood. So long as Social Security effectively penalizes people for having the very children the system requires, it contributes to a downward spiral of falling birthrates leading to higher and higher tax rates."

There is some truth to saying that people cannot derive as much benefit from having children in a land of child labor laws. There is some foundation of truth in Longman's argument. But then he goes off the deep end.
"Here's a possible solution. Instead of slashing benefits across the board and borrowing trillions to create a risky system of personal accounts, use the same money to offer substantial tax relief, and extra benefits, to married parents who successfully raise their children. For example, have one child, and the payroll tax you pay (and that your employer nominally pays) drops by one-third. A second child would be worth a two-thirds reduction in payroll taxes. Have three or more children and you wouldn't have any payroll taxes again until your youngest child turned 18.
"When it came time to retire, your Social Security benefit (and your spouse's) would be calculated just as if you had both been contributing the maximum Social Security tax during the period in which you were raising children, provided that all your children graduate from high school."

So let me get this straight. Investing money you earn to support yourself in retirement is "risky" while having children (while not paying money into the system) and betting that they will a) live to age 18 and b) graduate from high school is not risky? What parent can guarantee that their children will not die or not drop out of school due to circumstances beyond the parents' control?
Longman suggests that people will be motivated to become parents because of the tax break they would receive. First off, I think the government is already doing a lot of this incentive with the $1000 per child tax credit. Second, I think that any child born in to a home where he is only welcome because of a tax credit is starting out at a disadvantage in life. Most people I know who are having children would do it with or without financial incentives from the government.
An article of faith for me pertaining to welfare is that a person is first responsible to himself. If he cannot help himself, he should turn to his family. If he cannot turn to his family, he can turn to his community, which for me is church first and government last. Longman suggests that retirement should be welfare to which we turn to the government first. This turns the hierarchy of responsibility precisely on its head. Why would we want to do that?