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Our Last 50 Referrers

« Thinking and Language | Main | More, More, More on Summers »

February 19, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Calling all traffic engineers ...

* That $400 billion drugs-for-seniors bill? New estimates predict that it'll really cost us $700 billion. That's a thousand dollars more per American citizen than we were told. Can we return this package to the jerks who sold it to us?

* Catholic girls, eh? All that timidity, all those agonies, all that fear of evil and damnation. And then ... they go wild. Did anyone else grow up with buddies trying to show some worldliness by muttering things like "Jewish girls are the easiest, Catholic girls are the best"? Wait a minute: I think I first heard that bit of folk wisdom from my (Protestant) parents, weirdly enough. I took it (and I think it was meant) as a tribute to both groups, by the way.

* I'm not sure what to make of the fact that my blog posting on the Scottish Enlightenment is linked to from Wikipedia's entry on the Scottish Enlightenment. Scary -- I am soooo not a trustworthy authority. On the other hand: cool.

* Thanks to the amazing Dave Lull, who turned up this Christie Davis blog posting about Robert Mapplethorpe, keyed to a David Hockney-curated show of Mapplethorpe's photographs. Davis manages to be sensible and down-to-earth about Mapplethorpe's work. Given how politicized a cause celebre Mapplethorpe was at the end of his life, that's not a minor achievement.

* One of my own favorite gay artists is the very un-PC Toronto-based Bruce LaBruce. LaBruce makes amusingly scroungy films, but he's at his best (IMHO) in interviews, and when he writes about movies, and about his own taste for punk rockers and skateboarding boys. I blogged about him here. Here's his own site. I just ran across this fun q&a with him. You won't find Bruce LaBruce making homey, earnest arguments in favor of gay marriage, that's for sure. A wonderful quote:

The main thrust of the gay movement currently is toward assimilation, respectability, and the quest to be considered normal and mundane. I think the true gay movement is now dying the same death that feminism died in the early to mid 90's. Feminists also got to the point where they were trying to police the representation of women so strictly, like Stalinists, that they lost all credibility. Anti-porn feminists really killed feminism, just as today's gay prudes, who want a very asexual, cleaned-up, even monogamous and family-oriented version of homosexuality - decorative and benign - are killing true gay activism. But I'm fine with it. I think it will all just pave the way for the homosexual intifada.

* Do you spend Sunday evening dreading going back to work? It turns out that you aren't alone. Even people who like their jobs spend Sunday evening in a morose state.



posted by Michael at February 19, 2005


I think the passage of the prescription drugs-for-seniors bill was the end of any vague hopes I had for the U.S. government as a force for good in the world. It's not like every single darn one of those senators and congressman who voted for it didn't realize that entitlements were already financially out of control. But they couldn't resist the thought that voting for it would make them utterly election-proof.

Looking at all the fuss caused by Bush's proposals for social security gives me all the confidence in the world that we can control the REAL problem (to wit: Medicare and Medicaid spending)...NOT!

I shouldn't be too negative. Things will get better, eventually...AFTER THEY GET MUCH, MUCH WORSE.

As my mother used to say: "The only way to get a stoplight installed is for somebody to die in an accident at that intersection first."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 19, 2005 4:49 PM

all this fuss about social security is really quite funny, the forecasts for social security very well could be wrong and this "crisis" would go away very quietly, in any case like alot of democrats opine it's a good 50 or 60 years before social security gets in trouble... (note there are other VERY GOOD reasons for SS accounts, raising national savings rates which will lead to higher rates of future growth, taking advantage of equity premiums, securing it for next several hundred years...)

however in 2011, medicare and medicaid start going DEEP into debt, very deep very quickly, and if i'm not wrong those estimates were without the prescription drug plan... and these debts easily outsurpass social security's problem...
then again there's alot that we're each paying for.

Posted by: azad on February 19, 2005 7:49 PM

Re:the woman in Rio. Several times I have seen pictures or video of a Brazilian woman and said:"That is the perfect skin color." And I am not sure why I think so. It isn't mine.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 19, 2005 8:06 PM

The problems with Social Security are real enough--it is, after all, a Ponzi scheme, although this reality has been masked for the past few decades by the tax-revenues of the baby boomers. But Social Security's problems aren't so extreme that they couldn't be handled. I would guess that a F.I.C.A. tax hike--say from roughly 15% of worker compensation (combining the contributions of workers and employers) to around 20%, as well as raising the age of retirement to 70 and probably raising the ceiling of income on which F.I.C.A. is levied (without any corresponding benefit to the more affluent taxees) will do it. None of those changes would be so hot for the economy--I would hardly assume that such a plan would do much for the national savings rate, for example--but we would all muddle through, more or less.

Medicare (and Medicaid) on the other hand, are definitely going to break the bank. These are simply unsustainable on their current course, unless the U.S. is prepared to turn itself into Sweden, all for the benefit of the health care industry. I admit I'm not sure how this will end, although probably with the creation of some kind of nationalized health care system that rations care, health care salaries and technology pretty severely.

Under any circumstances, however, the truth of the matter is that, in combination, Social Security and Medicare are going to raise the tax rates of my children to levels that would have seemed utterly incomprehensible to either my grandparents or my parents. I've said before and I'll say it again, Lyndon Johnson will be by far the most important president of the 21st century.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 19, 2005 10:16 PM

just checking the answer sheet:
you're saying that the US's incoming financial crises (and this would be the real deal "Crisis" (not today's chicken little variant) would be lain directly on johnson for raising entitlements to a level that they can't be reduced?

another question: do you think that the US's medical system could be advanced enough to carry off a decent nationalisation program? Stifled technological innovation, and creating buearocracy to ration care as givens... do you think that the US could pull it off, to attain some decent form of universal healthcare (and you know the rich are gonna have their boutique hospitals and clinics in anycase...)

Posted by: azad on February 20, 2005 1:48 AM


If you look at a historical graph of healthcare spending in the U.S., prior to Medicare/Medicaid it ran very steadily at 5% of GNP. Since the Johnsonian 'revolution,' it has increased to 14-15% today in a fairly straight-line manner. The Medicare Trustees' financial projections suggest that health expenditures might climb to 25 percent of GDP in 2050 and 38 percent in 2075. Charles Jones of the University of California at Berkeley accurately sums up the issue as whether society is willing to transfer more and more resource to persons near the end of life is the crucial factor. "If society decides to cap the transfer rate," he writes, "those forecasts could be far from the mark." A system such as I envision isn't designed to provide what you describe as decent universal healthcare, but rather to "cap the transfer rate." Decent universal healthcare could be provided to the population for less money than we're spending now, if it didn't have to subsidize people in the last 2-3 years of life. My question remains: is it ethical to continue taxing each new generation much more heavily in order to subsidize the preceeding generation's last 2-3 years of life?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 20, 2005 3:20 AM

Michael: is something still broke on the radio station? I was kind of shocked to see our URL there under "traffic engineers." Given yesterday's cluster-eff, though, some intelligence would be helpful.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 20, 2005 9:59 AM

Speaking as a semi-tolerated liberal here, people have been talking about LBJ's fiscal irresponsibility all along, but that was 37 or more years ago. There have been some major players in between, including one in office right now.

People like Krugman and DeLong point out that Social Security stands no better than third among the fiscal problems we're facing, and that on top of that, Bush's proposals (insofar as he's deigned to inform us what they are) don't do anything to help.

#2 is probably Medicare -- a problem Bush has exacerbated, as you say. #1 is the present year-to-year deficit, which by my guess is mostly the result of pork intended to buy "party discipline" among the Republicans without raising taxes.

The upcoming tax cuts figure in there somewhere.

I agree about the grim future, but going back to LBJ for the blame is a long stretch given the guy we have in office. And for better or worse, Democrats in Congress are pretty much helpless now.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 20, 2005 8:26 PM

Scott -- My apologies. I'd thought I was linking to an amazing little video of cars skidding around a badly-designed intersection. Somehow I managed to put your URL there instead. I'm away from the usual computer and can't rustle up the original, so I'll just take that entry down.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 21, 2005 12:39 AM

Er, further apologies. I'm at a stranger's computer and am having trouble getting into Movable Type. Will fix when I succeed. Until then, I hope a few reader/listeners are being steered your way.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 21, 2005 1:06 AM

Mr. Emerson:

Democrats, Republicans...I ain't happy with any of them bums. But partisan mudslingling isn't the issue, as I see it. To repeat myself:

Is it ethical to continue taxing each new generation much more heavily in order to subsidize the preceeding generation's last 2-3 years of life?

From a Republican perspective, continuing to do so isn't fiscally responsible. From a Democratic perspective, where is the 'equity' in such a policy?

Something's gotta give.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 21, 2005 6:25 PM

Well, if you hadn't of reached all the way back to LBJ I probably wouldn't of said nothing.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 21, 2005 9:04 PM

Friedrich -

Nope, sorry, SS is not a "Ponzi Scheme" (unless you consider stuff like life and car insurance to be such), and it is in no danger of going "bankrupt" (a concept that does not apply to government finance with a fiat currency). Here's a good intro to some of the issues involved:

Posted by: jimbo on February 21, 2005 11:06 PM

I'll note only that even Krugman has been caught referring to SocSec as a Ponzi scheme, although I'm at a slow AOL connection and can't do any websweeps right now ...

I'd love to read something about the history of concerns about SocSec. It's sometimes discussed as though people only grew worried about its fortunes recently. But I remember people in the mid-'70s, back in my college years, expressing concern. The whole thing about how the number of workers per retiree was growing smaller (and how the Boomers were a dog moving through a snake) seemed perfectly clear even then. And these were hippie kids doing the talking at the time. Because of that, I confess I'm a little surprised at the way the yak about it has sorted itself out according to the usual left/right partisan teams. Once upon a time even lefties (if my memory serves, and it may not) were concerned about the future of SocSec. So I'm bewildered by the way so many of them are running around now saying there's nothing to worry about.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2005 11:22 AM

Well, for one thing, a major fix (including a substantial tax increase) was done during the Reagan Administration. So it's not paradoxical that some people became less worried than they had been.

There's one group that has been consistently angry ever since SS was first instituted in the 30's, and they seem to have succeeded in passing on their ideas. The Buckley family has always felt about the same.

Brad DeLong is actually pro-personal-accounts, but he doesn't trust anything Bush does, and rightly so. DeLong was one of the people who helped Clinton triangulate against the Democrats, and based on his whole life history can hardly be called a partisan fanatic. Krugman likewise.

The Republican Party is under the control of it's right wing core and the Bush machine, and many of the moderate Democrats who used to like to reach across the aisle are going nuts. People (e.g. Zell Miller) talk as if the Democrats have moved left, but that isn't the story.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 22, 2005 12:52 PM


As I recall, a Ponzi scheme is one that pretends to be an investment vehicle, but only uses the capital injected by later investors to pay off earlier investors, usually at unrealistically high rates. Car insurance and life insurance both, so far as they are legitimate, represent themselves and actually do involve real life investing of money, and they don't unrealistically over-pay anybody with the goal of recruiting more suckers.

Social Security, however, while perhaps not deliberately trying to deceive, works just like a Ponzi scheme--'excessive' payouts to earlier generation beneficiaries (who had paid nothing in over their lifetimes) which are funded by later generation 'investors.' Ooops, wait a minute, I forgot...there was some deliberate misinformation about Social Security. An idealistic young Democrat, his name escapes my aging memory, wrote that he reproached Roosevelt for selling SS as if it were a pension scheme, when in point it was just a transfer payment. Roosevelt replied that he did that so people would think they were just getting their own money back, and, suitably deceived, they wouldn't allow the Republicans to take it away from them. Ahhh, the joys of politics.

As for your 'fiat currency' guys, they are correct that since the government can spirit up legal tender at will, it will never go bankrupt. However, since the transfers involved in something like social security involve the provision of real goods and services...NOT JUST FIAT CURRENCY...the cost of spiriting up too much legal tender is called inflation (which your 'fiat currency' guys dance around.) And inflation causes all sorts of other follow-on effects, none of them good (unless you're an overextended real estate developer.) So while bankruptcy is not 'technically' possible the issue with paying for Social Security is, at a minimum, highly analogous.

Now, they are correct to suggest that since retirees will have to be supplied with real-world goods and services (produced around or at the time of consumption) the best way to deal with the burden of oldsters is to maximize the size of the real economy. Mssrs. Fiat-Currency seem to think this is best done by maintaining full employment. This might, actually, be true or it might not, although it is a point I think they should have proved rather than simply assumed. One argument for private retirement accounts is that they could be used to increase the capital stocks of society, which generally has a positive impact on productivity and thus encourages the growth of real productive capacity. But as I said way, way, above, if people are too freaked out by private accounts, what the heck, we can live without 'em.

Medicare and Medicaid, on the other hand, need to serious rethought.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 22, 2005 5:13 PM


Democrats are worried about social security, republicans are worried about social security too, the fact is that the current plans to "fix" social security are not well plans to fix social security from its CURRENT problems at all...

just because someone says they want to fix something means that they can do it. And given this administrations administration of domestic and foreign policy, would one trust them with it?

so given these views if the option is their 'fix' or obstruction...

anyways as radical reform, privatizing social security does have inherant benefits IF implemented correctly (do i think they can do it without giving away BOATLOADS of sweetheart deals? no.) but they do nothing for the actual problem, which is too much benefits for too many old people, and too few workers to support them.

what will fix that? cutting or stalling benefits hikes, and/ or raising taxes.

As I see it the privatization plan is a backdoor strategy to get the above passed... they can't come out and say it, but that's what it comes down to.

and Friedrich (sp it's late) all i can come up with for the solution to the healthcare guzzling senior problem is to get some right to die/ euthanasia acts passed. You say last 2-3 years, i've even heard figures that the last 3 months are the most costly part of healthcare...

I mean what are you gonna do with all the old people round em up at 75 and ship em somewhere? or I assume, just stop paying for their medecine?

Posted by: azad on February 24, 2005 3:23 AM

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