Mojo - March 2005

The coming denominational storm

| Thu Mar. 24, 2005 2:40 PM EST

There's an interesting little article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times today on how the Terry Schiavo affair has joined conservative Catholics and evangelicals in a common cause:

The struggle is only the latest indication of a strengthening religious alliance between denominations that were once bitterly divided. Evangelical leaders say they frequently lean on Catholic intellectuals like Robert George at Princeton University and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, to help them frame political issues theologically.

Read the whole piece, and Goodstein notices an important trend. The days of inter-denominational disputes, at least among conservatives, are very much a thing of the past. As Goodstein reports, the alliances here were forged in the smithy of the "culture wars" over abortion, gay rights, sex, and smut. But left unmentioned in the article is the flip side to all of this: namely, the extent to which these culture war issues are creating fault lines across and within denominations.

Essentially, over the past few decades, religious conservatives of all stripes—Baptists, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans—have begun aligning with each other to spar with their more moderate or progressive co-religionists. A few years ago, for instance, the Jewish Reform movement decided to recognize gay partnerships, earning the wrath of their more Orthodox fellow rabbis. Churches regularly have inter-congregational disputes over these matters, as seen in the Episcopal rift over gay bishops last spring. And Noam Scheiber reported last year for the New Republic on George W. Bush's curious alliance with the Orthodox Jewish community.

Coming back to the Terry Schiavo case, no doubt there is a wide, wide swath of moderate and progressive Catholics and evangelicals among that vast majority of Americans who oppose this whole "culture of life" nonsense. And that split among religious Americans, it seems, could widen in the coming years. Right now, of course, conservative ire is focused on those pesky activist judges and all those godless liberals who supposedly "want" Terry Schiavo dead. But this isn't a secular-religious split; rather, it's a split between religious conservatives of all faiths and everyone else. As usual, the culture wars are not what they seem.

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Due process lives!

| Wed Mar. 23, 2005 7:22 PM EST

Looks like we were wrong all along: The Bush administration is, in fact, promising a trial for all terror suspects. The Department of Homeland Security's FEMA website for children explains: "Terrorism is the use of force or violence against people or property to create fear and to get publicity for political causes. Terrorists are criminals and when they are caught they are put on trial." And there you have it.

Where are the economists?

Wed Mar. 23, 2005 7:14 PM EST

This past Monday, Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, John Taylor, announced his resignation. This appears to be part of a larger trend of administration economists quietly heading back to academia or the private sector. Take a brief look at the Treasury's website and you'll find a large number of key positions either vacant or filled with "acting appointees." With real economists resigning en masse, it looks like President Bush may need to look to his buddies to fill the posts.

That might explain President Bush's new choice for trade representative, former Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH). Portman can be expected to sell the administration's trade agenda much as Secretary of Treasury John Snow focuses on pitching Bush's privatization plan for Social Security. Portman, however, hasn't actually worked on international economic issues in over twelve years. As he told reporters: "I got involved in a lot of issues in Congress, so I haven't been able to focus as much on trade." Perhaps the only people President Bush can put in these positions are cheerleaders; it seems that very few economists are keen on wrestling wrestle economic logic out of the Bush administration's reforms.

This week, the Economist pointed out the weakness of President Bush's economic team:

There are two growing suspicions about Mr. Bush's approach to economic policy. The first is that he sees it mainly as a question of salesmanship. Showing an admirable faith in markets, the president seems to think that economic policy will basically run itself; what you need it a bit of pizzazz to sell the president's reforms. The second suspicion is that loyalty is more important than knowledge.

Sad, but increasingly true. It is unclear how long the Treasury will be able to "run itself." While the Bush administration pretends to have a plan to halve the deficit, there is still no deputy assistant secretary for federal finance. Debt relief for developing countries could prove a challenge without an Executive Director of the World Bank in place. Pushing through tax reform might also be difficult given that there hasn't been an Assistant Secretary of Tax Policy all year. Let's hope that at least a handful of these positions will be filled with real prescriptive economists rather than Bush policy cheerleaders. Otherwise, we could be in for a world of trouble.

It's the workplace safety, stupid!

| Wed Mar. 23, 2005 4:19 PM EST

Matt Yglesias is doing yeoman's work on the 2005 Social Security report over at TAPPED today. Go read everything, though I want to highlight real quick this post, where he finds the Trustees' projecting that men will work less in the future. The report explains this assumption by arguing, in part, that fewer men will get married—and hey, maybe unmarried men are lazier after all—but also because of "higher assumed disability prevalence rates."

Well crikey. This is yet another trend that, if true, can very easily be ameliorated by better policies. It's no secret that the Bush administration has gutted workplace safety protections over the past four years. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that in 2003 there were 4,365,200 non fatal injuries and illnesses in the United States. Disability insurance covers the severest of these injuries, and that money comes out of the Social Security Trust Fund (that's what the "DI" stands for in OASDI, after all). And a good number of those injuries and illnesses could have been prevented by better workplace protections. Hopefully it's obvious where I'm going with this...

Painless fixes for Social Security

| Wed Mar. 23, 2005 3:49 PM EST

Via Atrios, the Social Security Trustees' report lets us know how we can easily correct the 75-year slight shortfall, so that the program can continue paying full benefits:

Assuming the Trustees' intermediate assumptions are realized, the deficit of 1.92 percent of payroll indicates that financial adequacy of the program for the next 75 years could be restored if the Social Security payroll tax were immediately and permanently increased from its current level of 12.4 percent (combined employee-employer shares) to 14.32 percent.

Put this in people terms. Assuming we hiked taxes to that level, a young person making $30,000 today would have to pay an extra $288 a year, and his or her employer an extra $288. That's a bit of a chafe, and many would prefer not to lose that money to taxes (count me as one), but it's hardly the sort of thing that cripples an entire economy. Indeed, odds are Congress wouldn't even need to hike taxes by that much. For starters, there's good reason to think that Social Security's 75-year outlook is less bleak than the report thinks. Moreover, we could fix the slight imbalance through a combination of tax hikes and progressive benefit cuts for high-earners. Or we could decide not to raise the tax rate but instead levy payroll taxes on income above $90,000. Or we could boost immigration to improve the system's fiscal health. So in the end, maybe that young person would have to pay an extra $200, or $100, or less, to keep Grandma from eating garbage. Some catastrophe.

Keep all that in mind when the president gets on TV and starts talking about a looming "crisis" that magically requires Congress to privatize the entire system, rocket up the federal debt, slash benefits by up to 40 percent, and leave all retirees at the mercy of the stock market.

The bigger picture...

| Wed Mar. 23, 2005 2:57 PM EST

Social Security, as we know, is not in a crisis. In fact, its already-health long-term outlook has improved with the 2005 Trustees' Report. Nevertheless, over the next few weeks, media talking heads and the president will no doubt start chattering away over slight shortfalls in the program's funding 40 years from now.

Never mind the fact that even if these shortfalls do appear in 2041 (or, better yet, in 2052, which is what the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicted), the program can still pay 74 percent of promised benefits—benefits that are higher in real terms than those paid out today, and benefits that will likely be higher than anything workers can gain under privatization. (Especially when you factor in the fact that we'll all have to pay higher income taxes thanks to those multi-trillion dollar transition costs!)

But set that aside for a second and look at the bigger picture. We're all obsessing over a slight shortfall—a mere 1.37 percent of GDP—four decades from now. Meanwhile, do admire the trunk, ears, and massive girth of the elephant honking around the room: namely, the massive budget deficits we're running right this very second. Those deficits are 2.6 percent of GDP now, and will amount to a whopping 10.70 percent of GDP in 2042. The primary cause of these deficits, meanwhile, are the Bush tax cuts. And the primary reason that these deficits will accelerate so spectacularly over the next 40 years have little to do with Social Security and almost everything to do with rising health care costs and interest payments on a debt that the current Bush administration refuses to tackle. Max Sawicky has the wonky details here. Bottom line, there's a crisis going on this very instant, and we'd all do well to keep our eyes on it.

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The graphic says it all!

| Wed Mar. 23, 2005 1:52 PM EST

Since, alas, I haven't yet figured out how to put graphics on this blog, I want everyone to go take a look at this very important chart here. Whatever else is said and done, Social Security's long-term outlook has actually improved this year--as the report itself says, "After 2030, however, the annual balances [for Social Security] in this year's report are larger." Now everyone's going to focus on the fact that the date the Trust Fund supposedly runs out has been moved back a year, but that's a rather meaningless figure. The more important fact is that the outlook for Social Security is healthier in 2005 than it was in 2004, even with some of the more pessimistic assumptions used this year.

The big assumptions....

| Wed Mar. 23, 2005 1:38 PM EST

Looking over the 2005 Trustees' report on Social Security, the new "pessimistic" projections—which bring the date of imbalance one year nearer—seem to depend on four small assumptions that have changed since last year, as the report explains on this page. The assumptions:

  • Young people are going to be making less money in the future than was predicted by last years' report.

  • Americans aged 65 through 69 are going to die less frequently.
  • Both teenagers and older workers are going to work less.
  • More inflation in the near-term future.
  • Now all of these assumptions seem to be grounded in solid historical data, but like all assumptions and projections, they're prone to a good deal of uncertainty. They're also, except for the death rates of Americans aged 65 to 69, mostly amenable to policy solutions. Is higher inflation in the future, for instance, a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. Is low labor force participation among teenagers? Why not figure out ways to boost employment among the young? It's easier said than done, but still.

    Meanwhile, the Trustees' report decided not to change assumptions about immigration rates, even though those rates have increased in recent years, and there's every reason to think they'll continue to increase in the future if we set sensible policies. The Trustees, however, think immigration rates will decline. Now perhaps they assume that the xenophobic wing of the GOP—like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO)—will one day rule the country and shut our borders, but that's no way to calculate long-range actuarial balance. Same with fertility rates; many think the Trustees' projections on this front are too pessimistic. Maybe, but it's also worth noting that there's certainly the option of instituting pro-natalist policies that encourage people to have kids (subsidized child care, perhaps?). The government of the United States of America isn't helpless here.

    The Trustees' Report

    | Wed Mar. 23, 2005 1:06 PM EST

    As I write this, the new Trustees' report on Social Security is being released. Early reports indicate "bad" news: namely, the year that the program starts paying out more in revenue than it receives in taxes has moved back from 2018 to 2017. Uh oh! Meanwhile, the year the Trust Fund is predicted to be exhausted, and hence when the program goes slightly—slightly—out of balance, has moved back from 2042 to 2041. Egad! Okay, so there's still no crisis, though the Trustees' are quite obviously trying to show that the system is getting sicker and sicker.

    On the face of it, however, these new numbers seem quite ridiculous; we've had healthier than expected economic growth over the past year, so why would the Trustees now become more pessimistic than they were last year? Hm? These new projections couldn't have anything to do with the fact that five of the six Trustees' are pro-privatization hacks who might find it in their interest to perpetuate all this "crisis"-mongering, no? Oh surely not.

    At any rate, read Matthew Yglesias' TAPPED post on this subject, laying out a lot of the issues here. The main point is that it's absurd to try to predict crisis and doom 75 years into the future. But more on this in a bit...

    Mercury fallacies revisited

    Wed Mar. 23, 2005 10:44 AM EST

    Gregg Easterbrook, writing in The New Republic Online yesterday, does a fine job of summarizing many of the fallacies underlying support for the EPA's new mercury reduction plan – although he doesn't appear to view them as such.

    Yesterday I noted how a high school in Washington D.C., was closed for more than a week simply because a few drops of mercury were found in a hallway. Mercury mania has also gone national, mainly over fears of mercury in the exhaust of coal-fired power plants. Mercury is a poison and a neurotoxin so having it in the air can't be good – although there would be some mercury in the air regardless of industry, since about a third of all airborne mercury occurs naturally.

    Okay, maybe the public hysteria over mercury is perhaps a tad over the top, but Mr. Easterbrook wastes no time jumping into fallacy #1. As I explained in a previous Mother Jones blog post, nearly all of the naturally occurring mercury in the air is non-reactive and harmless by itself to human health. This is not even disputed any more.