Politics

The Ownership Society


"A Guided Tour of the 'Ownership Society'"
-- Michael Kinsley in The Los Angeles Times, 9/5/04:

At the moment, we are a Debtorship Society. The government is spending far more than it is bringing in. And even so, our commitments, primarily to supply pensions and healthcare to the elderly, exceed the amounts we are putting aside to pay for them. Then there's the rhetorical commitment of all politicians to do something about the nearly 45 million Americans with no health insurance.

Bush proposes "ownership" as a cure for debtorship. As a general concept, it's fine: Assets are empowering, people spend their own money more carefully than other people's, and market forces promote efficiency. But how does all this apply to the specific problems we face?

Taxes. Our complex tax system is costly in itself and messes up the economy with perverse incentives. Bush says he wants to simplify taxes, and everyone likes tax simplification in the abstract. But people also like deductions. Bush has already promised to protect charity and home mortgage interest deductions. And, he wants to introduce new deductions for healthcare savings accounts and whatnot.

Any change in the tax system that raises the same amount of money means higher taxes for some and lower taxes for others. Are you still for tax simplification if it means higher taxes for you? Bush will probably try to hide this effect by combining simplification with a tax cut. But these are different issues. You can have a tax cut with or without simplification. Are you still for simplification if it makes your tax cut smaller?

Healthcare. This is one area where the ideas grouped under the label "ownership society" hold some real promise. There are vast inefficiencies in the current healthcare system and vast potential for improvement by using market forces -- putting the money in people's hands and letting them make more of the decisions is one way to do this.

However, no one seriously believes that improving the efficiency of healthcare delivery will be enough to pay for our healthcare commitments and goals. There are important limits on market forces in healthcare. You're not going to price-shop for a brain surgeon or negotiate for a visit to an emergency room. There's also a basic conflict between the "ownership society" notion that people should shoulder more of their own risks and the basic idea of insurance, which is to protect you from risks. The more that market forces are built into healthcare, the more people will not have access to the healthcare they need. The more you protect people from that, the harder it is to create market incentives.

Social Security. Here, the "ownership society" solution is a simple mathematical fraud. The concept: Government lets you keep some portion of the taxes you now pay into the Social Security trust fund, you invest those dollars and end up with more than you would have in the form of government benefits, and then (the rarely mentioned third step) your Social Security benefits are cut because you're doing so well. Basically, the idea is that profits on private investments will close the gap between projected Social Security revenues and payments.

The problem is this: The money in the Social Security trust fund is invested in government bonds. This money helps to finance the deficit. Every dollar of Social Security tax revenue that gets siphoned away to private retirement accounts would require the government to borrow one more dollar from the private sector in some other way. Of course, the government could also spend less, but (as with tax simplification) it could also just spend less and not bother with Social Security privatization. Privatization by itself doesn't add to the total pool of capital in the economy or reduce the amount claimed by the government.

Election

Electoral-vote.com tallies state-level polls as they are released and maps them. You can move through the reports and watch states turn pink and baby blue. The New York Times 2004 Election Guide is an interactive map of the presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial races. Pleasure Boat Captains for Truth. The presidential election at pollingreport.com. Systematic Bias by Polling Organisation, as measured at goringe.net. Electoral College Meta-Analysis by Sam Wang. A manipulable electoral college map. Larry Sabato’s election website. Stephen Lorimor’s election website. Dale’s Electoral College Breakdown 2004.

Bush’s “hometown” newspaper endorses Kerry. Re: elections, Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem on Wikipedia. Electionmethods.org. Republicans know less about what Bush stands for than Democrats know about what Kerry stands for. More electoral college forecasts: Pollkatz’s Electoral Landscape, RealClear Politics, and
Rasmussen Reports’s Red Blue Chart. A BBC international presidential preference poll. The Election Incident Reporting System’s map of nationwide election incidents.

Texts

Craig Calhoun, “The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travelers: Toward a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism” (2002). C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (1959). Lion Kimbrough, How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think (2003). A treasury of Tom Swift texts. An infinity of George W. Bush speeches. NASA’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Christian Bök’s Eunoia. The 2004 Bulwer-Lytton Awards. Seymour Hersh’s address to the ACLU (July 8, 2004) on the unfolding story of American war crimes. People write exactly one hundred words a day and leave them at a website. Discussions among testy copyeditors. An outline of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A scientific method FAQ. The 1,000 Journals Project. A chronology of the secretarial profession. US Presidents’ inaugural addresses and state of the union messages from George Washington to the present. Online books at Project Gutenberg and Bartleby.com. 100 top American speeches, most with links to .mp3 audio versions. Online book directories: The Online Books Page at The University of Pennsylvania, links to collections and archives at the University of Adelaide, and a collection of links at The British Columbia Digital Library.

Endeavors

Watch a baseball game. Cy Brown’s hole. Make silver nitrate without dying. Bush/Zombie Reagan in 2004. Three articles about cooking pizza for Kim Jong-il (1) (2) (3). Kevin and Dave visited a decommissioned nuclear missile silo for you. Patrick Combs deposits a junk mail check. Jeannine deals with her Chiari 1 malformation. A visual catalog of the McClintock household. Rebecca Caldwell’s carthedral. Spiderman reviews crayons. NASA’s Mars Rover home page. An explanation of cricket. An effort to find a lost frog. A traveling Gorn. A campaign against lip balm. Job hunting: JobStar Job Search Guide. Interviewing: The twenty-five most difficult questions you’ll ask or answer. Resumes: advice from Texas A&M University, Colorado State University, and The Rockport Institute. Communicating with budgies. Kid of Speed documents The Serpent’s Wall. “Right now, 30 percent of all hermit crabs on our shorelines are living in shells that are too small for them”: an effort to help. Heart ‘n Soul, a music theater group for young people with learning disabilities. Projects at spurse.org.

Texts

The US Constitution, heavily annotated, at the University of Chicago Press. A collection of historical anarchist texts. Patrick O’Brian sites: The Gunroom and Maturin’s Medicine. A lace of hyperlinked words at Blather. Bluebook, a legal citation stylesheet. Worldofquotes.com. Garret Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor” (1974). “With his blue ox, Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman traveled across young America and helped the nation grow into the angry powerhouse it is today.” Wikipedia.

War

Faces of the Fallen: dead American soldiers. Coalition casualty report at cnn.com. Another at lunaville.org. Costofwar.com. Peter Bergen on Laurie Mylroie’s influence on the decision to go to war. The Guardian’s Iraq timeline: 7/16/1979 to 1/31/2004 and 2/1/2004 to the present. Empire Notes weblog. More Iraq weblogs: Baghdad Burning, Back to Iraq, Salaam Pax and Raed, Juan Cole, Healing Iraq, and Kevin Sites. See also Sistani.org. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s Iraqi Press Monitor. See also The Iraq Blog Count.

Nutrition

How to make Japanese dumplings in 128 steps. Tomatillos. How to grow twenty-six herbs. Onions. The Cheese Diaries. Frost Street, “The culinary adventures of a New York City lawyer,” and The Food Section (also NYC-oriented). Chowhound messages for Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs. Robert Sietsema reviews in the Village Voice. More food weblogs: Noodle Pie, Too Many Chefs, Chocolate and Zucchini, and I Was Just Really Very Hungry. What’s in Rebecca’s Kitchen? The World’s Healthiest Foods.