Actually, two things are official.
1. I have been notified by the President of SCSU that I was awarded tenure. (This happened a few weeks ago.)
2. My slow transformation into a grumpy old man has finally become complete. (This one happened today.)
First a little about the former. I haven’t been blogging much as of late — I was a bit shocked to see that my last post was back in May. I didn’t write much in Fall 2010 because I was preparing my tenure file, and cramming to finish up one last publication to make my tenure file stronger, so I just had no time. I didn’t write much in Spring 2011 because my tenure packet was out in the hands of the people who decide on these things. I’ve heard too many horror stories of people being denied tenure for political reasons, and the President of SCSU has very strong opinions, so I didn’t want to take any chances. That’s not to say I really worried that President Potter might call an audible on my tenure, given that I had the support of my department, chair and dean, but I didn’t want to risk it. As Treasurer of the Faculty Association, I get to attend the Meet and Confer meetings with my Executive Committee colleagues. I’ve seen Potter in action. He is a man of few words, but when he feels strongly about something, he has a way of making it very clear, and you really don’t want to be on the opposite side of him. I thought it best to let things cool for a while until the letter is in hand. Also, Spring 2011 was my most difficult semester teaching to date. I had six classes, four of which were upper division, including the senior research seminar, which involves supervising a dozen different research projects. Even if I had had the inclination to blog, I didn’t have the time.
Now summer’s here and I’ve got some more time on my hands, so I’m hoping to get back in the swing of things. The time off made me think about what I want to accomplish with this blog. I wasn’t really sure what I intended when I started, but after a few years, it’s clear what I believe my main focus has been: calling out politicians who are either misinformed or dishonest about economic issues. On that note, we’ll get to how I have become a grumpy old man. No, I’m not yelling at kids to stay off my lawn (although I have glared at a few in the last year). It’s the yelling at the television that is now apparently completely beyond my control.
I watch every Sunday news show religiously, usually while washing dishes or cleaning up the house. Occasionally, my girlfriend Sam will hear me yelling a rebuttal from the other room. Something along the lines of “The bill doesn’t even say that!” or “Sure, you were against the debt ceiling when it was a Republican, but now that it’s a Democrat it’s just fine!” Usually it’s because I’m annoyed, but last week I got angry.
Representative Xavier Beccera (D-CA) was on Fox News Sunday last week talking about our fiscal situation. Only, he doesn’t seem willing to do much other than tax people to fix it. When asked about one effective measure to slow the growth of Social Security spending, using a chain-weighted price index instead of the fixed basket Consumer Price Index (CPI) to adjust benefits, he said this:
“A chained CPI chains seniors to lower benefits. It’s unfair to them because they worked for those Social Security benefits.” It’s a great play on the word “chain,” I’ll admit, and it’s a good sound bite, but it actually gives them lower growth in benefits. There’s a difference. Why do benefits increase from year to year for retirees? To compensate for inflation. Economists can show that chain-weighted price indexes more accurately compensate people for inflation. Beccera also said that, unlike you and me substituting a cheap car for an expensive car, “seniors can’t decide to substitute for health care” if health care costs rise. Wait, I thought Obamacare was supposed to bring down health care costs anyway. Why is he even worried about health care costs rising? Finally, Beccera said we need to “strengthen Social Security and Medicare,” even though he voted for Obama’s health care reform which cut money from Medicare. Hmm.I guess “Strengthen” means raise taxes.
It’s pretty clear to me that Rep. Beccera really has no idea what a chain-weighted price index is. I wouldn’t really blame him — it’s kind of hard to explain. I don’t even teach it in principles courses, but I do point out the issue with the CPI. A fixed price index like the CPI will overstate the impact of price changes on one’s well being because it assumes you buy the same amount of goods every year, when in fact you’ll substitute chicken for beef if beef prices rise more than chicken prices do. So when you get an inflation adjustment that compensates you for the increase in beef prices, you actually get too much money. Economists estimate that this kind of fixed price index overstates inflation rates by over 1% a year. Doesn’t seem like much, but when that’s compounded over decades, it makes a huge difference. Back when Social Security was first started, the amount of money the average recipient received was a pittance. There was simply no way you could live on it. Now you actually could live on it if you owned your home and car and didn’t have too many health problems. It’s gone from being a small amount of money that can be used for a stopgap to something that people expect will actually support them, and that’s partly because of the problem with the inflation adjustment. In fact, a story today reports that over 60% of seniors rely on Social Security for more than half of their retirement income. That’s not what the system was intended to do, and it’s grown so much largely because of the artificially high inflation adjustment.
Back in 2009, there was no inflation, but President Obama wanted to give Social Security recipients an extra $250 anyway because they’re used to getting an increase. That the annual Social Security increase is designed to compensate for inflation, which didn’t happen that year, is irrelevant. He said it would be yet another stimulus. Whether it was for inflation or just free money didn’t matter to him. Either way, it was more money for people to spend and, to quote Obama, “What do you think a stimulus is?” (By that I mean, according to our President, it doesn’t really matter how you spend the money or why you spend the money, only that you spend the money.) But the plan was stalled. It’s still in his 2011 budget and he’s still hoping to get it in there, retroactive to 2009. At this point, almost two years later, do we really need to give people an extra $250 to compensate them for inflation that didn’t happen? I think not.
So yeah, I yelled at the screen when Rep. Beccera was on. Then I watched it again and yelled again. He just wants to spend money. No cut to Social Security would be a good cut. Not even one that accurately adjusted benefits for the true impacts of inflation for a system that is going to be in jeopardy in a decade. President Obama said this week he would be willing to subject Social Security payments to “means testing,” which means that if you have the income to support yourself, you won’t get your full Social Security benefits. That will definitely save some money, although I’m against it on the notion of fairness. Remember that line that Rep. Beccera through out there: “It’s unfair to them because they worked for those Social Security benefits.” Poor and rich alike work for those, so it’s not fair in my book to use Social Security as yet another form of income redistribution.
This morning, on a few of the Sunday news programs, I saw a new AARP commercial. A kind old man comes on and says that some people in Washington are talking about cutting his benefits, and that old people need to band together and tell them to look at inefficiencies and waste instead of cutting Social Security spending. I wanted to yell at him but he seemed like such a nice man that I couldn’t do it. But here’s what I would have yelled.
“Nobody’s talking about reducing your benefits! Every plan out there says it wouldn’t touch anything for anyone over 50, and you have to be 50 to get into the AARP, so AARP members will not be affected at all! Quit fearmongering!”
Why am I so angry these days? Why is everyone so angry these days? This is the most polarized I’ve ever seen American politics. We have a August 2 debt deadline staring us in the face and there isn’t a single bill that can pass right now because nobody on either side is willing to give. Everyone is so dug into their positions that they can’t compromise. Why?
I think part of it is that the debt, the recession, the economy’s pathetic recovery, health care reform (I’ve been told it’s racist to call it Obamacare too much. I kid you not.) — all of these things have brought to the forefront a stark clash of visions for this country. The Democrats want business as usual, with some tax increases on the rich to pay for it. Some deny Social Security is even in jeopardy. I wonder how they would explain how the system will deal with the number of workers to retirees falling from previous levels of 20:1, then 10:1, now closer to 3:1, and eventually below 2:1. The math just doesn’t add up, especially when the federal government already owes trillions into the Social Security trust fund and life spans keep increasing. It’s pretty simple: either taxes have to go up or benefits have to go down. People are living longer and getting more out of the system, so it should only be fair to make them contribute more (either by pushing back the retirement date or raising taxes), but everyone’s so scared to do what’s necessary that it doesn’t get done. It reminds me of a young Annakin Skywalker thinking that with all the problems the Galactic Senate had governing, maybe it would just be better if one person told everyone else what to do. That worked out fine, right?
What we have here is a clash of political philosophies about the future, and that’s why people are so dug in and polarized. I understand that Republicans don’t want tax increases, but at some point we have to pay off this deficit. Personally, I don’t want tax increases either. But I also don’t want runaway debt, which is where we’re headed. Even in the $4 trillion debt reduction plan that Obama talked about last week, our debt would still increase by $10 trillion in the next decade. How many more times are we going to have to raise the debt ceiling?
But it’s one thing to increase taxes to pay off our debts — that’s what our country has typically done after major wars but is afraid to do now because of the slow economy. It’s quite another thing to increase taxes just so we can spend more. On a blog, I once read a Democrat respond to being called a “tax and spend” liberal by saying that “tax and spend” is a pointless criticism because the job of government is to tax and spend. It’s what government does, so how can you be upset when it does more of its job? (My job is to teach, but that doesn’t mean I do my job best when I lecture as fast as I possibly can for the entire period.)
The question I leave you with is this: what is the role of government? Democrats often argue that if we raise taxes, we’ll collect more revenues. Republicans, never seeing a tax cut they didn’t like, argue the opposite: lower tax rates cause higher growth and therefore more tax revenues. But they’re both just arguing about two different ways to do the same thing: increase revenues. Is it the government’s job to maximize the amount of tax revenues it can collect? Should government be as big as it can possibly be? To collect as much as it possibly can so that it can spend as much as it can? The authors of our Constitution would answer a resounding no to that questions. I just hope you’ll think about it. You have to think about how big you want government to be before you can start talking about taxing and spending.
The last question thrown at President Obama in his press conference this week revealed a lot to me. He said that we need to raise the debt limit and get a deficit reduction plan in place so that we can stabilize our economy. Sounds great, right? But why do we need to do this? According to the President, it’s so that we can spend more. He wants to get our debt down so that we can spend more…
And that, my friends, is why I yell at the television.
If you made it all the way through this post, I thank you. I had a few months of stuff to get off my chest. Sorry if I rambled a bit. I’ll try to tighten it up more next time, which I hope will be in the very near future.