Archive for October, 2011

Foreigners Have a Different Name for Your Town

21 October 2011

You’ve heard of Calcutta, right? What about Kolkata? It’s the same place, pretty much the same name, but spelled differently. Indians didn’t think “Calcutta” was a cool name, so they changed it. “Calcutta” was what the British Empire called the city, and the masses of actual Indians who live around there want to assert their ownership by giving it a home-grown name.

I can understand that. The thing is, I don’t have any problem with the name “Calcutta”. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a British rendition. The British did invent English, and that’s the language I know best, so I’ll go with their choice. It’s not a political decision, just a natural linguistic leaning. Anyway, we’ve been calling it “Calcutta” around here for a long time now, and I’m going to keep calling it that. If you know what I mean when I say “Calcutta”, then the name works fine. If you know what I mean but you also think I’m wrong not to call it “Kolkata”, then that’s your problem.

Likewise, “Bombay” is a good enough name for what Indians now call “Mumbai”, and “Peking” was a good enough name for “Beijing”. Why should I let China tell me what to call their city when I’m speaking English to Americans, and we all have been saying it our way all our lives? When I learn Chinese, then I’ll listen to what Chinese people tell me about pronunciation.

No one ever tries to get English speakers to call Vienna “Wien”, and, Olympics aside, we don’t feel the need to call Turin “Torino”.

I do think BBC newsreaders sound funny when they say “Mary-land” for the state we call “merrilind”.

The Trust Fund Is Real, and It Can Deliver

19 October 2011

When anyone tells Social Security doomsayers that the baby boomers are provided for by the Social Security Trust Fund, they tend to say that the trust fund is not real, that it is an accounting gimmick, that it doesn’t matter because the United States government still has to come up all that money it needs to pay the trust fund back, which is gong to be, like, impossible. Therefore, disaster looms.

The doomsayers have it wrong. These claims don’t hold up to scrutiny.

The trust fund is real, because it exists by law and the trustees of the Social Security system by law have the authority to redeem the Treasury obligations in the trust fund whenever they need to.

But when the Treasury needs to pay off those obligations so that baby room retirees can get their benefits, won’t that put an insupportable burden on the taxpayers? No. There will be a considerable burden, but it won’t be of any larger scale than several other major spending needs and debt repayments.

The total debt of the US Treasury at the present is 15 trillion dollars, and 2.5 trillion of that is owed to Social Security. So Social Security is a big chunk of debt but still only one sixth of the total.

To recap, then, is there money set aside to pay benefits to retiring baby boomers? Yes. Is it reasonable to believe that the government can deliver that money when it is needed? Yes.

For a later post, I’ll cover the issue of whether Social Security revenues, backed up by the trust fund, are really going to be enough to pay retirees for the foreseeable future. But the trust fund is there and will be needed, along with continued payroll tax contributions from working Americans.

The Only Good Deviant Is a Jailed Deviant?

15 October 2011

This bishop behaved decently, but of course he must be punished for not throwing one of his priests to the wolves fast enough. (Here‘s a guy who seems to know all the answers.)

I hope no one reading this has had a close friend or family member attempt suicide. But if you can imagine having the responsibility to try to help a person who seems inexorably drawn to self-destructive behavior, you might also imagine that you would hesitate to rat that person out to police if you found out he had child pornography on his computer, especially if the guy had attempted suicide within hours of that devastating discovery.

The question isn’t whether the Catholic Church has a great track record in dealing with pedophilia, it’s whether we as a society have the capacity both to protect children and to provide counsel and rehabilitation to people with abnormal sexual desires. It’s not obvious that we are prepared to temper justice with compassion in cases of nonviolent sexual offenders. I hope we are, but I don’t know.

If I were the bishop, I wouldn’t have turned this priest in to civil authorities until it was clear he couldn’t keep out of temptation’s way. I might have thought sending him to a convent was a good start. Instead, Missouri might very well send him to prison, for taking weird photos for his own viewing. Maybe that won’t be necessary, and there will be a just resolution that isn’t vindictive. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

Social Security Taxes Pay for Social Security

12 October 2011

Social Security taxes pay for Social Security. Now, I can’t say, “It’s just that simple,” because there are a few fine points. A lot of people don’t know about the fine points, or they have wrong ideas about what the fine points are. Let me run a couple by you:

1. Social Security taxes are a stream of money from workers’ earnings into the U.S. Treasury. Social Security benefits are a stream of money from the U.S. Treasury to retired workers, disabled workers, and to spouses and to children of retired, disabled, or deceased workers. The stream of money in, over the long term, should balance the stream of money out. Whether they are balanced or not depends on detailed analysis that is beyond the ken of most of us. That doesn’t mean a workable balance can’t be achieved. It just means our government has to employ some nerdy financial types to collect information and crunch numbers, and we have to apply their knowledge in structuring the taxes and benefits.

2. Keeping Social Security money flows balanced for the long term entails dealing with the baby boom, which swelled the work force for several decades and now will swell the retired population for the next couple decades. For the last 30 years, the way we approached this has been to set Social Security tax rates high enough that Social Security would pile up enough extra money while the baby boomers were working to be able to pay them their benefits when they retired.

I will have further points in later posts, but these two points are a good start. Both 1. and 2. are real governing principles of Social Security, and they are good principles. However, the latest information from the Social Security trustees is that the tax and benefit schedules aren’t quite balanced for the long term, so if we are to follow those principles, some adjustments are called for.

The rest of the federal budget, unfortunately, is a lot further out of whack. We need to keep focused on fixing the general budget, and we ought to get going on that before we touch a hair on Social Security’s old gray head.