Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Social Security Con Game

Some critics of Social Security have used the analogy of likening it to a Ponzi scheme.  This is as incorrect as the belief that you are getting back from SocSec what you paid in.  Oh, wait, people - especially older people - do believe they are collecting some kind of pension from 'contributions' [yes, the SSA does call them that] to some 'account' [you do have a SS number, right?] that has been held in trust [ah, behold the magic of the Trust Fund] for them.  If you believe the basic (and invalid) premise that you are collecting on what you put in, then SocSec is a LOT like a Ponzi scheme.  Because current payees are not getting back what they put in (plus interest) - they are getting benefits paid out of the 'contributions' of current workers current wages.

SocSec recipients generally do not like the idea that they are actually recipients of an income transfer from current workers.  This was the great lie used to sell America on SocSec - that it was a pension or insurance, and you don't need some right-wing crank to tell you this, you can get it from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones,
It's easy enough to see why people believe this: it was, basically, the way the program was initially sold. And politicians ever since have found it convenient to continue this fiction. Seniors today are all convinced that the money they paid into the program during their working years was somehow saved up for them and now they're getting it back.
So what harm does this little fiction cause?  First off, it ensures that recipients believe they have a reasonable and valid claim to benefits - after all, isn't it what they put in?  It isn't of course, but rarely will any conservator of FDR's legacy ever admit that - because it undermines the popular support for collecting the benefit.  Who really wants to face up to the fact that they are living off someone elses money?

Then things get even more interesting, when progressives defend SocSec despite the incredibly regressive structure - paying benefits to middle and upper income retirees on the backs of poor to middle class workers.  Any discussion of modifying SocSec to reflect the reality of 3 workers (and shrinking toward 2) supporting 1 retiree (as opposed to the 16 to 1 ratio in earlier times) is met with a rock-ribbed conservatism that would make Calvin Coolidge smile.

Just don't call SocSec a Ponzi scheme.  It is much more appropriate to call it a Shell Game.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Series of Very Fortunate Events

Normally, such an image as the above might be taken as a harbinger of doom, given that it happened less than a half hour into vacation.  Curiously, such was not the case, and to understand that you must know the full tale; a story at least slightly more strange than fiction.

It began with our annual preparation for Burning Man, that festival of arts, bacchanalia, mischief and chaos to which we have committed the week before Labor Day these last 9 years.  My dear wife (aka Ranger Beauty) had noticed that the tire cover on the spare trailer tire was in need of replacement.  After she had removed the cover we noticed that the spare tire itself was in no better shape.  We hadn't replaced it since we bought the trailer (used of course) - a bit over 6 years ago.  Fortunate event number 1 - we had never needed it, followed by fortunate event number 2 - it could be replaced before we had need to use it.

However despite the considerable array of wrenches I was able to muster, the nut holding the spare to the mount would not budge.  Figuring that the tire shop had pneumatic wrenches (which I did not), I removed the arm of the mount from the bumper with the tire attached and threw the whole shebang into the back of the truck and off we went.  As expected, the tire shop was able to separate the nut from the bolt and it turns out it was a common plastic-lined 'lock' nut - that in the desert heat had fused to the bolt and was only removed through substantial mechanical torque.  In short, I never could have freed the spare from the mount had I ever needed it.  Fortunate event number 3!  We return home with a new spare and re-attach the mount to the bumper (and the spare to the mount with conventional lock washer).  Then we awaited the arrival of the new tire cover - which landed a mere two days before the day we left.

We departed for the Black Rock desert on the morning of the last Thursday of August.  As we merged onto I-15 I asked my wife if Thanksgiving had been moved up to August.  She replied that as far as she knew it had not.  This puzzled me due to the number of turkeys that were operating motor vehicles on this particular Thursday.  There followed a point where the freeway narrows and we were obliged to merge with traffic in the neighboring lane.  Just behind me was a commercial truck - not a semi, but still larger than our truck and trailer.  He graciously dropped back and allowed me a comfortable merge and I mentioned this to the wife and said that one act of courtesy had just expunged in my mind all the idiocy we had been subjected to up to that point.  We rolled on down the highway waiting for him to pass us, as we were well laden and in no particular hurry.  He eventually did, passing us on the right and giving us a friendly wave (which we returned).

Not two minutes later a semi passed us on the left, honking and gesturing and I knew something was wrong.  We immediately pulled off to the side of the freeway, flipped on the warning lights and both hopped out to inspect.  My first suspicion was with the bike carriers on the camper shell - but all was well there.  We then continued back when she called to me "do you smell something" just as I spied the shredded tire you saw at the start of this post.  Fortunate event number 4 - the trucker had seen it blow and was able to signal us - I hadn't felt it go.  Fortunate event number 5 - the other tire on that side held despite the blowout.  We got back in the truck and limped up the off-ramp we had stopped just short of, turned and found a spot to change the tire.  With the new spare on the mount that was now usable.  Fortunate event number 6 - a convenient and safe place to do this.  I was able to change the tire while she phoned a friend for a quick computer search and the nearest tire shop - which turned out to be an outlet of the company from which we usually buy tires.  By the time we were ready to roll again, she had us an appointment less than 5 minutes up the road from where we were.  Fortunate event number 7.

As it was, the tires on the trailer were old, and I was pushing it planning on another 1200+ mile trip on them.  We replaced the full set, which Discount Tire did - pulling out four floor jacks and popping the trailer up like a Formula 1 pit crew.  And they were almost as fast.  Fortunate event number 8 - we hadn't even damaged the rim with the shredded tire, no doubt thanks to the prompt signaling of a semi driver whom I wasn't even able to thank.  Had any of these fortunate events not happened, the whole thing would have unraveled, and me - being the ever-patient and even-keeled soul that I am [not]... well, let's just say it wouldn't be unexpected for my head to explode in reaction to such.

With the spare back in its proper place, and four new tires on the trailer, we continued our journey - which was entirely uneventful.  And that is always a fortunate event.  As for the week at Burning Man, I may post on that - though it was such a smooth and easy year that there isn't anything dramatic to talk about.  I can say that we fared much better than many in getting there and back.  Funny, but every trip there has some thing that goes wrong, some thing that needs to be fixed, some thing that gets forgotten on the way out and has to be replaced or lived without.  Considering how badly this could've gone I am nothing but thankful that fate was so gentle with us.

As a coda, we returned to Southern California during the black-out, and arriving home pulled the generator out of the trailer so we could power the house fridge and freezer until electrical service was restored (about 4 or 5 hours later).  Another fortunate - if tangential - event.