Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Goldberg, Libertarians, and Law Enforcement

Jonah Goldberg has written a column on the death of Eric Garner that gives me some insight into the libertarian mindset.  He writes to defend Rand Paul's comment on the subject:
I think there’s something bigger than the individual circumstances. . . . I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so that’s driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘Hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’ . . . For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.
The choice of words is poor, Goldberg acknowledges, but the point is sound.  Because to Goldberg as a libertarian, police killing law breakers is the end point of the law -- any law.  That is why we should have as few laws as possible.  "The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how 'government is just another word for those things we do together,' but what makes government work is force, not hugs."

Thus to a libertarian like Goldberg, police-community relations, or deep hostility between police and black communities, or excessive force,or even people being killed by police are not in and of themselves important issues.  They are simply inevitable side effects of having a police force at all. This is not to suggest that Goldberg is an anarchist or wants to do away with police forces.  He simply considers it inevitable that when they enforce, they will use force, and that when they use force, sometimes it will be excessive, sometimes people will even be killed.  The best way to avoid it, from the viewpoint of a libertarian like Goldberg, is to keep our number of laws to the bare minimum necessary so that police will have as few opportunities to use excessive force as possible.

I can see some problems in that viewpoint.  For instance, even a libertarian like Goldberg presumably sees a ban on shoplifting (as was the case in Ferguson) as legitimate.  Which would mean that when the Ferguson police shot and killed a shoplifter, a libertarian could only greet it with a shrug.  Officer Wilson was upholding a legitimate law against theft.  A few incidents like this are simply the price we pay to maintain law and order.

Well, speaking as a liberal, I disagree.  It is possible to enforce the law without resort to excessive force.  The amount of force appropriate is and should be proportionate to the crime in question.  Why, earlier today, a deranged man in New York (apparently black) invaded a synagogue, stabbed a student, charged the policeman called to the scene with a knife, and was fatally shot.  I have no complaint there.  The man attempted murder and was posing a serious threat to people around him. The use of deadly force was entirely appropriate.  It is an altogether different matter from killing a shoplifter or a cigarette peddler.  And, yes, the poor state of relations between the police department and many black communities is a serious issue, whether one considers any particular regulation legitimate or not.

It does offer me some insight, though, into why libertarians like Goldberg see the most important issue of freedom and government as confining government within the narrowest possible scope, rather than properly controlling its use of force.  They have simply dismissed properly controlling its use of force as a lost cause and therefore confine themselves to minimizing such instances.

Cross posted at Essayist-Lawyer

The Torture Report

Amazing.  The Senate's torture report is out and, despite my one-time obsession with the subject, I feel no urge to post about it.  One thing should be kept in mind.  Horrifying as this report is, it is only the tip of the iceberg.  It addresses torture in secret sites by the CIA.  It does not address far more widespread, though probably more amateurish, use of torture by the military (see Abu Graib).

Maybe if I have a strong stomach, I can get to it later.  But 500 pages (to say nothing of 6000!) is formidable.

Cross-posted at Essayist-Lawyer.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

Failures of Democracy and the Victorious General

So, having taken at least a look at how the Roman Republic started to come unglued, it is time to consider another factor I did not take into account when I reached my preliminary hypothoses on how democracies fail -- the role of the victorious general.  I did not consider the victorious general because, so far as I can tell, the victorious general has not been particularly dangerous in modern times.  Certainly, there have been no shortage of military dictatorships, but so far as I can tell, the charismatic victorious general using his popularity (either with the troops or with the general public) to steamroll accepted procedures has not been all that common.  Far more dangerous has been military defeat and brooding resentments over it.

It is clear, though, that victorious generals could be very dangerous in classical antiquity.  I confess, I have now begun Fortune's Favorites, which makes clear that one military dictatorship sets a very bad precedent.  As soon as one victorious general marches on Rome and seizes power by force, all the others are tempted to do the same.  It was such generals who were the undoing of the Roman Republic.  In Greece, victorious generals seizing power took place much earlier on.  Aristotle, writing well after such dictatorships had ended, speculated on why dictatorships had become so much less common in his day, attributed it to a separation of civil and military authority:
Of old, the demagogue was also a general, and then democracies changed into tyrannies. Most of the ancient tyrants were originally demagogues. They are not so now, but they were then; and the reason is that they were generals and not orators, for oratory had not yet come into fashion. Whereas in our day, when the art of rhetoric has made such progress, the orators lead the people, but their ignorance of military matters prevents them from usurping power; at any rate instances to the contrary are few and slight.
This history was well known by the Founding Fathers when they started this country.  Contrary to what I learned in school, they were not in the least bit worried about the U.S. turning into a European-style hereditary monarchy.  What they were worried about was a military dictatorship, which they considered worse than a hereditary monarchy.  The record of victorious generals in ancient Greece and Rome was not reassuring.  Events in France would soon prove that such fears were not idle.  At the same time, the Founders knew that victorious generals were not necessarily dangerous.  Before the time of Marius and Sulla, Rome had many victorious generals who held high office and respected the Republic.  And they had before their own eyes a shining example in the person of George Washington, whose respect for civilian control of the military was beyond dispute.  Certainly, in school we learned about Washington's popularity and prestige.  Not emphasized was that his popularity and prestige were no different than any other victorious general's. What made him stand out was his refusal to use that popularity and prestige to usurp unconstitutional powers.  So, what made George Washington different from Napoleon Bonaparte?  Was it simply greater restraint on the part of Washington, or are victorious generals only dangerous under certain conditions?

Suffice it to say that when Andrew Jackson became President, he had several traits that made people nervous.  His populist style was alarming to people who saw populist politicians as the undoing of the Roman Republic.  His emphasis on executive power and the President and embodiment of the will of the people smacked of a charismatic dictator.  And his war hero status reminded a lot of people more of Bonaparte than Washington.  Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, rather cynically commented:
The Americans have no neighbors, and consequently they have no great wars, or financial crises, or inroads, or conquest to dread; they require neither great taxes, nor great armies, nor great generals; and they have nothing to fear from a scourge which is more formidable to republics than all these evils combined, namely, military glory. It is impossible to deny the inconceivable influence which military glory exercises upon the spirit of a nation. General Jackson, whom the Americans have twice elected to the head of their Government, is a man of a violent temper and mediocre talents; no one circumstance in the whole course of his career ever proved that he is qualified to govern a free people, and indeed the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always been opposed to him. But he was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained in that lofty station, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained twenty years ago under the walls of New Orleans, a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement, and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people which is thus carried away by the illusions of glory is unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary (if I may use the expression), and the most prosaic of all the peoples of the earth.
At the same time, Tocqueville was well aware that there was no danger whatever of Jackson becoming a military dictator:
It has been imagined that General Jackson is bent on establishing a dictatorship in America, on introducing a military spirit, and on giving a degree of influence to the central authority which cannot but be dangerous to provincial liberties. But in America the time for similar undertakings, and the age for men of this kind, is not yet come: if General Jackson had he entertained a hope of exercising his authority in this manner, he would infallibly have forfeited his political station, and compromised his life; accordingly he has not been so imprudent as to make any such attempt.
 He goes on to say that the real danger that Jackson poses is the degree to which he undermined federal authority.

Following Jackson the U.S. had many other victorious general Presidents.  William Henry Harrison (defeated Tecumseh), Zachary Taylor (Mexican American War), and Franklin Pierce (Mexican American War) all ran as victorious generals, as was Pierce's electoral opponent, Winfield Scott.  And, of course, there were Ulysses S. Grant (McClellan ran against Lincoln; Sherman could have been elected, but refused), Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Our democracy is none the worse for these.  Eisenhower appears to have been our last victorious general President, and our democracy is none the better for it.*

So clearly there is nothing inherently dangerous about victorious generals; the danger lies in larger body politic.  Furthermore, many modern democracies have fallen victim to military coups or dictatorships without any victorious general to lead them.  Same point.

And I really ought to put in a word about Paul von Hindenburg.  Hindenburg as (at least purportedly) a victorious general and became a popular hero on that account.  He made no secret of the fact that he was a monarchist and did not favor the Republic.  But he also respected the rule of law and pledged to take no action against the Republic unless he could persuade it by lawful means to restore the monarchy.  He kept his word.  That he ended up becoming a sort of semi-dictator had more to do with the economic crisis than any ambition on his part.  That he ended up offering the chancellorship to Hitler was more the result of bad policies, bad advisers, and bad judgment than actual evil intent. Ludendorf, of course, was a different matter altogether.

So why were victorious generals so dangerous in classical times and even as late as the French Revolution, but just not much of a factor in the 20th Century?  Of have they been more dangerous than I realize in modern times?  Another thing I hope to learn more about.

Cross-posted at Essayist-Lawyer
*On the other hand, we have had other generals like MacArthur, Patton, or LeMay who I would not trust anywhere near the Presidency.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

What Can I Say For Liberals?

I have posted before on what I think it is to be liberal.  At the time, I said it was to place (or aspire to place) universal justice over in-group loyalty.  Another way to put it would be that there is a trade-off between breadth and depth of our social ties and (generally speaking) a liberal is one who favors breadth and a conservative is one who favors depth.  Or, most simply put. a liberal is one who seeks to broaden social ties, or to broaden the circle of people we are willing to take into account.  To be conservative (I suppose) would be to seek deeper and tighter social ties, among a more narrow circle. And to be anti-liberal is to resent liberal for seeking draw the circle too widely.

All of this came to mind after reading these recent posts mocking liberals for their concern about the Eric Garner killing.  The basic criticism of white liberals who are offended by police killing black men is (perhaps predictably) that they are phony, shallow, superficial, and inauthentic.  After all, you are professing empathy and solidarity with people you don't really know or understand.  It comes across as smug, superior and patronizing.  It is an attempt by people living in comfort and safety to appropriate for themselves someone else's trauma in order to have more excitement in their lives and to show moral superiority to the blue collar cops, or to people who don't care.

And, yes, I think there is some truth to these accusations.  Some of it is just an attempt to be trendy like boycotting GMO and keeping up with the latest food fashions.  Empathy for people you do not know, who are outside your experience is bound to be more superficial than for people you really do know and understand.  Such attempts do often mean projecting one's own interests and desires onto other people and, as such, comes across as offensively patronizing.  Worse, it can mean trying to force the purported targets of one's sympathy to meet one's own preconceived notions, a thing that can be more intrusive and offensive than simple, outright hostility, let long simple indifference.

So, as a liberal, what do I say in our defense?  I suppose that I would say that the liberal approach for all its flaws, is still better than the alternative.  The alternative, after all, is to say, why should I care, it doesn't affect me or anyone I know.  And I will grant, such a response is genuine.  It is sincere.  It is authentic.  But all that proves in the end is that genuineness and sincerity and authenticity don't count for much, in an of themselves.

Cross-posted at Essayist-Lawyer
Wow!  It appears that this blog has taken off -- about three years after I stopped posting on it.  Maybe I should start cross-posting with my new blog to see what happens.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The End and the Beginning

Well, I was sworn in as a lawyer on Monday. That means I am no longer and Enlightened Layperson (at least on legal issues). But if any of my readers are still out there, you can continue to follow me at Essayist-Lawyer. (So I will still be EL). First post is now up.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Liberty and Folkways

I highly recommend this excellent piece by David Fum on how most people define liberty. Frum points out that when people talk about their rights and freedom they are generally not talking about anything so abstract as the rights set forth in the Bill of Rights or any other universal concept. What they mean, ultimately, is their accepted folkways.

The occasion of the post was the City of Chicago attempting to save money on its employee health insurance costs by charging an extra $50 per month unless they engaged in a regular exercise program. On the one hand he found the outraged reaction, treating this as a totalitarian nightmare amusing. On the other hand, he said, there is a serious insight here. When these people say freedom, they don’t mean, say, the criminal procedure protections offered by the Bill of Rights. After all, what are the chances they will ever actually be charged with a crime? Freedom to them means the right to their favored lifestyle, unhindered. And, although he does not add this, probably unchallenged.

On the one hand, I suppose I’ve known this all along. On the other hand, having it put in such stark relief explains a lot.

It’s easiest to understand when the coercive power of the state is implicated. After all, one of the commenters on the thread pointed out, any number of corporate employers do the same thing. And insurance companies may offer discounts for healthy lifestyles. But these meet with less resistance because, after all, you can always find another job or another insurer. But then again, no one forces city employees to work for the city; they are free to take another job, too. It explains the NRA crowd who seem utterly unconcerned about any part of the Constitution except the Second Amendment – nothing else infringes on their folkways. It explains the sense that freedom is being threatened even when the state coercion is very slight – use of taxpayer dollars to build trains and other public transportation, discussion of relaxing zoning laws to allow higher density housing, requiring posting of calorie and nutrition information in restaurants, and so forth. To people who identify a personal car with freedom, who like the quiet and roominess of the suburbs, who don’t want to be nagged about their food, these things feel intrusive even if there is no force involved.* People’s favored lifestyles are being criticized and officially disapproved of. That is intrusion enough.

It may explain part of what is behind Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. In interviews he has argued that nothing Republicans do is as intrusive as, say, a ban on smoking in bars because they don’t seek to impose a lifestyle. (As the Religious Right influence in the Republican Party continues to grow, it will be harder and harder for Goldberg to deny that conservatives, too, seek to impose a lifestyle). It explains the reviewer who said the very embodiment of liberal fascism was Jimmy Carter going on TV in a sweater urging people to turn the thermostat down.

It also explains the hostility and that the sense that freedom is being threatened ever when the coercive power of the state is not implicated – switchboards that say, “For English, press one,” fast food restaurants offering healthy alternatives, store clerks who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and,, of course, any visible (or invisible) presence of Islam. The state is not involved in any of these, and the greatest coercion at stake is having to press one to get English. People make up elaborate PC conspiracies (presumably abetted by the state), but what is really happening, for the most part is that familiar folkways are being challenged and criticized. That feels intrusive enough.

Fum does not explore why this rage over a threat to one’s folkways is so much a right wing phenomenon. Why don’t you year it on our side? Right wingers I assume would say the answer is simple – ours is the officially favored lifestyle and theirs is the one under siege. I think there is something to this. In particular, our side has been highly successful getting part of its agenda, in the form of abortion and gay rights, enacted by the courts. What right wing lifestyle concern (other than gun ownership) has ever been constitutioalized? And our side is, after all, the beneficiary of building trains, nutrition labels, smoking bans, and so forth. But is it all as one-sided as right wingers often think? Their side has been the beneficiary of road building to accommodate more automobile traffic, density restrictions on housing, separate residential and commercial zoning, loopholes in fuel efficiency standards for SUV’s, various privileges given to churches, abstinence education, and so forth. The War on Drugs is a whole lot more intrusive expression of disapproval of a lifestyle than most conservatives will ever know.

I am inclined to think that our side’s reaction is not rage because instead we prefer condescension. We don’t so much reject any other lifestyle as illegitimate as feel smugly superior to anyone who doesn’t share it. And we do treat other lifestyles, such as suburban sprawl and heavy car traffic as social ills to be overcome. I think our side would do well to overcome its self-righteousness and acknowledge that yes, some people like living in suburbs, sprawl and all, and some people equate private cars with freedom and some people feel really threatened when you speak of their favored lifestyle as a social ill to be overcome. Try to imagine how it would feel if someone talked that way (in similarly smug and patronizing tones) about your favored lifestyle. And stop equating your consumer choices as marks of moral superiority instead of, you know, consumer choices.

This being said, not all folkways are worthy. Some really do have to be changed. Frum offers the example of outlawing thatched roofs in Boston in the 1630’s (a fire hazard) and building sewers in New York in the 1840’s (this encountered a lot of resistence!) And, although he does not mention it, a much less benign and amusing example was the resistance to desegregation, often expressed in terms of a threat to liberty. Even unhealthy lifestyles are not purely a matter of personal choice if they raise everyone’s insurance rates (much less are taxpayer subsidized though Medicare). But we are well-advised to keep in mind the extent to which most people do equate freedom with preservation of their folkways – and be sensitive to this before rushing to be too judgmental.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Real Dispute on Charity

HT Andrew Sullivan, here quite an interesting link (no longer accessible, alas) to libertarian Doug Mataconi challenging liberal assumptions on the true nature of compassion. Specifically, he says that liberals want the fake compassion of government programs and libertarians want the real compassion of voluntary giving. He also complains that in discussing the subject liberals and conservatives/libertarians are talking past each other, and that the liberal view of compassion as government programs has become so dominant in discourse as to drown out alternatives.

Certainly every time I read conservative critiques of government social programs (either by libertarians or by Evangelicals), I do indeed come away with the impression that we are talking past each other, though perhaps not for the same reasons he does. To me it all comes down to a book I read by a rabbi about contrasting Christian and Jewish views of charity. Both religions, he commented, emphasize the importance of charitable giving. Both see it as having two purposes, to provide for the poor, and to teach us to be generous. But Jews focus more on providing for the poor and Christians focus more on teaching people to be generous.

This has some important implications. If the focus is on teaching people to be generous, then charity has to be voluntary; to coerce it defeats its entire purpose. If people’s voluntary donations do not adequately provide for the poor, then the remedy is to teach generosity better. Since generosity comes from the heart, it is a deeply personal matter that cannot be coerced. The focus is on the rights of the giver. In the Jewish view, by contrast, a mandatory tax does make sense.* Since the purpose is to provide for the por, ensuring sufficient resources to see to it that the poor are adequately provided for takes priority. By all means, let’s do better at teaching people to be generous, but in the mean time, the poor have to be provided for. The focus is on the needs of the recipient.

This, I would say, is the real difference in viewpoints. Evangelical Christians say that how charitable they wish to be is a private matter that the government has no business dictating. Libertarians say that being taxed for anything beyond essential core functions of government is a violation of their rights. Both denounce any taxpayer funded social services as socialism. I would say that socialism is the view that only the needs of the recipient matter, and that the rights of the giver have no legitimate place in public discourse, the Jewish view taken to its illogical conclusion. But the view I hear from libertarians is the opposite – that only the rights of the giver matter, and that the needs of the recipient have no legitimate place in public discourse. The absolutism of this view is alarming. I prefer a less absolutist view – that the proper balance between the rights of the giver and the needs of the recipient is a proper subject of public discourse.

To be fair to Mataconi, he does not appear to take the absolutist libertarian viewpoint. He acknowledges at least some scope for a taxpayer funded safety net and criticizes governmental social programs at least partly based on their effectiveness. But he offers two links (inaccessible because I cannot access the original) that do come much closer to the absolutist libertarian view. The first concedes that there might be room to disagree on whether private efforts would be sufficient, but then moves on to more important matters -- there is nothing compassionate about robbing people of their hard-earned money and theatening them with prison cells for tax evasion. Clearly, the adequacy of private efforts are a minor matter easily brushed aside; the important thing is the coercive and illegitimate nature of taxation. Still, ultimately he fails to address what to do if private contributions are not sufficient. The second, by contrast, does. He argues at length that we should learn to distinguish between society and that state. Society has legitimate business providing for the poor and the sick; the state does not. Society should not let the uninsured die for lack of coverage; the state should. And there’s the answer. If voluntary giving is not enough to pay for medical case, better for the uninsured to be left to die than for taxpayers to be forced to foot the bill.

I suppose my answer to all this would be that I am not willing to leave the uninsured to die because voluntary charity should provide for them. People don’t always do what they should. Government has a way of stepping in when they don’t. So sure, I believe that voluntary private charity should be sufficient to provide for the poor and the sick. I also believe that people should refrain from committing crimes, businesses should be scrupulously honest in their dealings, married people should live happily ever after, and all food on the shelves should be clean and safe. I also acknowledge that it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why we have a criminal justice system, civil courts, divorce courts, and public health inspectors. And since private charity does not, in fact, adequately provide for the poor and the sick we have a social safety net. I would also say that I measure a society’s compassion, not just by how subjectively generous people are in their hearts, but by how objectively well it cares for its weakest members.

And that, I believe, is the real dispute over charity -- is its purpose to provide for the poor, or to teach us to be generous. Which matters more, the rights of the giver, or the needs of the recipient? Until we bring these alternate viewpoints into the clear light, the talking past each other will continue.**

*It is probably impolitic to point out that Islam takes a distinction Jewish view here. Islam favors a mandatory tax to provide for the poor with additional, voluntary donations strongly encouraged.
**And what is really interesting is how the same person can flip from one view to another apparently without noticing he difference. Left libertarian
Jim Henley says that he might have written something like that once. He even says, "I supported the true empathy of unforced charity, worried about government programs 'crowding out' civil society, and believed that the 'coerced' nature of redistributive policies made it impossible to be 'moral' at all, since morality requires affirmative choice." Clearly the focus is on charity as teaching us to be generous and entirely on the rights of the giver. The needs of the recipient are secondary at best. But he explains that he has change his mind. The reasons he gives essentially deal with his severe doubts about the ability of private contributions to do the job – the costs of modern medicine are too great, local communities are easily overwhelmed, and the emotional burden can be just too great outside of the sort of impersonal bureaucratic organization that gives some professional distance. In other words, the needs of the recipient will not be met. Does he not see the basic difference in outlook between these two views?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why We Should Abandon the Myth of the Social Security Trust Fund

For years, few things have been so sacred to Democrats at the myth of the Social Security trust fund. Working age people pay a regular tax that goes into the trust fund and is invested in U.S. Treasury bonds (the safest investment there is!) and receive their payments back, with interest earned, upon retirement. Democrats would obsessively worry about its health (Reagan is raiding the Social Security Trust fund! ) and urge that it be protected (let’s use the Clinton surpluses to shore up the Social Security trust fund!). Now Rick Perry is leading a whole chorus of Republicans denouncing Social Security as a Ponzi scheme because current retirees are being paid out of current income, and warning that without drastic the system will go broke. The CBO warns that the trust fund will go broke in 2037. And suddenly its defenders are having to explain why Social Security can be simultaneously pay-as-you-go and a trust fund.

And really, we had it coming for obscuring the true nature of Social Security. The myth of the Ponzi scheme is simply a variant on the myth of the trust fund – pointing out how poorly the trust fund model applies. But once you drop the trust fund model, and the claim that it is a Ponzi scheme loses its credibility.

What is really happening is simple. Social Security is a tax-and-transfer system. People of working age are paying taxes to support retirees. When today’s working people retire, a younger generation of works will be taxed to support them. And so on. So long as everyone pays in and everyone expects to live long enough to benefit, there is little resistance to such a system. All advanced industrial countries in the world have such a system in one form or another.

So where does the trust fund come into the picture? Until extremely recently, Social Security ran a surplus, i.e., it took in more than it paid out. And what became of the surplus? It was used to fund other government operations. But the general fund, when it used Social Security funds to run operations, would say that it owed Social Security a certain amount to be paid back in the future. Critics called that raiding the Social Security trust fund. Anti-critics called it investing in U.S. treasury bonds. But raiding the Social Security trust fund and investing it in treasury bonds are exactly the same thing. Either one just means using Social Security tax revenue to fund current operations. The "trust fund" is nothing but an accounting gimmick, a theoretical promise that when Social Security falls into deficit, other taxes will be used to pay the benefits. Talk of the trust fund running out just means that this theoretical promise will expire and the government will no longer be obliged to use non-Social Security taxes to pay Social Security benefits.*

I can understand why supporters would want to encourage the myth of the trust fund. Fearing that people would not be willing to pay a tax during their working lives to support current retirees, and that retirees might have misgivings about asking working people to foot the bills for their own retirements, advocates of Social Security proposed the fiction that really people were paying into a trust fund ad receiving their investments back. Such arguments remove the usual resistance to a tax-and-transfer system, but the play into the hands of people who claim it is a fraud or in danger of failing.

Why? Well, for one thing, since there isn't an actual trust fund, it is very easy to make the case that no such trust fund exists or, if it does, that it is being egregiously mismanaged. Real trust funds start with a lump sum and have bunch of financial experts looking for the best investments. Real retirement accounts and pension funds have to have actual money and investments to cover future payments. Social Security simply takes the incoming revenues, pays current obligations, and then spends the surplus on other government operations. You would, indeed, never be able to get away with running an actual trust fund that way (hence the accusation that it is fraudulent). All of which is irrelevant once you concede that there is no trust fund, but only a simple tax-and-transfer system.

But even more significant is the scary talk of the trust fund running out in 2037 (or whenever). If you treat Social Security as a real trust fund that means (a) that we can keep making payments with no trouble up till then, but then (b) that once the trust fund runs out, Social Security will run out of funding and payments will cease.

The real situation is both more and less alarming. It is more alarming in the sense that the shortfall has begun right now and we are already obligated to start cutting into everything else to pay for the gap in Social Security. Maybe the thought that everything but Social Security having its funding cut to pay for Social Security doesn't bother you, but it definitely bothers me. On the other hand, expiring of the trust fund does not mean that all funding will collapse. It means the theoretical oblitgation to strip everything else to pay for Social Security will cease. Revenues will continue to come in. They will merely fall about 25% short of obligations. Cut Social Security obligations by 25% for everyone born after (say) 1956 and the problem will be solved. Or, if you don't like that approach, there are any number of other alternatives to match revenues to obligations.

But pretending there is a trust fund in the light of all evidence to the contrary does nothing to protect the program. It simply exposes the embarrassing contradictions.**
*So what would have happened if we had followed Bill Clinton's advice and used his surpluses to "shore up the Social Security trust fund"? Assuming the surpluses would have continued and the economy had not crashed (two dubious assumptions), we would have continued to un surpluses until Social Secuity obligations began exceeding revenues. Then the surpluses would gradually have dwindled. This would mean using non-Social Security taxes to pay for Social Secuity benefits, on an indefinite basis. But so what?
**And I can't resist a link to
Paul Krugman, bless his heart, defending the concept of a Social Security trust fund. His logic is most unpersuasive (at least to me). He points out that Ronald Reagan cut income taxes while raising Social Security taxes. This had the practical effect of not actually cutting total taxes, but merely making them more regressive, but it sold well as a plan to protect Social Security. "[I]f you say that there is no link between the payroll tax and future Social Security benefits – which is what denying the reality of the trust fund amounts to – then Greenspan and company pulled a fast one back in the 1980s: they sold a regressive tax switch, raising taxes on workers while cutting them on the wealthy, on false pretenses." To which I can only say, "Well, DUH!" I've known that all along.