Thursday, May 05, 2005

Saving Social Security

All of Bush's proposals so far are bad. His economic plutocrats will not permit any good ones because raising taxes is by definition bad. They claim it would not be good for the economy. The real reason is that it would cost them some money.

Nevertheless, consider this. The upper limit on incomes subject to payroll taxes today is $90,000. In 1981, 90 percent of the total income earned in wages and salaries was subject to the payroll tax. Income has shifted to those with higher incomes. The result is that only 85% of such income is liable to the the payroll tax today. Hiking the level to 90% again would require that the upper limits would have to be $138,000. This would take care of about 1/3 of the 75-year gap between tax revenues and benefit payments. See the February 18, 2005 edition of The Christian Science Monitor. See:

Removing the cap altogether would completely do even more. Why should there be a cap? Low income people pay on all their earnings. Rich folks should too.

We also need a wealth tax and to preserve the estate tax. Finally, we need to roll back the massive tax cuts for the rich that are already sending the deficit soaring out of sight. The justification for raising taxes on wealth and high incomes is simple. The production of income and wealth is a social process. No one can earn money without the functioning of an economic system that requires everyone -- those who clean the bathrooms and the offices of the rich -- as well as the talent and hard work of rich people. The notion that market forces distribute income and wealth in accordance with justice or rationality is absurd, a myth. Consider the fact, e. g., that professional athletes who earn 10 million dollars a year would gladly play for 5 or 2 million, if that is all they could get. Most of them could not earn nearly that much apart from their athletic skills. Nobel prize winning economists could make the case technically for everything I have said. It is ideology and selfish interest that are at the base of the rejection of such ideas, not economic fact or logic.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Assessing Public Discourse in America Today

Here is the way public issues are discussed in our time. A question in dispute arises. Two opposing groups form at the extremes. They are loud, deeply committed, activist in temperament and practice, eager participants in politics and public debate. Each claims to have the full and complete truth without qualification. Each side demonizes their opposite number. Each denies the moral legitimacy and rationality of the other, while expressing bafflement that anyone could be so blind to the obvious facts and values involved.

Exaggerated? Of course, but who can deny that that a point has been made, recognized by all who are alert to what is going on. It is not difficult to find single issue absolutists and extremists about some issue. They frequently have their opposite numbers:

Extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession for everyone contend with gun control fanatics. The National Rife Association will not tolerate even the most reasonable restrictions, seeing in the mildest of measures a fatal threat to the rights of hunters, sportsmen, target shooters, and even a dagger in the Constitution, democracy, and civilization itself. Gun control advocates tend to exaggerate the importance of the issue, and I wonder if some of them have an elitist bias against hunters and rural folk generally, suspecting they are culturally handicapped,throwbacks to a former era.

Free choice zealots vie in unrelenting fashion with anti-abortion zealots. The former ignore, evade, or downplay the fact that a fetus is a potential person, while the latter assert categorically that from the point of conception on an actual person already exists -- an affront to science, philosophy and reason generally.

Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim fundamentalists.

The American Civil Liberties Union tends to absolutize individual freedom and rights to the neglect of social good. I am a member because I think we need an extremist organization like this, although I cringe at some of the repugnant positions and parties they defend.

Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in their opponents' claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) whose compassion for the other could surely find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.

The list could go on. A little humility, respect for the integrity of the other side, and a recognition of human finitude and fallibility would do wonders to lift the level of public discourse. So would a recognition that we (all of us, no exceptions) are prone to reason from a limited, often self-centered, selfish, perspective.

Is there any hope for improvement? Not much. Why? Go back to the first paragraph.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I Fear Absolutism More Than Relativism

Popes and people who write letters to the editor worry about relativism. It is, they lament, a hazard to morality portending chaos and destruction. If truth be told, relativism is a complicated concept with many meanings and ambiguities, but this does not faze the critics, who usually leave the word undefined. Whatever it means to them, it is bad. The surface meaning is that it refers to views they find inferior to their own and hazardous. Meanwhile, they assume or assert in full confidence that they possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I have made my defense of a form of relativism (objective relativism, I call it) elsewhere. Here I boldly assert that absolutism is a greater threat to soul and body than all the extant relativisms in the world laid end to end. First, there are so many of them. Absolutists are all around us: Pious Popes, Protestant preachers, and pompous politicians come immediately to mind. Taxi drivers, barbers, free market economists, right-wing think tanks, liberals who want speech or practices offensive to them suppressed, and many people who write letters to editors can be added.

Then there are single issue absolutists, who usually have their opposite numbers: extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession for everyone contend with gun control fanatics, free choice zealots vie with anti-abortion zealots. Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim fundamentalists. Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in their opponent's claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form two communities of suffering whose compassion for the other could surely find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.

The danger lies in the fact that the certainty of absolutists is a temptation to suppress error. Some extremists use violence without apology. The worst of the absolutists will gladly cut your head off, burn you up, torture you, cut off your testicles or breasts in the name of God if you challenge their assumed prerogatives. We could all make a long list of past examples without breaking a sweat. On a kinder scale absolutists in churches will punish ministerial dissent or practice on the issue of homosexuality.

Yes, there is a form of relativism that may degenerate into nihilism in which might takes precedence over notions of right. In short, the extremes of absolutism and relativism are dangerous. But in a world full of people who are so damn sure they know the truth and you don't, some dissent, some vigorous questioning of authority, some appeals for humility, tolerance, and modesty are healthy. They are, in fact, essential in preventing us from falling into extremes of absolutism which will suppress doubt and punish doubters. In the present world I fear the power of aggressive absolutists more than I fear the nihilism of reckless relativists.