Friday, February 25, 2005


About Putin and Bush, Pots and Kettles, Beams and Motes

Yesterday Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin met in Slovakia. After a meeting between the two presidents, Mr. Bush made a speech to the people of Slovakia and to the world in which he extolled the virtues and benefits of democracy. In particular, he celebrated the freedom and independence of the American press and implicitly questioned whether Russian journalists have the same freedom and independence as that enjoyed by American journalists.

Today, to emphasize my point about pots calling kettles black, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Jonathan Chait, “George Bush’s Stepford Critics,” in which Mr. Chait cites several individuals who made critical statements about Bush and the administration’s policies, then recanted them the next day. The implication is that the Bush administration was able to exert effective pressure on them to make them recant and to utter statements that were the opposite of their principles. To read the article, go to and click on “Op-Ed.”

My opinion is that Mr. Bush is in a poor position to criticize the Russians for failures to achieve the highest ideals of democracy and openness in news reporting.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Who Decides?

Earlier this week while listening to National Public Radio in the morning, I heard an interview with a man with a cause. The cause is getting the federal judges back on the right track of deciding cases on the basis of the original intent of the founding fathers rather than recent precedents. The man cited the Federalist Papers as an expression of the original intent of the constitution. I guess he is a member of the Federalist Society, an organization of Conservative Republicans who want to return to the way things were before FDR was President.

The man (I can’t remember his name) cited the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade as an example of the Court not following the original intent. He argued that the Court should not make the decision as to whether a woman could or couldn’t have an abortion. At this point I was in agreement with him. He then said that such a decision should be made by elected representatives of the people, not by judges appointed for life. He wants the Court to rescind the Roe v. Wade decision and let each State legislature decide the matter. At this point I disagreed with him. Why should government make the decision at all? Why not let the woman decide for herself?

But, isn’t that just what the Supreme Court decided? The woman has a right to privacy. No government agency should tell her what she can or can’t do with her own body.

The man was also upset that the Massachusetts Supreme Court has decided that the State’s constitution forbids any ban on gay marriages. The situation can’t be changed except by a vote of the people to amend the constitution. The vote will be held in about two years. Meanwhile, the court’s decision stands.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Airplanes, Judges, and Pocket Knives

A few days ago I heard a news story about a judge who tried to board an airplane with a small, two-inch pocket knife. The security screener found the knife and told him that he would have to place it in his checked baggage. Knives are not allowed in the passenger compartments of airplanes. The judge went away from the screening area and soon returned. This time the screener found the knife tucked away in his carry-on luggage. The judge was arrested and charged with trying to carry a concealed weapon on to a plane. His explanation was that the knife was a precious gift and he didn’t want it to be lost. He had tried to conceal it by stuffing it into a shoe in his carry-on luggage.

The rest of the news story dealt with the sort of punishment that would be appropriate. Clearly the judge was not a terrorist and intended no harm to the plane or its occupants. However, he is a judge and should have known better. A judge is supposed to uphold the law, and for committing a crime, he should certainly be punished.

I am not a judge. However, something similar happened to me once. My wife and I took a one-week vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I carried with me a Victorinox Swiss Army knife that my daughter had given me as a present. The knife was precious to me. There was no problem boarding the plane in Los Angeles. In those days, American security screeners did not regard Swiss Army Knives as lethal weapons. However, when it was time to board the return flight in Cabo, I found that Mexican security screeners had a different view of pocket knives. I could not take the knife with me into the cabin of the plane. I would have to check it.

My wife called me to hurry and board the plane and perhaps was not aware of my problem with the knife. There wasn’t time to retrieve my checked luggage to place the knife inside it. All I could do was have an identity tag attached to the knife and take the claim tag with me. I was told I could retrieve the knife in Los Angeles.

Well, of course, the knife never showed up. I complained to the Airline Company and eventually received some money to cover the loss. It wasn’t enough, of course. I bought a new knife of the same model as the one I had lost. It cost me about thirty dollars. The money from the Airline Company was about fifteen.

I have thought for years about a Mexican security screener who acquired a nice Swiss Army knife. Perhaps he gave it to his son as a gift. I hope that whoever now has the knife regards it as precious as I did.

The last time I traveled by air I learned that checked luggage has to be left unlocked so that it can be inspected for explosives and other bad things. I have also read that some travelers complain that precious things disappear from their checked luggage. Not all luggage screeners and baggage handlers are scrupulously honest. I can understand the judge’s reluctance to trust placing his knife in unlocked luggage.

Saturday, February 05, 2005


"Fixing" Social Security

President Bush proposes to “fix” Social Security by allowing workers to put part of their payroll tax into investment accounts. These accounts would draw interest or dividends and would be used after retirement to provide income.

The President says that the problem with Social Security as it is now funded is that in time the number of retirees will increase more rapidly than the number of workers. At present there are about three workers for each retired person. By 2050 or so, there will be only two workers per retiree. The payroll tax then will not pay for all the benefits that retirees receive under the system.

It is clear to me that a sensible correction to the Social Security problem is to increase the payroll tax, not by increasing tax rate but by raising the cap on taxed earnings from the present limit of around ninety thousand dollars per year to, say, two hundred thousand. Such a correction would keep the system solvent for many years after 2050 and would provide plenty of time in the future to develop other useful changes.

President Bush says that his proposal to have workers invest part of their payroll taxes in savings accounts would “fix” or “save” the system. However, it would do nothing to relieve the shortfall that will occur about 2020, when the payroll tax will no longer fund all the benefits. At that time the Social Security Administration will have to start cashing in the bonds deposited in the trust fund. These bonds represent the excess of payroll tax over the cost of benefits. The switch to individual savings accounts will not delay the date when the trust fund bonds are used up, some time around 2050. In fact, it probably will hasten that date.

What is he talking about? What does he mean?

I believe he really means to abolish the system. That is his permanent “fix.” To abolish the system, he must first convince the public that it is going to go broke. He must also convince the public that individual savings accounts are better than a guaranteed pension or annuity. He has already divided his audience into two groups: those born before and after 1950. He assures the older group that any change will not affect them. He assures the younger group that individual accounts will be better for them than what the present system will provide. He expects that future historians will celebrate him as the President who was able to bring about the demise of the Social Security system adopted in the time of Franklin Roosevelt.

I hope he doesn’t succeed.

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