Friday, December 31, 2004

To Boldy Go

This January 14th, I'm going to be taking a break from the usual Benedict Arnold birthday festivities so I can watch the news for something just as important - the best chance we have to learn about how common extraterrestrial life is, for at least a decade.

To elaborate: in fifteen days, the laws of orbital mechanics will reach their inexorable conclusion, and the freefalling Huygens probe will enter the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Titan's pretty much unique in the solar system, in that it's the only planetary body possessing an atmosphere at near-Earth pressures (although mean molecular density is several times greater there, very low temperatures bring surface air pressure to about 1.5 atms), with large quantities of inert nitrogen gas and smaller amounts of CO2 and methane. Complicated atmospheric chemistry simulations (of which I'm proud to have worked on, in small part, last summer) have predicted the possibility of sizable ethane oceans underneath the thick organic fog which shrouds Titan, along with a constant precipitation of methane and other hydrocarbons.

There certainly are differences, but Titan today resembles the Earth of three billion years ago in a lot of key ways. And we know next to nothing about it. Methane clouds prevent astronomers from making any but the most basic observations of the moon, and its remoteness means that this is the first robotic probe which will actually enter Titan's atmosphere. If Huygens succeeds at penetrating into the stratosphere, our understanding of how we fit into the universe may well be affected. The data that Huygens is designed to return could give astronomers back on Earth a way to make educated guesses about the question every human being has wondered about, at some time or another: how rare is life?

I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Viktory

Well, it looks like Yushchenko is the winner of Ukraine's revote - and by a rather impressive margin (51 to 44). Barring the increasingly unlikely prospect of a last-minute power play by the current administration there, this election marks a real victory for Ukraine's opposition. This seems to be the outcome that most in America have been hoping for - myself included. And while I'm pretty happy about the defeat of Yanukovich - and with it Kuchma's sordid legacy of intimidation and illiberal rule - I can't help but be a little nervous about the fact that I know next to nothing about Yushchenko's actual policy positions. He's "western-oriented" (as the ire of Ukraine's Russophilic eastern provinces attests), but that in itself is not proof of the commitment to democracy that Ukraine needs from its leaders right now. I should stress that I'm still pretty optimistic about the new opportunities Ukraine has earned for itself via the recent elections; I'd just feel more confident if I had any sense at all about the new president's likely policies.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Kinsley's Proof

Michael Kinsley, the opinion editor for the Lost Angeles Times, has been trying to get people to find flaws in his proof of how Social Security privitization cannot work. But, as Kinsley explains in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post, there have been no satisfactory challenges to his theorem. The silence, as they say, is deafening. It appears that no one has been able to counter Kinsley's very simple, economically sound argument. One would hope that Congress is paying attention to people like him and that our elected officials, like Rep. Ford (D-TN), would take time to consider what Kinsley is saying.

I single out Ford because there appears to be a significant number of Democrats in Congress who, at least through their statements and past actions, appear ready to support Social Security privatization. I understand that the Democrats are in a worse position on the Hill than they were before, but this does not mean they should endorse a seriously flawed Republican policy proposal to score political points. I cannot imagine that these Democrats actually have a lot of faith in privatization, so I can only think that this is their objective. I do think there are areas in which Democrats can cooperate with Republicans, but this is definately not one of them. It threatens to add more to the already gargantuan debt, and it will offer at best no change in the economic rewards a person receives from the program (more likely people will lose money investing it unwisely).

Or am I missing something?

Friday, December 24, 2004

Seriously Now

I think Russian President Vladimir Putin could have tried a little harder to disguise the recent state seizure of a major private corporation. Said seizure entered its final stages last Sunday, when a mysterious Russian front company "registered in a grocery store and cafe in the town of Tver" purchased the Yuganskneftegaz oil fields for $9.4 billion. But since the government-controlled energy titan Rosneft purchased the holding company on Thursday, bringing it one step closer to total state consolidation of Russian energy production, I'm left wondering: why bother with the holding company ruse in the first place?

Far more troubling have been Putin's past efforts at media consolidation. Intellectually honest arguments can be made for the nationalization of energy production (although I think energy extraction is a slightly different case). I might not agree with them, but they don't really undercut basic principles of democracy. The same can't be said for media nationalization, which Putin has pursued with surprising vigor. I can't really claim to know what's going on in Putin's mind, but his actions since taking office have been depressingly consistent with those of a man trying to return Russia to permanent one-party rule.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Protestors Revving Up for Inauguration

CNN reported today that a guerilla radio station broadcasting in the DC area has been calling for protests to occur during the week leading up to the January 20th inauguration of President Bush. According to the report, ANSWER (who else?) is planning to hold a protest along Pennslyvania Avenue, with another group planning to literally turn its back to the President during the ceremony.

Thanks to the Internet, the word is certainly getting out. I know that the Tufts Coalition Opposed to the War in Iraq (TCOWI) is going to take a bus down here for the protests, in which they plan to lob a few eggs at the source of their disdain.

I'm all for the freedom of speech and the right to assemble, but I have to say that this idea troubles me. From the standpoint of the Secret Service, these protests will bring with them additional security concerns for an already high-profile event. This is especially true for a ceremony that is not only going to be watched around the world but that takes place in a setting more exposed than the events a President typically attends, like a press conference (though those must be dangerous for other reasons because Bush tends to avoid them altogether).

Seriously, call me a pessimist, but I'm afraid that this could turn ugly. All it takes is a few crazy egg chucking college students for the event to turn into another strike against American liberalism in the public eye. I'm not saying that liberals have to stop protesting because we might look bad. I'm only expressing concern that too often certain people who join the protests commit acts that are not constitutionally protected, to put it kindly. And when that happens, it only gives fuel to the chorus of conservatives who are trying to paint Democrats as anti-American / unsupportive of the troops / anti-government etc. Now I know certain people do feel that way, but they don't tend to call themselves Democrats. The only problem with a protest like this is that everyone else will.

I don't know what one does about this, but I do know that it troubles me.

Monday, December 20, 2004

About that Deficit, Mr. President....

Today George Bush reiterated his pledge to cut the deficit in half within five years. Even overlooking the Bush administration's track record on deficit reduction, there's still little reason to assume that this promise is going to be anything like fulfilled come 2009. In the same speech, Bush later explained that his "tough budget" would "provide every tool and resource to the military," while meeting his other priorities: tax reform (i.e. revenue-neutral but rather regressive changes in the tax code - eliminating business tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance, for example) and "improving achievement in public schools."

So it looks like Bush is trying to pull off the difficult trick of slashing $200 to $250 billion from our deficit while keeping constant, if not increasing, federal defense and educational spending. Since federal tax revenues are staying right where they are - "at their lowest level, measured as a percent of GDP, since 1959" - it seems the only ways Bush could live up to this promise are through massive and unappealing cuts in virtually all elements of discretionary spending, some gimmicky changes in how the Social Security budget is counted, or a combination of the two. Or he could just ignore the problem entirely, seeing as how he has ambitiously set the year after he retires as the target date for returning the deficit to what would still be historically large levels. Options, options...

Tolerant of Intolerance?

The more attention I pay to the news, the more I'm forced to reevaluate my view of the world. I thought we were moving forward, trusting rationality, abandoning prejudices. But every time I hear about 'moral values' it's in a context I find repugnant. It's always about restoring the right religion (pun partially intended), censoring works of art, or outlawing homosexuality. Or, as is often the case, all three.

Gary Taylor of The Guardian, a British magazine, recently interviewed Gerald Allen, a representative from Alabama. Allen recently pushed a bill removing federal funds for any book or play which "promotes homosexuality," such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chorus Line, and The Color Purple. It turns out that "Allen does not want taxpayers' money to support 'positive depictions of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle'." Scared yet? Allen says that he does not see it as censorship, somehow comparing his bill to traffic lights... It's almost laughable.

But it's not. Because a substantial portion of America agrees with him. And he has political power, enough for his bill to gain attention, maybe even to get it passed with the presidential support he has. This is half the country... And it's completely different from me. How can we have one government, one leader, to represent all of us? Our current "majority rule" democracy hinges on the majority preserving the rights of the minority. Has it really taken America 228 years to figure out that the majority can oppress and trample the minority?

I would try to find a clever way to wrap up my thoughts... but Tom Tomorrow has already done it so nicely.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Rational Solutions for Social Security

For readers of Nick's previous blog, I apologize as I am about to repeat myself here. However, this is exactly the sort of material that we had envisioned having in this blog, and thus it is only fitting for me to re-post it here for a wider audience.

So, last week Nick commented that he didn't believe Social Security was facing a crisis. The following is my response:

Really, a very good person to craft a cogent response to your dismissal of the Social Security predictions would be my older brother as he was an Economics major in addition to being a Computer Science major. He also took a class called Current Issues in Economics which was taught by a high-ranking economist at the Congressional Budget Office. As someone at the CBO, this man has spent his entire career dealing with these issues, and thus I believe he has a great deal of credibility considering he is also a professor of Economics.

So, I feel strongly about this mostly from my conversations with my brother, and he's probably far too busy right now for me to ask him to write something up. So, I've got to go off of my memory which at the moment is a bit shoddy (although I did attend one of his classes when I was visiting UMD and so if you're interested I could easily get into why Medicare/Medicaid is going to be a big crisis as well)

Okay, so there are a couple of major issues that the Social Security system will face. First and foremost, rapidly increasing life expectency coupled with the retirement of the Baby-Boom generation will provide such a great shock to the system that it won't be able to finance benefits. As life expectency increases, the amount of benefits paid out per capita increases dramatically, but payments into the system don't change. For the much of Social Security's lifetime, a much larger population of working people have been financing the retirees. However, the system currently functions by requiring about 8 people paying into the system for each current retiree. This balance actually works out okay right now, but once the baby-boomers start retiring in droves the balance will shift.

There's also been a big increase in earnings inequality. As more and more people accumulate vast amounts of wealth, there is less of the money supply that is available for Social Security taxation (the cutoff right now is about $87,000: any earnings above that are not eligible to be taxed for Social Security.

There's also the big issue of "Legacy Debt" as its referred to. Essentially, earlier (and some current) beneficiaries receieved far more in benefits than they ever could have contributed into the system even accounting for a market rate return of interest on their contributions. This debt has to be financed either by a reduction in benefits or an increase in taxation.

And, perhaps at a later date I can write something up about why privatization-- especially the plans hinted at by the Bush administration is a totally fiscally irresponsible solution. It require a significant long term increase in the debt which could in turn precipitously weaken the dollar. Not to mention the fact that it doesn't actually adress the problem of the program's long term solvency. (NOTE: They did not and still have not proposed a specific privatization plan because they know that as soon as they do they will be reamed out for it being a bad solution. By avoiding specifics, they can avoid the necessary critisicm that would follow)

So, Nick, in a way you are correct that it is silly to propose immediate, radical changes if you are referring to the radical changes of privatization. However, changes do need to be made, and the sooner we start addressing the problem, the less painful it will be to fix. And there will be pain: we have to have some combination of higher taxes and lower benefits. We can make it gradual if we start planning for it now: we can increase the age of receiving benefits to corollate with life expectency, we can add more workers to the Social Security tax system (State employees are exempt for example) and have moderate, gradual increases in taxation rates to keep the system solvent if people agree that that would be preferable to having drastic cuts in benefits.

Peter Diamond, an MIT Economics Professor and Peter Orzag, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution co-authored a book on saving Social Security. They propose a "legacy tax" on the earnings above the current maximum taxable earnings base in order to help finance the legacy debt, a gradual reduction in benefits (no change for current 55 year olds, 1% benefits reduction for current 45 year olds, 5% for 35 year olds -- all percentages assuming average income), and a very gradual increase in taxes from 12.4% in 2005 and 13.7% in 2045 (according to them an extra $37 a month in combined employer-employee contributions even if the increase took place today).

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently argued, "Given the sorry state of the federal budget, a truly notable accomplishment would be to develop a plan that restores long-term Social Security solvency without any general revenue transfers." Well, their plan accomplishes just that.

However, let me clarify that I agree with the rest of the liberal blogosphere here that we should be very careful when talking about Social Security in crisis. In actuality, it is not a "crisis." A crisis consists of an immediate and drastic problem, but we have time to fix this--and rationally. By referring to the current situation as a "crisis" we may mistakenly endorse privatizing it. Of course, such a "solution" will do little to stop the crisis and do a lot to cut a few more holes in the net.

Cutting Holes in the Net

With all the current talk over the state of our social security system, I've found my opinion slowly shifting. At first, it was obvious: we were doomed. While I'm still cynical enough to believe that we're in various forms of trouble, I no longer feel that our social security in particular is terrible. Recently, both Matt Yglesias and Nick have been voicing similar arguments, saying that while our current system isn't perfect, it doesn't need drastic changes. Matt cites Chris Bowers and Nick points to a Kevin Drum-provided graph of the receding predicted bankruptcy date. Their words helped convince me that we didn't need to change the status quo.

But that doesn't mean that privatization would necessarily be a bad idea. After all the bureaucracy I've dealt with in my life, it would seems that getting social security out of the government's hands might be more efficient. However, it seems that in this instance, it's not the case.

In Paul Krugman's op ed piece from friday, he points out that our current system is working just fine, with "more than 99 percent of Social Security's revenues go[ing] toward benefits." What he does that others haven't done is make a case for why Bush's plan would actually be a bad idea, using Britain's privatized approach as a prime example of inefficiency and waste. He points out that private investments would leave many unlucky retirees stuck in poverty, and also reduce benefits to everyone via fees to investment companies.

So... not only is the current system merely in need of minor tweaks, but the proposed Bush plan will actively make things worse. Strangely enough... my opinion is the same as it used to be: we're still doomed. Social Security is supposed to act as a safety net, and I'd like someone reliable to be holding the corners.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Connoisseurs of the Possible

In the fourteenth century, Europe began to emerge from its long twilight of feudal ignorance and oppression. This liberation was brought about largely from the efforts of a handful of extraordinary freethinkers. Now the year is 2004, and the advent of new forms of mass communication has paved the way for the intellectual orthodoxies of the day to again be shattered by those unencumbered with the follies of the past. Not to be hubristic or anything.

On a more serious note: this blog was set up as a forum for us to post our thoughts on current events and to receive feedback from the wider world. The four of us share a common background in science and technology - we originally met at a math/science secondary school - giving us a perspective on the news which we hope will you'll find a little out of the ordinary.

Bismarck once called politics "the art of the possible." We aren't often going to find ourselves endorsing the views of nineteenth century Prussian nationalists, but its easier to sit in your pajamas typing on a laptop at 2 AM if you can consider yourself an art critic at the same time.