Ah, irony…

February 6, 2010

I found parts of this Time article on a large Tea Party conference pretty interesting.

According to the article the attendees were “mostly white and older.” This probably wouldn’t surprise most people who’ve seen a TP rally. I’m not going to touch the race issue, but there’s no doubt the TP movement is popular with seniors. In the paragraph following the description of attendees, the article goes on to quote an attendee saying they “want to take back this country back those who are robbing it blind.” The paragraph after that indicates attendees “all support ‘first principles’ of small government”.

Looking at the most recent federal budgets, I wonder who exactly is robbing the country blind? About $1.2 Trillion, over 1/3 of the budget, is going directly to seniors in the form of SS payments and Medicare. Seniors represent the single largest recipient of federal government money. Do the seniors at this convention intend to take the country back from themselves? If they want smaller government, the most effective way to reduce the government’s size is lobbying for cuts to SS payments and Medicare benefits. Somehow I don’t see that happening.

But maybe somebody else is robbing the country blind in the rest of the budget. Let’s see, the next biggest recipient of government dollars is members of the defense community. Maybe the TPers think that our troops are robbing us blind? Haven’t seen that on any of their posters yet.

(Of course, a good argument could be made that defense contractors are getting rich off bad policy…but any time cuts to defense spending are proposed, it’s always politicized as a swipe at the troops.)

Then you’ve got those other nasty entitlement programs for children, the very poor, and the disabled. A lot of money goes there (not as much as to seniors or the defense community, but still it’s a lot). Maybe the TPers should start marching into the homes of the disabled and impoverished children and demand their money back.

And then there’s the interest on the national debt. That’s where those evil thieves are robbing us blind, right? Problem is, over half the national debt is held by Social Security, meaning that interest is going to SS recipients. So we’re right back at giving government money to seniors. And even though a large portion of that interest does indeed go to private and overseas investors, we’re talking about 2-3% of the entire federal budget. Not chump change, but hardly enough to say we’re being robbed blind.

And finally there’s the EVERYTHING ELSE category. Yep, everything else the government does besides what I mentioned above, when added together, comes to a total of about $500 billion. Highways, food inspections, environmental protection, national parks and public lands, payments to farmers (and ag corporations), education, NASA, judicial system, etc. etc. all added together comes to a grand total of significantly less than half of what seniors receive in direct support from the government.

So again I ask, *who* exactly is robbing the country blind??

I have no problem with seniors receiving substantial subsidies from the government. I believe one of the major roles of government is to protect society’s weakest members. And when people reach an age where they are no longer able to work, when their health may be failing, when biology and the demands of our modern society make it impossible for people to support themselves, then I think it’s important and admirable that society as whole, acting through government, is willing to offer support.

But what infuriates me to no end is when those who are receiving the lion’s share of government resources rail against “big government” and demand that government spending on everybody else be cut. I wonder when we’ll see seniors who claim to favor “smaller government” start rallying against their SS & Medicare benefits?

Clinical research offers support of a pet theory of mine

February 1, 2010

OK, this one is pretty far removed from the tax/finances world, but it comes from an interesting article I ran across right after finishing the Finance section of The Economist.

I have long had this pet theory that society would be better off if our legislative bodies were generally composed of common citizens chosen by lot. In such a system, the executive branch would consist of people who rise through the ranks of managing successively higher levels of government, just as modern executives in the private sector generally attain their position. But the legislative branch would be a large body–probably at least 1000 people so statistics almost guarantee you’ll get a random sample representative of the whole population–that would function much like a board of directors that wields the ultimate authority to dictate what the executive branch should be trying to accomplish.

Simple observation leads me to believe our system of elected representatives pretty much guarantees that we will be governed by liars and hypocrites whose dominant attribute is the ability to say whatever they believe people want to hear and sound really sincere at it. Government by lot would no doubt produce a number of completely incompetent people (and perhaps there would be the option for popular election or some other method to cull 10% or so from those randomly selected to weed out the truly crazy), but with a large enough sample, the competent people would almost certainly far outnumber the incompetent and allow the incompetent to be steered along. Besides, majority decisions would not require everybody be on board, and a majority requirement would prevent small groups of lunatics from accomplishing anything–unlike our current system, it would appear.

And so, with extreme satisfaction, I read this article in The Economist discussing recently published psychological experiments about the effects of power on people’s moral compasses. The study “primed” people for different states of mind–either a state of mind of one who has earned and deserves power, a state of mind of somebody who does not have power and does not deserve it, and a state of mind of somebody who received power fully aware that they did not deserve it. This is accomplished by having people randomly formed into groups and assigned to write about times in their life when they experienced a situation that made them feel the way the researchers were intending them to feel–a method that has been used time and time again in psychological studies and shown to have significant validity.

After being put into the appropriate frame of mind, the subjects were asked questions or put in situations designed to tease out the subjects’ feelings about ethical behavior as applied to themselves and others. It turns out those who were in a frame of mind reflecting earned power held other people to a significantly higher standard of ethical behavior than they held themselves. Those who felt they had little power generally held themselves to roughly equal ethical standards as they applied to others. And the group that was thinking of a time they’d been given power that they did not deserve held themselves to a significantly higher ethical standard than they applied to others.

It is not hard to see the parallels with our system of government. People who campaign and win an election no doubt tend to feel that they have earned their position of power. As such, psychologists would conclude, regardless of other personal characteristics, that they are likely to feel entitled to cheat the system and play by a different set of rules than apply to “everybody else.” On the other hand, people who are selected by lot for a position of power would not merely be likely to view themselves as equal to others, they would in fact be likely to hold themselves to a higher moral standard than “everybody else.”

Combining the selection method with reasonably high salaries (i.e. keep the current salary/benefit structure, or even raise it a little bit) would increase the “undeserving” feeling for those chosen and would likely increase the effect. Plus high salaries (and the promise of a future pension for service completed proficiently) would help insulate the legislators from the effects of being bought by corrupt parties.

In the comments with the article, there is an interesting comment discussing George Washington. Apparently Washington’s personal diary and other comments recorded at the time indicate Washington felt completely undeserving of his appointment to lead the colonial army. His career prior to that point had been unremarkable and his appointment was largely for political reasons. As such, the research would indicate he would be more likely hold himself to a higher ethical standard than those around him, and be uninterested in seizing further power through any means available. Indeed, that seems to be exactly what happened.

But while Washington’s intentions, and those of many other founding fathers, may have been good, the system they established has turned out to be one that does not propagate leadership by those humble enough to use it responsibly. It would appear that the best way to achieve a system of government “of, by, and for the people” is not through direct election, but by lottery.