Monthly Archives: May 2016

A Token Economic Post: Why Social Security Must Be Made Voluntary

I want to start off this post by taking the time to thank the soldiers who have given their lives for us throughout the years of this country’s history. Their sacrifices can never be repaid, and I wish all of their families a happy belated Memorial Day.

For years, many Americans have feared that the Social Security system is unsustainable and will eventually crumble under the weight of its financial costs. There are multiple reasons for this. For one thing, the retirement age has barely been raised while the life expectancy has increased by almost twenty years. For another, only income up to $118,500 is eligible for Social Security taxes, shrinking the pool of money to draw from. Some Americans want to privatize Social Security. Others think the best solutions are reforms such as raising the retirement age or lifting the earnings cap for Social Security taxes. Raising the retirement age could make sense in that people are living longer, and some sixty-five year-olds neither want nor need to retire. But it also comes with its own set of problem. All senior citizens are not created equal. What is “too old” to work for one person is not necessarily too old for another. Some senior citizens are very healthy and mobile, while others are very feeble. As Greece demonstrates, a country in which people who retire at fifty get government pensions is headed for financial insolvency. But a country in which people have to work until age seventy-five to get government pensions may put an undue burden on senior citizens who are obliged to work past the point that they are physically able. Lifting the earnings cap has a ring of fairness to it; after all, it may seem unjust that people who earn $70,000 per year have to pay Social Security taxes on all of their income, while people who earn $5,000,000 per year have to pay Social Security taxes on only small a fraction of it. At the same time, lifting the earnings cap could be seen as fighting injustice with injustice. Why should the super rich have to pay more money into a retirement program that they do not need and may not want?

Privatization has its benefits. Government is notoriously incompetent and often crooked, and trusting it to manage people’s retirement accounts is risky to say the least. Many Millennials understandably feel that they are being forced to pay into a system that will not exist by the time they retire. At the same time, relying on the stock market is probably just as dangerous as relying on the government in this particular area. Stock markets are unpredictable and unsafe by design. Furthermore, what percentage of Americans know enough about finance and stocks to keep from losing their pensions? I know that I lack the necessary knowledge to manage my retirement accounts in the stock market, and I suspect many other people would say the same. Individuals could hire financial advisers or stock brokers to help them, but this could set up a bonanza for scam artists and charlatans. And it might be cost prohibitive for low-income Americans.

In my view, the best solution is to make Social Security voluntary. Under this system, people who want to pay into the system in exchange for pensions could do so, while those who wanted to opt out could do that also. A significant minority of Americans would almost certainly choose the latter option, reducing the amount of taxpayer money needed to sustain the program. It would also be far fairer than the current system. Why should people be forced to pay into a program whether they want to use it or not? At the same time, a voluntary Social Security system would provide a safety net to poor and middle-class Americans who may not have enough money to set aside for retirement and understandably do not want to risk the fluctuations of the stock market. The retirement age would perhaps still need to be slightly raised for people who start paying into Social Security after this reform took affect but having fewer people getting pensions would allow those who do get pensions to receive them for more years. The inequitable earnings cap could be abolished, since wealthy people would be free to opt out of Social Security, while those who want Social Security would be expected to pay the necessary taxes for it. This solution combines personal choice, compassion, and limited government–but sadly, it is unlikely that it will ever come to pass.

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It’s None of Your Business, Now Shut Up and Give Me Money

Last week, the majority of House Republicans, with the support of Paul Ryan, defeated an amendment to the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies bill. This amendment would have forbidden federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Ryan tritely stated that, “This is federalism; the states should do this. The federal government shouldn’t stick its nose in its business.” Of course, this isn’t much of a surprise. Private institutions, both businesses and charities, from private schools to Catholic adoption agencies, have long pocketed gay people’s tax dollars while denying them equal access to their services. Even Michigan, a blue state that legalized interracial marriage in the 1880s, passed legislation last year to allow this. The argument surrounding this issue often involve two contradictory arguments. The first argument is that it is none of the government’s business if a private institution discriminates. The second is that it is unfair for taxpayers to stop giving said institutions money. When Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2014 stating that all federal contractors must not discriminate against gay people in programs that receive tax dollars, conservative Christian writer, Dr. Michael Brown whinged, “How can you attempt to force Christians, Jews, Muslims and others to violate fundamental aspects of their moral codes in order to appease a small but powerful special interest group, one that is not, in fact, suffering daily economic hardship by being fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation or expression?” The silliness of this statement should be obvious: no charity was forced by Obama’s executive order to stop discriminating. Rather, if they did wish to discriminate, they had to do it without gay people’s tax dollars. (Businesses, including private schools and any other “charity” that charges money for services, are another matter; they should not be allowed to discriminate, period, though sadly in many states they are allowed to.) It is logically inconsistent to insist in one breath that something is none of the public’s business and then in the next breath demand that the public pay for it. Taxpayer funding usually comes with a lot of strings–as it should. People have a right to know that they will have equal access to a business or charity that they are being forced to give money to. How entitled and obnoxious is it to demand that people give money to a school that will never consider admitting their children, a construction company that will never consider hiring them, or an adoption agency that will never consider them as potential parents?

Some people will argue that making non-discrimination a condition for public funding will harm the people that these businesses and charities serve, including children. In a 2015 column, even gay libertarian writer, Scott Shackford, wrote that, “Walter Olson, a legal analyst for the Cato Institute, is a contributing editor at reason. He’s also gay and the parent of an adopted child. In Olson’s experience, the more agencies out there helping children look for homes, the better.” I’m sad to see the day when some well-intentioned gay libertarians would actually defend allowing institutions to discriminate with gay people’s tax dollars. But right-wing charities are quite good at basically using kids to extort money without having to play by the rules. Three questions are worth asking here. Firstly, does it benefit children if the people responsible for overseeing their adoption would rather keep from them having any parents at all than place them with a loving, capable gay couple? Secondly, does it benefit children if the people responsible for overseeing their adoption would rather place them with a less qualified heterosexual couple than with a more qualified gay couple? Thirdly, how is it the fault of gay people and their allies if a charity loses government money and cannot continue servicing people because it discriminated; isn’t that the charity’s fault for trying to have their cake and eat it too?

There is a great irony in the statements of many conservatives who share Paul Ryan’s view about the recent anti discrimination amendment. They want to defund Planned Parenthood, because it provides abortions, which many taxpayers consider immoral. They want to prevent people from using drugs or having more children while receiving welfare payments. They want to make sure that artists who produce obscene or sacrilegious artwork shouldn’t get NEA money. I am not saying that they are wrong on these issues, but how can any rational person take these positions while also insisting that gay people have to fork over money to people who exclude them? To those who state that there are other businesses and charities that do not discriminate and that gay people should therefore be OK with funding those that do discriminate, I ask: how would you feel if heterosexual taxpayers were forced to put up money for a charity that only allowed gay parents to adopt or a business that only hired gay people? Even if an institution agrees not to discriminate in the areas where it receives funding but still discriminates in other areas, this point still applies. A church that refused to ordain black people would not and should not get public funds for its charities, even if the charities themselves are not discriminatory, and the same should hold true for anti-gay discrimination. There is a long, ugly history in this country of people being forced to pay taxes to institutions that exclude them. The Founding Fathers complained about “taxation without representation” then did the same thing to women. Racial minorities were forced for a long time to pay taxes for segregated government programs; in fact, the establishment of public schools in the South during Reconstruction was actually a negative development for African Americans, because they were forced to pay taxes for schools that their children were not allowed to enter. The fact that this fleecing of oppressed taxpayers is still going in 2016 is shameful.

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The Best Bathroom Solution

Like probably the majority of my readers, I have been following the controversy in North Carolina. It started out when the North Carolina state legislature, with approval from antediluvian Governor Pat McCrory, passed a bill nullifying all local LGBT rights ordinances applying to the private sector and, generally speaking, forcing transgender North Carolinians to use public bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex. This not only means that Charlotte, North Carolina cannot pass laws against businesses keeping transgender individuals out of the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. It also means that Charlotte cannot pass laws against businesses firing people for being gay. Since social conservatives are well aware that there is a much stronger public consensus about workplace protection laws for gay people than there is about allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, the latter issue is where they are putting most of their focus. Since I have written a lot more in the past about sexual orientation-based discrimination, I have decided to focus this blog on the issue of transgender bathroom rights.

 

The first question we must address is: IF bathrooms are single-sex, which many and perhaps most of them are, should transgender individuals be able to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity? While I am aware that even some gay rights supporters will disagree with me on this, I believe that the answer is yes. In the first place, it is quite clear that some people are born predisposed to a gender identity that is different from their biological sex. There are probably some people who chose a gender identity that they are not born with, which can be attributed to society’s strict gender roles. That is to say, an effeminate boy or a tomboyish girl might become convinced that they have a gender identity different from their biological sex due to society telling them it’s “wrong” for boys to play with dolls or girls to wear pants and t-shirts and play sports. But it is another thing altogether to make the leap that no transgender person was born with their gender identity. This would require us to conclude that hundreds of thousands of Americans chose a “lifestyle” that would subject them to widespread social stigma. Even aside from this point, the idea makes little sense. Why is it so hard to believe that a few people were born with a different gender identity than their biological sex? And if everyone’s biological sex is so clearly defined, why are some people born intersex? Furthermore, by their very language, many opponents of transgender rights concede that transgenderism is innate in some people. Think about when people call transgenderism a “mental illness.” A mental illness is not chosen. Of course, transgenderism is not a mental illness, because there is nothing harmful or immoral about being transgender. But my point is that if you are a social conservative who believes transgenderism is a mental illness, then you really can’t contest my point about it not being a choice, because we both agree it’s not a choice; we’re just arguing about the value judgment. Bearing in mind that some people are born transgender, it is cruel to deny them the ability to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. In response to the sexual predator argument, we cannot penalize decent transgender people for bad actions by some people pretending to be transgender or even the bad actions of a few transgender people.

Unfortunately, as long as separate bathrooms exist for men and women, this issue will continue to remain controversial. Many Americans will keep balking at the idea of people who are biologically male using the women’s room and vice versa. What is the best solution? Now comes the time for a rather unpopular opinion. I believe that the best solution is to phase out men’s and women’s rooms in public bathrooms, replace them with gender-neutral bathrooms, and encourage private businesses to do the same. Businesses that do not want gender-neutral bathrooms should be free not to have them, but they should also be required to allow people to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. This will have a couple of benefits. Firstly, it will reduce the debate about who is or isn’t a man/woman for the purposes of bathroom use. If many Americans can’t see Caitlyn Jenner as a woman and therefore don’t want her in the women’s room, maybe the volatility of the issue will be reduced if coed bathrooms become the norm. Secondly, I believe it will help us to see sexism as morally equivalent to racism. This statement may sound strange, but hear me out. Racism is still widespread in America, but blatantly racist behavior is nonetheless not as socially acceptable as blatantly sexist behavior. Consider this: the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two largest denominations in the United States. Candidates from both parties have routinely gone out of their way to hobnob with high-ranking Catholic officials, including the Pope; Trump’s attitude toward Francis is very much the exception, not the rule. A Republican candidate who did not show respect to the Southern Baptist Convention would have virtually no shot at the party’s presidential nomination. What does all of this have to do with sexism vs. racism? Well, both of these churches refuse to ordain women. But there have been very limited calls for either party to disavow these churches for either their sexism or their homophobia. If the Mormon Church had still openly refused to ordain black priests in 2012, which it did officially refuse until 1978, could Mitt Romney have gotten away with being an active Mormon running for president? It’s very doubtful. (However, it is certainly a double standard that Romney remained a Mormon for thirteen years of his adult life while the church’s racially discriminatory policy was in place and received minuscule controversy over this compared to the controversy over Barack Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright.) Of course, racism is still rampant in the Religious Right, and it sometimes rears its ugly head quite blatantly, but conservative Christians who are racist generally know they cannot be as blatant about it as they can about their sexism and homophobia. One has to wonder if the few instances of legalized gender-based discrimination that persisted into 21st century America contribute to this double standard. For example, when one person compares the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women to racism, someone else might say, “Racial discrimination and gender discrimination aren’t morally equivalent. We have separate bathrooms for men and women but not for black people and white people.” Quite frankly, one good way to help stop discrimination against women is to stop discriminating against women. The best argument against this position is that gender-neutral bathrooms increase the risk of sexual assault. But ultimately, as long as we have a culture that often implicitly tolerates or condones rape, all the single-sex bathrooms in the world will not make a serious impact in reducing these heinous acts. The best way to address the problem of rape is to attack the cultural attitudes that help make it happen.

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