Thursday, January 24, 2013

From Each to Each


Posted by Kim Klein

I got a several comments about my Tuesday blog post on Social Security. I want to share some of them. I also think the volume and content of the comments shows how many of us are thinking about issues of the role of government in helping take care of people.

A very close friend suggested the following reading for those who are interested in understanding why it is virtually impossible for Social Security to go bankrupt. Social Security will be here for all of us Baby Boomers and everyone who comes after us unless Congress seriously messes with it. These articles are well written and easy to understand and they also explain Social Security in more detail than I did:



Another person thought, rightly, that I should be clearer that Social Security is not a pension or retirement plan but rather a universal insurance program that helps protects current and retired workers and their families. Although I referred to the money I had “put in”, and the money I will “get out,” that is not really an accurate way to depict Social Security. She is right. Social Security is a common good program, built around one of the simplest premises of a commons society, “From each according to their ability to each according to their need.”

The phrase above is attributed to Karl Marx, who did use it, but the concept actually comes from the Bible. The early Christians lived communally. The Acts of the Apostles , Ch. 4, 34-35 says, “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the money from the sales to the Apostles and it was distributed to each as any had need.” They were committed to creating a community described in Exodus, the second book of the Torah, “The person who had much did not have too much and the person who had little did not have too little. ” Exodus 16:18

“From each according to their ability” is not only a description of sharing financial assets, but also a description of sharing what we are good at and having others share what they are good at with us. I am a good teacher. I am a decent writer. I am disciplined about giving away a percentage of my income. I am not as good about exercising and I am not frugal or thrifty. In my work, I play to my strengths. In turn, I seek out accountants, plumbers, economists, designers and so on to help me with things I am not good at.

When Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935 he said "We can never insure one- hundred percent of the population against one-hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life. But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his (sic) family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age. This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built, but is by no means
complete.... ”

“From each” and “ to each” is far from complete and it is up to us to continue to create public structures which expand the reach of the successful social programs already in place. To do so will require all our gifts and talents, as well as a willingness to be helped and supported by others. But above all it requires a belief that we are all in this together, or as the late Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Social Security is Far From Broken

Posted by Kim Klein

I, along with millions of other Baby Boomers, will turn 60 this year.  Retirement beckons!  For the past few years, my partner and I have made forays into planning for our retirement.   We have met with retirement planning professionals who look over all our financial documents and then tell us how much money we will have to live on depending on when we retire, how much we save between now and then,  and what kind of expenses we will have after we stop working.  These meetings are completely depressing.  Basically, if we want to maintain our current lifestyle in retirement, we can’t ever retire.  If we want a semblance of our current lifestyle (some travel, some cultural events, occasionally eating out) we must save tens of thousands of dollars every year and perhaps can retire when we are 75.  Of course, if we were to save tens of thousands of dollars every year we couldn’t have the life that we have now:  in fact it is unclear how we could have much of a life at all.   These circular discussions come down to one irrefutable but not correctable conclusion:  we should have started saving $2000 a year in our early 20’s.  Had we done so, thanks to the power of compound interest, we would be much better off.  

Of course, I didn’t have an extra $2000 a year in the 1970’s.  (Some of those years, $2000 would have been my entire income.)  But I could have saved more than I did (which was zero).  I even remember someone saying to me then, “Just put $10 a month in the bank—it adds up. “  So I can’t entirely hide behind the idea that I had no money to save.  But when I was in my 20’s, I wasn’t thinking about retirement—it was forty years away!

Fortunately for people like me, there is a forced savings plan which guarantees an income for me when I retire.  It’s called Social Security, which is the most successful program for keeping  people out of poverty ever invented in the United States.  Recently, I created an account on line through the Social Security Administration’s website which allows me to see how much I have saved and what my benefits will be depending on what age I chose to retire.  (Anyone can do it, just go to:  http://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/, create a password and away you go!)  They also have information about how to apply for Medi-Care, how to apply for disability, and much much more.  It is an excellent site.

And what I see there is that in spite of the fact that I have never been a saver and I am not terribly disciplined about money, the government has saved a lot of money for me.  They have taken over $130,000 from my wages over the course of my life.  If I retire at 66, I am guaranteed a monthly income of $1998.00.  If I live to be 82, which is the life expectancy of women today, I will have been paid $383,000.  Certainly, had I saved $130,000 on my own, I might also have been able to invest it carefully and, with compound interest, made it grow to $383,000 (an almost 300% increase) but that is too many variables for me.  And that fact is I may live longer than 82 and I will continue to get this money for as long as I live. 

And keep in mind that Social Security is more than just a retirement program. It provides important life insurance and disability insurance protection as well.  In fact, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorites,  “as of June 2012, 56 million people, or about one in every six U.S. residents, collected Social Security benefits. While three-quarters of them received benefits as retirees or elderly widow(er)s, another 11 million (19 percent) received disability insurance benefits, and 2 million (4 percent) received benefits as young survivors of deceased workers.” 

There are many irrefutable facts about my life:  I should have saved more, I should have eaten less, I should have remembered friends’ birthdays, I should have told aging relatives how much they meant to me.   Some of these I can correct in the future and some I can’t. 

But  I do intend to make one thing an irrefutable fact of my life going forward:  I will defend Social Security as a cornerstone of a commons based society.   I will always be grateful to President Roosevelt’s administration for creating this program and to all the politicians who have kept it from being privatized or eliminated.   It works and it works for a lot of people. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Ode to Wikipedia

Posted By Caitlin Endyke


A few Sundays ago I was reading my weekend edition of the New York Times, when I came across an opinion article (which I, unfortunately, can’t find a link to now) about one man’s struggles with what I believe he referred to as “research fatigue”- a moment when he gets so caught up in the process of learning that an investigation into one topic quickly turns into a study cluttered with dusty library tomes on topics that strayed far from his original assignment.  Basically, it was a somewhat self-aggrandizing piece about the own author’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his ability to speed-read.  But, as a stereotypical millennial entrenched in the world of the internet, my first reaction to the article was, “this guy is essentially describing the modern day Wikipedia Spiral” (The “Wikipedia Spiral” starts innocently enough- you see an actor on a TV show that you recognize but can’t place, and a quick Google search leads you to his or her Wikipedia page.  A few paragraphs in, there’s a link to the page about his or her hometown.  And you’re clicking on that because now you’re wondering what the current population of that city is, which quickly leads you to the history of their baseball team and whether or not they’ve ever won the World Series.  Before you know it it’s been 45 minutes since that TV show ended and somehow you’ve ended up on a page about asparagus).

But as I thought about Wikipedia and the many hours that it has probably taken of my life, I thought about how it actually serves as a great example of the benefits of a commons-based approach.  Wikipedia is entirely run by volunteers- anyone with expertise in one specific slice of knowledge can create a page, and users who notice errors on others’ pages can edit them to correct the details.  While many assume that this level of crowd-sourcing leads to a lot of mis-information, the reality is that most pages of Wikipedia (especially those that are most-often visited) are just as, if not more, factually correct as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Vandalism of pages (as Wikipedia users call purposeful additions or editing of content that is inaccurate or unrelated) are fixed quickly by page editors or other users.  All references used to create the page are listed at the bottom, so knowledge-seekers can get to the more in-depth sources quickly. While most librarians wouldn’t accept a Wikipedia source as an end note on an academic paper, a lot have come around to the idea that it provides a broad glimpse at topics that can be good jumping off points for more in depth research.  In terms of delivering knowledge to the public, it eliminates some academic gate-keeping that ensures only established experts are part of the discussion. 

Granted, I’m not championing Wikipedia as a bastion of academic study.  But I think it's interesting to look at the internet as a place where a commons-based approach is often carried out, and this is one large example of what that kind of approach has provided- a useful, self-sustaining resource that is free to access and democratically run. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Freedom and Fear

Posted by Kim Klein

I have a memory of a Gil Scott Heron song about freedom and fear that talks about a security state so invasive that the only freedom we have left is the freedom to be afraid.  In the following article, we again see how fear is a big business and the USA, under our supposedly liberal president, is expanding its "War on Terror" in truly terrifying ways.

Note: The following is an excerpt of this article, which appears in The Guardian. To read the full text, head here

The 'war on terror' - by design - can never end 
by Glenn Greenwald

Last month, outgoing pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson gave a speech at the Oxford Union and said that the War on Terror must, at some point, come to an end:

    "Now that efforts by the US military against al-Qaida are in their 12th year, we must also ask ourselves: How will this conflict end? . . . . 'War' must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs. We must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the 'new normal.' Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives. . . .

    "There will come a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, that al-Qaida will be effectively destroyed."

On Thursday night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow interviewed Johnson, and before doing so, she opined as follows:

    "When does this thing we are in now end? And if it does not have an end — and I'm not speaking as a lawyer here, I am just speaking as a citizen who feels morally accountable for my country's actions — if it does not have an end, then morally speaking it does not seem like it is a war. And then, our country is killing people and locking them up outside the traditional judicial system in a way I think we maybe cannot be forgiven for."
It is precisely the intrinsic endlessness of this so-called "war" that is its most corrupting and menacing attribute, for the reasons Maddow explained. But despite the happy talk from Johnson, it is not ending soon. By its very terms, it cannot. And all one has to do is look at the words and actions of the Obama administration to know this.
...

Read the full article

 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Debating at the Water Cooler

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

A little background before I begin. As Kim mentioned when I started writing for this blog, I work at the Building Movement Project, which is an affiliate program of the national think-tank Demos.  From the spring of 2010 until the fall of 2012, Demos operated in partnership with The American Prospect, a national progressive magazine.  While no longer officially affiliated, the organizations maintain a close working relationship.

This explains why earlier this week the staff received notice of this article, published in the New York Times, about how The American Prospect recently decided to lease part of their office space in DC to The American Conservative, another magazine that is self-described as “the bastion of traditional conservatism”. The two publications will share one floor of an office building on Rhode Island Avenue.

Apparently the lease agreement was first pitched over a lunch meeting between the publishers of the two publications, who were both facing tough economic prospects in a time hard on print journalism.  Each staff was consulted separately, and the overall conclusion was that, while the magazines certainly had very different political ideologies, they each respected the journalistic integrity of the other and therefore agreed to the arrangement. Staffers from both sides quoted in the article mention that they see the new configuration of space as mutually beneficial, and not just financially.  A web editor from The Conservative notes, “Since we do not directly compete, we can only benefit from sharing ideas, formally and informally”.

So, on the 12th floor of an office building in Washington, DC, we at least have one example of two entities, each on an opposite end of the ideological spectrum, coming together in shared respect to find a creative solution for a problem both are facing.  They’ve created a (literal) common space to work, interact, and, I’m sure, debate- all for a mutual benefit.  At a time when it seems as though people on either side of the political divide can barely agree on a place for lunch, never mind a real estate contract, perhaps these magazines have a few things to teach their DC neighbors on Capitol Hill.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Fiscal Cliff vs. Social Safety Net

Posted by Kim Klein

Around this time of year I write to, and hear from, a lot of people I would like to be in touch with more often. One such is a friend in Quebec who has two young children.  She recently lost her job and then her husband lost his job.  I wrote sympathizing with the financial stress they are under.  I wrote,  “Financial worry can be so corrosive.  I remember when I was starting my consulting practice, I went through a time of having almost no work and I wondered if I would wind up homeless.” 

She wrote back,  “Even though it has been tough, I must admit the thought of being homeless never crossed our minds even once. But the events of the past year sure made me appreciate our social safety net. You will appreciate the details in view of how this relates to the Commons:  apart from having full medical coverage for ourselves and both our children, we benefited from 55 weeks of leave for each kid (18 maternity, 5 paternity, and 32 parental - to be shared any way we liked).  We also benefited from employment insurance after losing our jobs. In the last three years that was a total of 159 weeks covering between 55 and 70% of at least one of our salaries.” 

For me, the most amazing part of her letter is the sentence, “the thought of being homeless never crossed our minds even once.”  I believe that if you talk to any American making less than $250,000 (which is 98% of us) you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at some time, however briefly, wondered if she or he were going to be homeless.  Of course for most of us this is an irrational fear and time spent wondering if we will be homeless could be spent helping those who don’t need to wonder because they already are homeless.  But we hear too many stories, and as I have gotten older, I know personally many adults who are couch surfing, living in crowded conditions with parents or siblings, or even in one or two cases, living in their car temporarily.  Not yet homeless, but close enough. 

So today, as I returned to work, I couldn’t help but be nauseated by the outcome of the “fiscal cliff” debate.  The deal that just passed made the Bush tax cuts permanent for households making up to $450,000. This represents a $9,200 tax cut for people making more than $35,000 a month!  The even bigger giveaway was in the estate tax.  (I must digress and note that the spineless mainstream nonprofit sector was so busy fighting for the charitable tax deduction to stay at 35% instead of 28%, they just let the estate tax fight go.)

 As Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik explains:  “There's no purer giveaway to the wealthy than this. The final deal raises the tax to 40% from 35% on estates over $10 million. (That figure is for couples, whose estates are each entitled to a $5-million exemption upon their deaths.) The alternative was to return to 2009 law, which set the tax at 45% on couples' estates more than $7 million. Who pays the estate tax? In 2011, about 1,800 taxpayers died leaving estates of more than $10 million. Their average estate was somewhere from $30 million to $40 million. Their heirs cashed in on some of the most nimble tax planning on Earth: Although the statutory top rate was 35%, the average rate on estates of even $20 million-plus (the average gross value of which was $65 million) came to only 16.2%.”

I am glad I am in touch with my friend because I am reminded again that there are places, and they are not far away, where policies insure a soft landing on a strong safety net during hard times.  And I am determined the USA will someday be one of those places for people other than the top 2%.