Our Ways of Telling Ourselves Who We Are

How Americans like to think of themselves changes over time – we’re bold and daring, and the kind of folks who say what they mean and to hell with anyone who’s offended by our loud bluntness, but we’re also live-and-let live tolerant, and friendly and welcoming, and generous – except when weren’t not.

That tolerance thing has always been a problem, as we had to work out how we ought to deal with the folks who used to be our slaves and then weren’t. That took more than a century and is still somewhat a work in progress, in spite of our black president. Now it’s the Mexicans, or anyone who might be from down that way, or who speaks Spanish at home even if they’ve been here, as citizens, for generations. But that’s okay – at one time it was the damned Irish, or the Italians, or those Jews on the Lower East Side. But the Jews on the Lower East Side gave us George Gershwin and Benny Goodman and Irving Berlin – that fellow who wrote God Bless America. These ethnic things work out over time. We’re a live-and-let-live tolerant people, eventually.

Religious matters are a bit more difficult – we tolerate all sorts of religions. Heck, that’s why the Pilgrims made the long trip long ago – they were seeking religious freedom. And when we finally set up our own country we wrote down the new rules – our government would make no law regarding the establishment of religion, and there would be no religious test for office. We knew mixing church and state was asking for trouble.

But of course we were kidding ourselves. We once had a problem Catholics, from the Klan hating them, almost as much as they hated the black folks, all the way up to the point we elected Jack Kennedy president, after he swore over and over he wasn’t going to get his instructions from the Pope. It turned out that Catholics were okay, and now five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholics – they’re fine. And Joe Lieberman running with Gore a decade ago was curious, but his religion was not a problem. That he was an Orthodox Jew was the least of his problems, if it was a problem at all. The problem was his sanctimonious whining, a different matter entirely. Even Lutherans can fall into that, or even Unitarians, after all. Sure, an Orthodox Jew could run to be that man who might have to step in and run everything – no problem – just not that one.

So, as is obvious, things do change over time. But for all that change we do have our limits. Many Americans seem to find Hindus and Buddhists silly, and cannot understand those are two somewhat different things. And this was strange stuff, so we made such stuff into fads. In the fifties the Beats appropriated Zen Buddhism – Alan Watts and all that – as the Shinto stuff was just boring. In the sixties the Beatles and a whole lot of others were off to India to meet with this maharishi or that – Hinduism, the precursor to Buddhism, was cool. But that wasn’t so much about Hinduism – it was just for the Transcendental Meditation stuff and the amazing sitar trance music. Actual Hinduism was too thorny. And now Midwestern housewives just do something like yoga in the gym down the street from the Wal-Mart, in hopes of losing a few pounds. Yep, you can say they are seeking enlightenment, if you like puns.

And of course we cannot tolerate Islam – those folks want to kill us all. We have our limits. If you have Muslim friends, or you’re in the systems business and have associates in Lahore and places like that, you know this is a bit silly. But there is no doubt that’s how people think. You remember Glenn Beck interviewing the first-ever Muslim member of Congress – “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.”

That was from when Beck was still with CNN – Fox News snapped him up soon after, as Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes must have sensed Beck was a guy who had his finger on the pulse of America, and that’s where the ratings are. But then we all know what you have to say if you run for any office in America – you love Jesus and he’s your personal savior and somewhere along the way you were born again, or if you’re a Jew you remind people that your people came from Jesus’ home town, and still live there.

Those are the options – Hindus and Buddhists stay away, and Muslims too, unless you’re running for Congress to represent a district that is not like America, like the congressional district in and around heavily Arab and Muslim Dearborn, Michigan. That’s where Beck’s guest should have been from, not Minneapolis. In any event, he had the right religion.

But he had a religion. No atheists or agnostics run for office in America. Who would vote for someone who just wants to serve and solve problems and keep religion out of it? God is supposed to tell you what to do, and you don’t want someone who says he or she can figure it out with other folks, using logic, seeking opinions and looking at the facts of the matter. We’ve decided that’s sort of crazy. And you have to get the details right – the evangelical bloc of the Republican Party would have nothing to do with Mitt Romney, the Mormon, in the last primary go-round. God spoke to Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, and gave him those golden tablets? Not likely. We have no official religious tests for office – those are the rules – but we have our unofficial rules.

Still we think of ourselves as a tolerant people, and point to the Constitution and say we long ago agreed to be religiously tolerant. But how we think about ourselves over time keeps shifting.

And the same goes for thinking ourselves to be a generous people, the kind of folks who would give you the shirt off their back, because we’re all in this together. There too we shift things around over time. Now we seem to be saying generosity is fine, but not that important really. We are a generous people, but sensible people too – we cannot afford to be generous, but really, being generous is actually rather evil. If you help people out, saying we’re all in this together, you only make them dependent, and they’ll keep claiming they’re victims of this and that and deserve help, and pretty soon they’re whining and grabbing what’s yours, because you worked for it, right out of your hands. People now talk of moral hazard – help others and you ruin them, morally. The senate candidate from Nevada, Sharron Angle, argues it’s time to phase out Medicare and Social Security, and time to stop paying people unemployment insurance, as how will they grow up and be responsible otherwise. And she is not alone, just a bit awkward in her presentation – the basic idea is that if there is any sort of social safety net, provided by the government or the church or even people being neighborly, folks will never learn to take care of themselves, and as she sees this, no one will be free. And she points out we cannot afford any of that stuff anyway.

That she is not alone is shown by Brian Beutler in this piece on the growing enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for cutting Social Security – a movement among both Republicans and Democrats to slow down spending there, and the mechanism everyone favors, and it seems will become law, is to raise the retirement age for younger workers to seventy. Middle-aged and old folks don’t need to worry, but if you’re in your twenties, you will not be able to tap the system you paid into until you’re seventy, if then.

That seems kind of nasty, but when something seems nasty the idea is to use facts and figures to point out that whatever it is, it is just necessary – and the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein doesn’t think much of their reasoning:

I’m not surprised to hear there’s energy behind pushing the retirement age at which you get full Social Security benefits back to 70. It’s been in the discussion for a long time, people have grown comfortable talking about the idea, and perhaps most importantly, it seems like a no-brainer to pundits and politicians who would happily pay you to keep working to age 70, and in fact beyond.

But I’ve never liked it. The customary justification is that when Social Security was created, people died younger, and so it was never meant to stretch this far in the first place. But that argument works in the other direction, too: Our country has become far richer than the architects of Social Security could have possibly imagined. It would make perfect sense for us to give ourselves more leisure time, if we chose to take it, at the end of our lives.

And Susan Gardner weighs in here saying this is “a strong and civilized argument that carries a lot of weight, and one with which I think most progressives can heartily agree.” But she says if you prefer solid statistics to appealing philosophy – always the better way to win an argument of course – turn to Nancy Altman in her history of Social Security, The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision To Bush’s Gamble:

Related to issues about retirement age are questions about life expectancy. Many people are under the mistaken impression that Americans receive retirement benefits for considerably longer than they did when the program was created. The misconception results from looking at life expectancies from birth – which have changed dramatically because of the medical success achieved in conquering childhood diseases. But those numbers reflect changes in the numbers of those who survive to retirement, not what happens thereafter. The statistics regarding children distort the overall average. …

For Social Security purposes, the correct question is not how many live to age 65, but rather how long those reaching age 65 live thereafter. Here the numbers are not as dramatic. In 1940, men who survived to age 65 had a remaining life expectancy of 12.7 years. Today, a 65 year old man can expect to live not quite three years longer than he might have in 1940, or 15.3 years beyond reaching age 65. For women, the comparable numbers are 14.7 years beyond age 65 in 1940; 19.6 years in 1990.


Clearly, despite the common misconception that we’re all living a dozen or so years longer than the 65-year-old retiree did 70 years ago, it’s just not true. Andrew Sullivan fell into this common trap too this past week when he wrote, “But the retirement age has in no way caught up with life expectancy in America.” The fact is men are living less than three years longer, women about five. Yes, there are more people living longer because they didn’t die at age 3 of whooping cough or polio, but the life expectancy for an individual has not been extended very much at all once age 65 is reached. Disturbingly, pushing the retirement age out five years as is currently proposed actually means an individual male retiree today is at risk of being cheated of two years more retirement than our supposedly drastically shorter-lived forebears received more than half a century ago.

She suggests this statistic needs wider play, as does all the talk about the “bankruptcy” of the program. The latter – Social Security going bankrupt – is just not so. But that’s just all major economists and accounting experts saying that. Believe what you will.

And as for bumping the retirement age up to seventy, Matthew Yglesias offers this:

This is, I think, a pretty terrible idea.

As I’ve said before, if we’re going to cut spending on retirement programs then it makes much more sense to reduce Medicare outlays by $1 than to reduce Social Security benefits by $1. Social Security benefits can be used to buy health care, and reducing Medicare spending could reduce system-wide health care costs. What’s more, if we’re going to cut spending on retirement programs then such cuts should be broadly shared and not exclusively inflicted on younger people. Such moves are both fairer and more credible. Last, if you want to cut Social Security benefits you should just cut Social Security benefits. Reducing outlays via the mechanism of a higher retirement age is going to mean that the incidence of the cuts falls most heavily on people with physically taxing – or simply boring and annoying – jobs. It’s one of the most regressive possible ways of trimming spending.

But we can stop paying people unemployment benefits, can’t we? The Sharron Angle crowd must be right about all that.

Well, Howard Gleckman carefully considers the unemployment benefits fight:

When the Senate returns next week, it must confront a bit of unfinished business – what to do about extending unemployment benefits. As fans of the ongoing soap opera that is the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body already know, the Senate failed to pass the unemployment bill before rushing out of town for its Fourth of July holiday. And just before the Labor Department issued a discouraging report that suggested private job creation may be slowing.

As you might expect, the headlines describing the senate’s inaction were not flattering. Efforts to extend jobless aid for up to 20 more weeks stalled when nearly all Republicans (and one Democrat) refused to vote for it unless its $34 billion cost was fully funded. Some lawmakers also opposed the extension on the grounds that it would encourage the unemployed to stay out of work longer. Neither of these arguments is persuasive, especially given the Senate’s parallel effort to extend $32 billion in special interest tax subsidies.

It is pretty clear the economy still cannot stand on its own feet, and nearly all analysts agree that unemployment benefits are a strong stimulus. Recipients generally spend the assistance ($300-a-week on average) immediately, which boosts the rest of the economy. It is hard to fight the humanitarian argument either. About 2.5 million will lose benefits if Congress does not extend aid by mid-July. Many of these folks are in serious distress. No job. No health insurance. And right now, no prospects.

Gleckman says we’re entering an area of severe nonsense:

It is true… that those receiving benefits are somewhat less likely to accept a job offer than those whose aid has run out. However, most researchers find this effect is small, especially when jobs are very hard to get, as they are now. With work so scarce, few will turn down a job offer for the temporary pleasures of $300-a-week.

The funding argument is even harder to swallow.

I’d be more sympathetic with these new converts to fiscal responsibility if they were as enthusiastic about paying for extending $32 billion worth of special interest tax breaks as they are about funding the unemployment extension. If I understand correctly, these lawmakers insist that Congress fund every dime of added jobless aid, which nearly all analysts agree will help boost the economy. But they feel no need to pay for continuing these special interest tax breaks, which will not. They fret about unemployed workers who allegedly game the system to get jobless benefits but seem undisturbed by those businesses and individuals who do the same to maximize their tax subsidies. Politics is indeed a funny business.

Funny? That depends on when you lost your job. But we are a generous people. Everyone knows that.

It’s just that the data trapped us, you see. And Keith Hennessey demolishes that:

There are negative supply-side effects from providing unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The best estimates I have seen suggest the current 9.5% unemployment rate is 0.5 – 1.0 percentage points higher than it would otherwise be because of previously-enacted expanded and extended UI benefits. I will start by using the bottom end of that range (0.5).

I use 5.0% to represent full employment. We are 4.5 percentage points above that. If we did not have expanded UI we would be 4.0 percentage points above full employment. That means for every 9 people out of work, one is being discouraged from taking a new job because of the expanded benefits (0.5 / 4.5). Said another way, eight people who would like a job but cannot find one are getting more generous UI benefits for each person who is getting those same benefits and choosing not to take a new job. We have to make a tradeoff between our desire to help those who want a job but cannot find one and those who would choose to stay unemployed while they have extra benefits.

The judgment call for policymakers: does an 8:1 ratio make a UI extension good policy? I say yes. If, however, the supply-side disincentive is a full percentage point, then we have a 3.5:1 ratio. That is a tougher call, but I would still say yes. Given the range of possible supply-side disincentives, I would recommend extending UI benefits when the unemployment rate is 9.5%.

I assume that most everyone would agree that at full employment it is foolish to provide more generous UI benefits. So somewhere between 5.0% and 9.5% there is a breakpoint at which the supply-side disincentive is not worth the compassion benefit of providing aid to others who want a job but cannot find one.

At a 7% rate our ratio is between 1:1 and 3:1. At an 8% rate it’s between 2:1 and 5:1. My breakpoint is around 8%. I would support a (paid for) UI extension as long as the rate is 8% or above. There is nothing magical about this judgment, and yours may differ.

Hey, don’t mess with a statistician. We are a generous people, but when we say that, unfortunately, we cannot afford to be, we’re blowing smoke.

But that’s what we do. How Americans like to think of themselves has always been filled with irony. But that’s why everyone loves us.

They don’t?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Fixing Social Security, Social Safety Net, Unemployment Benefits and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Our Ways of Telling Ourselves Who We Are

  1. Joyce says:

    Great post, as always – your blog is rapidly becoming one of my favorites.
    However, I would make two minor corrections:
    Keith Ellison is not from the Dearborn, MI area, he is from Minneapolis. I have asked him to be my unofficial Representative, since I have no real representation in Congress – I live in Bachmann’s district.
    In addition, the founder of Mormonism was Joseph Smith, not John Smith.
    Anyway, keep these blog posts coming – I not only read them, I share them with my friends and family!

    • justabovesunset says:

      The errors have been corrected. Thanks. Such things happen when your write from memory at midnight.

  2. Joyce says:

    Writing from memory at midnight – that sounds like the sort of thing I would do, without, however, writing as well as you. I love the way you pull various threads together to make your main point.

    • justabovesunset says:

      Well, thank you for the kind words. But know you have stumbled upon an obscure site – a hundred hits on a good day, and maybe forty more than that on a very good day. There are few fans of what’s here – the three regulars I count on are one the founders of CNN (an old college buddy), a Park Avenue attorney who is now the go-to guy on obscure securities law (one of my old students from the seventies), and a big-gun intellectual at Harvard with a few cool books (he stumbled upon the site too). Others just come and go. The lieutenant colonel, now in Baghdad, drops by, but only now and then. Some locals here in LA seem to keep an eye on the site. That’s about it.

      But it doesn’t matter. As I say in the text in the right gutter, I write to get things straight in my head, not to change anyone’s mind or to get famous. I think things through by writing them down. Anyone who wants to come along for the ride is welcome. So it’s a three-thousand word column each evening, seven days a week. It’s what I do.

      But finishing each column sometime after midnight can be a problem. By the time I’ve thought through the issue of the day – or at least the one that caught my eye and got me thinking – things can get a little fuzzy around the edges.

      • Joyce says:

        You can add my son, a Captain in the Army JAG-Corps (headed for Iraq next month, alas), as a great fan of yours and regular reader, as well as a promising writer, if he ever gets around to editing his hilarious accounts of law school and army life.
        I am an over-educated nurse with moderate intellectual pretensions, an ultra-liberal Atheist, a lover of politics and well-argued debates, as well as a lover of opera, raising orchids, native gardening, and dogs.
        Thank you for writing a blog with which I generally find myself in heated agreement!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s