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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

The opinions you read below are those of the individual writers, not necessarily views that will become formal positions of The Seattle Times. Respond to STop
(Please be aware that your name and comments may be published here, unless you specify otherwise).

Currently, STop cannot automatically post readers' comments on the blog. However, the editorial staff will regularly post readers' comments. Your comments are sent directly to the individual editor or writer.

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Jim Vesely
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Jim Vesely
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Lee Moriwaki
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Lee Moriwaki
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Joni Balter
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Joni Balter
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Eric Devericks
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Eric Devericks
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Lance Dickie
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Lance Dickie
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Bruce Ramsey
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Bruce Ramsey
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Kate Riley
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Kate Riley
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Lynne Varner
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Lynne Varner
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Ryan Blethen
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Ryan Blethen
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February 28, 2005

Whose Social Security?

Regarding my column supporting personal accounts in Social Security, a critic writes:

Sorry to inform you Bruce, but it's not your money to do with as you wish. A very, very conservative US Supreme Court ruled in the 1930s that once government collects tax revenues the money belongs to the government, not to the taxpayers. The anti-America argument that "it's my money" should be put to rest and the media is the only institution to do it. But you insist on perpetrating the myth.

That the government is the rightful "owner" of any money collected by taxation is akin to an insurance company collecting premiums. Once paid, the money is owned by the insurance company and whether a policyholder makes a claim or not doesn't alter that fact.

The case to which the reader refers is Flemming v. Nestor (1960). An immigrant from Bulgaria paid Social Security taxes for years but had also been a member of the Communist Party, for which he was deported and stripped of his Social Security benefit of $55.60 a month. He sued, and the Supreme Court said that was too bad, even though he had paid his taxes for years and the law under which he was deported had been passed after he qualified for benefits.

The federal government is indeed the legal owner of all money collected under the Social Security tax. When I say in my column that it’s “my own money,” I’m making a moral claim. It’s a way of saying that we should change the law so that individuals can have a legal claim to retirement savings.

And if you buy an annuity from a private insurance company, you do have a legal right to the annuity payments.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:44 PM


Rossi vs. Cantwell

Dino Rossi would beat Sen. Maria Cantwell if the Senate contest were held today, says the Rasmussen poll.

Not that Cantwell is unpopular: She has been politically cautious, and has hardly stirred up any controversy. I don’t think the average citizen has much of an opinion about her one way or the other. What the poll is picking up is a sympathy vote for Rossi, a nice-guy candidate who appeared to win the governor’s race only to have his victory snatched from him in a series of goof-ups and suspicious-looking recounts.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 12:37 PM


February 25, 2005

Race and the UW: responses


Here are two responses to my column on racial (and poverty) preferences at the University of Washington.

This, from a UW prof:

Thanks for writing the column on diversity and preferences. It takes courage to raise these questions, even in the rather mild and oblique manner of your article…

Faculty members that I know, for the most part, do not endorse racial or economic preferences in admission decisions. We want smart, motivated students and we don't give a damn what color they are, or what kinds of cars their daddies drive. I do not think that there is any significant tendency to favor students based on race or socioeconomic class in UW classes. It would be interesting to see statistics on GPAs and graduation rates broken down by these categories. I predict that the preferred admission groups do poorer than others, on average.

This, from a critic:

Hypocrite. You didn't address the issue of "affirmative-action" based on privileged class, which you advocated in your mendacious way. Again, a right-wing hypocrite.

I responded:

How did I advocate that?

He quoted my column back to me, and wrote at the bottom:

Beneath the "diversity" trap is the knowledge that most minorities do not fit in that category, thus you advocate keeping the larger community of minorities out. The net effect is fewer minorities--and in a backdoor way, support "affirmative action" for those who would benefit for your "plan," the rich, powerful and connected to force their dullard children into Harvard, Yale or whoever wants booster support.

I replied:

I don't understand your argument.

He wrote:

Uh-uh. I see the Vancome Man, holding his ears and going "la-la-la-la...."

We went on for another round, but I’ll leave it at that.


Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 12:06 PM


February 24, 2005

Better than W.M.D.

Eastern Washington wants to become its own state—at least, some of its Republican legislators think so. Also Sen. Adam Kline, Seattle Democrat. Here is their resolution, and here is the Times story on it.

The last suggestion I remember for separating Eastern Washington was by a candidate back before I could vote, Richard A.C. Greene, Republican. In 1968, the year Nixon was elected, Greene knocked off four rivals in the primary to receive the G.O.P. nomination for Commissioner of Public Lands. He was a joke candidate who filed for the office and retired to Hawaii, where he was introduced to Spiro Agnew as a Republican candidate for office. Agnew endorsed him, to the mirth of people here.

This was Greene’s campaign statement on Eastern Washington:

The so-called Inland Empire is a trackless waste contributing nothing to the Evergreen State but rattlesnakes and nitwits. I’d offer that sandpile to Idaho, and if they didn’t accept it, I’d invade. It’s high time Washington had a foreign policy, anyway.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:39 PM


Insurance backwards

Medicaid is the government program that threatens to swallow state budgets. Limiting it, as a former state budget director told me, comes down to two choices: “Thin the soup or thin the line.” Utah has made that choice: Thin the soup, as explained in this New York Times story. Cover certain people for routine visits to the doctor but don’t cover them for catastrophic care. Get high blood pressure, and the government takes care of you; get cancer, and you’re on your own.

That’s a backwards way to offer insurance. It’s like a homeowner’s policy that pays if someone throws a brick through your front window, but refuses to pay if your house burns down. Maybe that’s good politics—because it satisfies more voters—but it’s not good sense.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:18 PM


The Rhetoric of Numbers

My most persistent critic wrote a long criticism of my latest Social Security post. I deal with only a small part of it here, which is use of figures.

On the federal budget, he wrote:

We have a general budget crisis. Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy have created a structural fiscal morass as far as the eye can see. The future deficits dwarf anything even the most no nothing foaming at the mouth spittle tossing proponents of privatization have used to scare people. It is burning a hole in our pockets. It may well spell ruin in the near term.

On the cost of transition to private accounts, he wrote:

How’s 15 trillion sound?

On the cost saving the current Social Security by a tax increase, he wrote:

The tax increases required to deal with this problem "in the future" are perhaps 2 per cent of GDP. Critically, this assumes the dismal growth figures used by the SSA come to pass. THIS MAY NOT(and most likely will not) HAPPEN!!!!!! I say let those in the future deal with it.

Compare the rhetoric here. Crisis, morass and ruin; $15 trillion; 2 percent. Big, big, tiny. But if we look at the federal budget deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, it also looks pretty small:

2002, 1.3%
2003, 3.5%
2004, 3.6%
2005, 3.5%
2006, 3.5% Bush estimate
2007, 2.3% Bush estimate
2008, 1.7% Bush estimate

You can take the estimates or leave them. The average federal budget deficit in the past 40 years was 2.3% of GDP.

Using percentage of GDP is a way to make the numbers look small. They are not small; the deficits are large. But increasing the payroll tax by 2 percent of GDP is a very large increase in a tax on labor, and if we wait until 2020 to do it, or 2040, it will be even larger.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:47 AM


Bigger, Better, Bolder, Brighter


A reader who wrote in criticizing President Bush for the Patriot Act and the denial of constitutional rights to terrorist suspects adds:

I don't have a problem with George Bush as President. In November, the American people clearly chose him as their President. I struggle to understand that choice, but that's the way democracies work. But there is an underlying assumption - the voters are informed and expressing their opinion. I don't think that assumption is necessarily valid anymore. The level of misinformation and distortion is so high, people don't know what to believe. Even worse, they don't seem to care what the truth is. And who could blame them? They've been told things are bigger, better, lower fat, higher fiber, bolder, brighter and so on, for so long that it is all meaningless.

I think for a lot of voters this is true. But is the writer justified in using the word, "anymore"?

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:01 AM


February 23, 2005

Social Security choice

I have been getting emails from Democrats blasting President Bush on Social Security—and blasting me for the column I wrote defending the idea of personal accounts. In general, these arguments accuse me of being a Republican shill, just like on the Iraq war, and accepting a bunch of lies.

Well, I was against the war. I called it “a Republican war.”

I support the Republicans’ idea of individual accounts because I believe it is my money and my life. I am one of those people who never liked Social Security and would welcome a way to get out of it. The defenders of Franklin Roosevelt’s system accuse all supporters of personal accounts of having this hidden motivation. For many of us, it is not true, but it is true of me. I think if personal accounts were offered, most young people would take them, and that in two generations Roosevelt’s system would be gone. I think that would be just fine, because there are better ways to handle the risks of old age—more enterprising, wealth-creating ways, and ways more in tune with the American ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The problem with individual accounts is not so much the risk, the “gamble,” of long-term investing in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. The risk is vastly overblown, and is not akin to slot machines, roulette or anything you'd find at the tribal casino. The problem is paying for the transition--paying the benefits of the retired people who are counting on the tax money from younger workers. It’s a big problem. It’s doable, but it would require the rest of the government to get its budget in order, which Bush has not done. The Democratic criticisms of Bush’s deficits are on target.

But the arguments that there is nothing to worry about, that we can let Social Security coast along for another 10 or 20 years, are fatuous. Often this view is expressed in the insistent assertion that Social Security is “not a crisis.” This is a stupid argument on both sides. The concept of “crisis” makes no sense when applied to an issue of demographics and decades. Forget “crisis.” Social Security is a slow-growing but immense problem, and it demands attention. Yeah, we can put it off, but it will cost us dearly to do so. We have already weaseled away ten years, at least: I have followed a national debate on this topic for at least that long, and it was clear in 1995 that the system was unsustainable. Finally the issue is on the front burner. Let's settle it.

It doesn’t have to be solved by individual accounts. It can be done by tax increases or benefit cuts. But let’s have the argument now and deal with the problem now.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:36 AM


February 22, 2005

Taking Your House for "Public Use"

Could the state condemn your home and resell the land for a hotel? Condos? A big-box retailer? The U.S. Constitution is a bit vague on it. The Fifth Amendment says, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” What’s a public use? A police station, certainly. A road. A railroad, though privately owned, is also a public use, in American history, because it is exceedingly difficult to build one without the power of condemnation. But how about a hotel owned by a private corporation? It is open to the public. The public may use it if they pay the private owners. Is that a “public use?”

In some states it is. A case now comes to the U.S. Supreme Court from Connecticut, which has allowed the city of New London to condemn people’s houses for a 90-acre commercial project. Opponents say this is not a public use. The city says it’s a public use because it will generate tax money.

That is not the doctrine in Washington. Our 1889 constitution says in Article 1, Section 16, with a few small exceptions, “Private property shall not be taken for private use.” Local government has pushed the limits with “public-private partnerships” such as the Mariner stadium, but we have not allowed land to be condemned for Wal-Marts and Costcos.

Which is fine by me. We still have big-box retailers, and hotels and condos, without allowing our houses to be taken by the government. I can understand eminent domain for roads and railroads, because they are connectors requiring contiguous property. Also for something like an airport (or expanding one, like Sea-Tac’s third runway). Not for a hotel or a shopping center. These can be built in many places. It is no justification that a particular city wants to attract these things into its jurisdiction so it can tax them.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:41 AM


February 18, 2005

The Daddy Truck "gaffe"


Larry Summers of Harvard University has released the text of the remarks that caused the feminist flap last month. They are here.

There has been much huffing and puffing about these remarks. I don’t know whether Summers is correct, but his remarks are certainly not bigotry, nor would I call them a “gaffe” (though the Times did call it that).

In all the academic stuff, I note Summers’ bit of personal experience. He mentions “my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck.” That is not a scientific experiment, but it is real experience. I recall my own son, a toddler in diapers, staring out of our high-rise window in Hong Kong at the viaduct there, fascinated with cars and trucks. It seemed innate; whether it was, of couse, I can’t prove, but it seemed that he had what one dad called "the car gene."

And what does that have to do with professors of mathematics? Maybe nothing. The two university professors of mathematics I know are, in fact, women. But demanding that Summers apologize for what he said is silly.

At least anyone who thinks so should read his remarks first.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:40 PM


February 17, 2005

Awake Again


When are you going to put something different here for me to mount more unreasonable and irrational attacks? This site is getting a bit stale.

Well, yes. I have to agree with my correspondent in Des Moines, who likes to lacerate my writings. “Stale” is an understatement. Since Jan. 25, this site has been deader than Robert E. Lee. I have been providing my correspondent with no targets.

I apologize to readers—if any remain. Our problem, here at the editorial staff, was that the colleague who posted our writings was reassigned to another department, so that there was no full-time employee who had responsibility for doing it. There was a part-time person, and we could have blogged three days a week but we thought, “What is the point of three days a week?” and so did not blog at all.

Vacation’s over. I am undertaking to learn how to post a blog—and one with links to columns at other newspapers, like this one on smoking or this story on the sex hormones of cockroaches . Do these links work? Give ’em a try.

Respond to Bruce

Read his latest column.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 04:42 PM




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