Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mr. Burns on Social Security

Harry Shearer is not only hilarious -- and a cultural icon for his work in "Spinal Tap" and the Simpsons -- but he's also a genius! Shearer has been guest-blogging over at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, and recently wrote on the Social Security Crisis (have you noticed that never a moment passes without a "crisis" of some sort under the Bush Administration...), noting the weird similarity between the current GOP project to reduce the economic security net provided by the government and make Americans almost entirely economically self-reliant, and the 20th century project to create a "New Soviet Man". Shearer's point is that Republicans seem to be as self-delusional as the communists were about the behavior of actual, real humans. This insight makes Shearer a genius because it's an idea I've had for awhile...

Last month, Slate published an article called called "The Hassle Factor" where the author complained that private social security accounts would just be one more "thing to manage." Although the writer was somewhat off-base in his criticism of the privatization plan, as it won't really allow us to choose our own investments as we do for 401(k)s, it was a funny article, and echoed what I often feel about is the downside to living in a free-market economy: making choices is time-consuming and a nuisance at times. Plus I'm not always that expert on the various things that I have to make decisions about. Naturally, conservative commentators were outraged at the suggestion that people might not always be the best caretakers of their own finances. Republicans now believe as an article of faith -- not fact-based analysis -- that people always know best what to do with their own money, and if we just removed our money from the grasping, stupid Government, we would create an economic utopia. But really, people ARE sometimes stupid about their own money and make poor decisions for their financial future. If they didn't, why would we have needed that bankruptcy bill, which basically says that people who are too stupid not to spend money they don't have shouldn't be given a "Get Out of Debt Free" card? Why would we always read stories about Americans' dismal savings rate if we're all so disciplined and rational with our cash? Truthfully, we're not always, and that's not an insult, it's a clear-eyed view of human nature, which is varied and imperfect. We're often prone to immediate gratification over long-term planning; we're susceptible to the lure of bright, shiny objects; some personality types love financial analysis and are skilled at it, others (read: me) are bored witless by the fine print of prospectuses and talk of "expense ratios" or "loads." But the GOP is absolutely ideologically committed to an idealized version of human behavior, and are making policy based on this ideal. As Shearer points out, "if the twentieth century taught us anything, and it didn't, it was to be very cautious about large-scale social projects based on the way people "ought to" behave."

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