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It’s Lonely in the Center, Take Two

August 1st, 2008 . by economistmom

Thank you, Andrew Biggs, for this entry on your “Notes on Social Security Reform” blog, where you defend the Concord Coalition by pointing out how people hate us on both sides (while admitting one might characterize yourself as leaning toward one of those sides):

I’m a fan of Dean Baker (really). He’s a smart guy who sticks to his guns and pulls no punches, and his work is always interesting. He was ahead of the stock market and housing market bubbles, and called the over-valued dollar several years ago. (My portfolio thanks you.)

All that said, his rhetoric can get a bit overheated at times. Here I’m thinking of a recent column, entitled “Vicious Ideologue Renews Attack on Social Security.” If it were about, say, me I could understand the title.

But in fact the vicious ideologue in question is Pete Peterson, the investment banker and former Commerce Secretary who has long supported the Concord Coalition and now funds a foundation dedicated to, among other things, raising awareness of future entitlement shortfalls…

…I don’t know Peterson’s private thoughts. But I do know that the Concord Coalition, an organization Peterson has long been associated with, takes no position on whether entitlements should be fixed through increased taxes or reduced benefits. They merely argue that taxes and benefits must be equalized, and the sooner the better. (This opens them to attacks from folks like Peter Ferrara, who apparently agrees that they’re vicious ideologues, just of a different stripe.) Now, the political culture is such that Americans will likely want to fix these systems with fewer tax increases and more benefit cuts than Dean would prefer (and probably more tax increases and fewer benefit cuts than I would prefer). But that’s a different issue.

There’s more I could quibble with, but the larger point is ultimately we’re going to have to come together to reach a compromise on these issues, and it’s neither helpful nor, in my view, fair to make such strident attacks on other people character. This is a punch Dean should have pulled.

Alright–look out for our usual commentators now!

7 Responses to “It’s Lonely in the Center, Take Two”

  1. comment number 1 by: coberly

    Mom

    like Biggs, I do not know Peterson’s soul. I do know he uses numbers in ways that alarm but do not inform.

    I don’t know if it was Peterson I first heard on NPR telling the story of how Social Security was going to be a crushing burden on our children. At the time I knew nothing about Social Security and nothing about economics. But the story offended my physicist soul. I sat down an thought very hard for a while and created what I thought were the paramaters of any retirement system. The I read a little about Social Security…from the Trustees themselves. And with a very little arithmetic I was able to re-create the probable actual cost of the “looming deficit” and appoximate where Peterson got his alarming numbers.

    It was some time after that that I discoverd Dean Baker… and maybe all I am saying here is that I didn’t get my ideas from Baker or from a left wing blog, or from any apologist for Social Security.

    I eventually read the Trustees Report for 2007… the numbers as well as the words. The numbers were more honest than the words. Though the words were careful not to lie, they were also careful to leave the hint of alarm.

    It didn’t do any good for me to try to explain the real size of the problem…from quite small to quite manageable…here last time out, so I’ll spare you a repetition.

    I have glanced at Biggs from time to time, and he seems to me to be not quite the showman that Peterson and Walker are, but he is not above publishing the results of serious calculations that certainly seem to me designed to lead the unwary to false ideas about Social Security.

    But we don’t want to be calling names here or casting aspersions about other people’s motives.

    We are wishing we could think of a way to “reason together”: look at the numbers and see what they add up to, but I am also thinking that might be rather naive of me.

  2. comment number 2 by: coberly

    sorry for the spelling glitches. i used to be able to spell. now that i am old my brain has its own ideas about how to spell words. i suppose that destroys my credibility here.

  3. comment number 3 by: B Davis

    Thank you, Andrew Biggs, for this entry on your “Notes on Social Security Reform” blog, where you defend the Concord Coalition by pointing out how people hate us on both sides (while admitting one might characterize yourself as leaning toward one of those sides):

    I likewise thought the Andrew Biggs post was a good one and it caused me to think a little bit differently on this subject. Having a two-party system, there’s a tendency to look at most issues as being bipolar, being like a line segment with the “left” position at one end and the “right” position at the other. Except perhaps for very narrow issues, this has long seemed overly simplistic to me. Some people make the additional assumption that one end of the line segment is good and/or right and the other end is evil and/or wrong. Under this assumption, the center is sometimes looked at as indecisive and/or gutless. In such a one-dimensional, bipolar world where there is only a right and wrong choice, a person can more easily feel assured that they have selected the correct one and declare their assuredness to the world.

    To someone who looks at complex issues as multi-dimensional, however, the situation looks very much different. That person who felt assured in declaring their absolute rightness now appears to be a person standing out in a field declaring to be at the very center of the universe.

    Anyhow, the new thought that I got from the Andrew Biggs post is a difference between the so-called “center” and the “extremes” (since I don’t believe in the bipolar model). Those in the center seem to be more willing to talk to all other groups. Being willing to do so necessitates that they not pass extreme judgments on the intentions of those groups. Whatever you might say about Pete Peterson, I’ve never heard him pass harsh judgment on anyone’s intentions. It’s fine to argue with the accuracy of any facts that he presents or the conclusions that he draws from those facts. In fact, the thing about which there seems to be the most disagreement is exactly what emphasis those facts should receive. To what degree should be focus on the current deficit, the smaller but likely more addressable problems of Social Security, the much larger but more difficult issues of Medicare, or other issues? There is plenty of room for honest disagreement there. However, I think that there is no purpose served in trying to divine people’s deepest motives. It seems that there is only a danger of doing someone a severe injustice.

  4. comment number 4 by: economistmom

    B Davis: Funny you should mention “one-dimensional”… Check out my new post about insults, coming up…

  5. comment number 5 by: coberly

    BDavis

    any time you want to “argue” the facts, i will try to avoid the “insults.”

    what is driving me crazy here is that no one seems to be willing to try to connect the facts together to make a coherent picture.

    it’s all about taking numbers out of context and free associating until you get the emotional hit you were looking for.

    and of course there i go again.

  6. comment number 6 by: coberly

    mom

    any time you and concord want to talk about deficits and taxes without claiming that it can all be solved by forcing people to work when they are old (and that includes cutting soc sec beneftis below survival level) i could even find myself on your side in the middle.

  7. comment number 7 by: B Davis

    any time you want to “argue” the facts, i will try to avoid the “insults.”

    what is driving me crazy here is that no one seems to be willing to try to connect the facts together to make a coherent picture.

    I can’t speak for anyone else here but I have a full-time job and a number of other things that I’m working on and do not have the time to check anybody’s personal calculations. Likewise, I don’t expect for anyone to check my calculations. If you can post a link to a Social Security plan from a public source (from Dean Baker, for example) that you support, I’ll take a look at it when I have a chance.