The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Tue, 01 Feb 2005 Undermining Social Security

So Bush's latest packet of lies is the attempt to convince us that Social Security is doomed, and needs to be replaced with private accounts. I've read the RNC's 200-plus page briefing guide. I've heard the pundits interviewed. The propaganda is working.

One of the arguments I keep hearing is that "XXX percent of young people of age YYY believe that Social Security will not be available to them when they retire." Bizarrely, we're expected to take this as evidence of a problem with Social Security. Of course, all it tells us is that decades of concerted propaganda has succeeded in casting widespread doubt on the viability of the program.

Take a look at the article "The Trillion Dollar Hustle," from Harpers Magazine, June 2002 issue. You can Google "Thomas Frank Trillion Dollar Hustle." Take a look at the New York Times Magazine's article of Sunday, 16 January, by Roger Lowenstein, entitled "A Question of Numbers." Ask yourself whether you should be getting your information from surveys of twenty-something Fox News watchers, or people who have actually studied the issues.

Why have millions of dollars been spent to convince us that Social Security is a failing Ponzi Scheme? It is, really, strictly a matter of ideology. It has nothing to do with whether Social Security is bankrupt or not, or successful or not. Fundamentally, the anti-Social Security activits don't believe in the concept of civil society. You can hear this undercurrent on talk shows across the country, although it is rarely stated.

"I've got enough money for my retirement," the argument goes, "because I worked hard and carefully invested my money. You, on the other hand, who fiddled around and didn't manage to demonstrate the necessary Personal Responsibility," they say, "didn't. And there's no way in hell that you should expect me, the paragon of virtue, to help you survive in retirement. Doing so would just foster dependency, not virtue, in you."

Because we all know that successful people are all self-made, and never got any benefits themselves from civil society. Yes, at the bottom, it comes down to "throw grandma from the train."

Never mind that Social Security is fundamentally insurance, and not designed to give anyone a cushy retirement, but just to guarantee that our elderly aren't starving in the streets. That it covers more than just the elderly - it also provides disability insurance. It helped my mother, for example, by supplementing her income after my father divorced her, leaving her with two young children to raise on her own income, and helped her to get on her feet financially.

There are some minor adjustments required periodically to adjust Social Security to handle changing demographics. Privatization has Wall Street money managers salivating. Imagine, a thousand Enrons, a thousand WorldComs! It's a neoconservative wet dream. But it is a disaster in the making, the undermining of an incredibly efficient and effective government program.

Mark my words: if this gets underway, Social Security will be working in a few years about as effectively as our system of health insurance is working now. (Hint: of about 700,000 bankruptcies declared in 2001, most of which were related to medical bills, and in most cases the families involved had health insurance.)

We wonder why people in other countries look down on us. It's because we are just greedy and self-centered enough to do this, in the guise of promoting an "ownership society" by people who own it and "personal responsibility" by people who don't have any.

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Wed, 10 Nov 2004 Election 2004

Well, the election came and went. Although I am very troubled by all the reports of voting anomalies, voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, and perhaps outright fraud, I don't believe that the election irregularities were sufficient to throw the key states. So, let me go on the record: I accept the results of the election. Bush won.

That said, when I mention election irregularities, I don't want to hear "oh, you're just mad because your guy didn't win." There's a lot of that flying around. It is maddening; it puts the election on the same footing as a football game, and just frames democrats as sore losers. There were serious irregularities. The most compelling evidence is the Berkeley study. Bev Harris and her team find mismanagement and suspicious behavior everywhere they look. Ballots left in boxes, lost, shredded, thrown in the trash. I could easily be convinced that the true intent of the voters was not expressed, but as of yet the evidence is suggestive and not conclusive.

Now, what it suggests is that every American of any political affiliation should be outraged. The people who treat our ballots like yesterday's newspaper should be fired or, better yet, prosecuted. Voter intimidation and disenfranchisement is not the same as trying to shout down your football team's opposing fans at a game. The sports metaphor is absolutely the wrong frame, to use Lakoff's word. Deliberate disenfranchisement or vote tampering is criminal.

I'm a technologist, and it amazes me that anyone even slightly familiar with computers would entrust an election to them, at least to any computer system as it is generally known. I believe that a properly auditable and simple e- voting system could be developed, but any responsible official using direct-read, untraceable "black-box" voting machines should be thrown out for gross negligence. These people aren't stupid; they want their dirty fingerprints on our elections to remain invisible.

But your vote is far too important to trust to the vagaries of technology, and I say that as someone who has been programming computers since 1977. In fact, I wrote an electronic voting system, to run a mock election at my high school. It ran on the Radio Shack TRS-80, and wrote individual votes out to casette tape. It didn't yield an auditable paper trail: there was no way for the individual voters to confirm that the computer recorded the vote that they intended. But at least the series of vote records could be run through again one-by-one for a recount; they existed as discrete records, so at least the procedure that counted them could be verified. Now, we don't even have that. We've got machines yielding negative counts, or counts of thousands of votes in a precinct with only a few hundred total voters.

I was just a kid, and wrote my program for fun. But even then I knew that each vote should be recorded separately and serially, to avoid problems with a crashing program or power outage, and to allow this kind of verification testing. The real election isn't a hobbysing project, so we should take it seriously. Read what Bruce Schneier has to say about e-voting; it's the most sensible thing I've read on the subject. Technologies are not panaceas: a paper receipt is not a panacea, and encryption and digital signatures are far from panaceas. But they are certainly a thousand times better than any unverifiable, falsifiable, unsigned and unauditable vote recording process.

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