Samstag, Juni 02, 2007

Third Rails and Reality...

There are three "third rails" in US politics. That phrase "third rail" refers to the part of a subway rail system that carries power from the electrical system to the subway cars themselves, and if you touch the third rail, generally speaking you die: it carries high-voltage, high-amperage electricity, and the human body does not cope well with such things.

The first of the three rails is social security. The second is immigration policy. The third is abortion. There's no particular ranking there: each of them is as deadly as the other. Let's take a look as to why one differs from the other two and why each is such a third rail.

First, and most deadly for any politician, is social security. Social security was a reaction to the first really severe economic crisis in American history, the Great Depression. Sure, there were recessions and economic slowdowns in the past, but in the Great Depression you had the largest relative destruction of financial assets in US history that affected a greater number of people than ever before, and were, if anything, a symptom of neglect and abuse of the financial system. Social security was created to provide retirement income for everyone, so that no one would be either dependent on the kindness of strangers or on family for their retirement. As with all pension systems, you have the problem of the current generation, those who are working and want to benefit from the plan: those that are close to retirement age when the plan is implemented either don't benefit meaningfully (but have to pay!) or their retirement funds have to come from somewhere else.

In the US, as is many countries, social security was set up so that those currently benefiting use revenues generated from those currently working. It's an implicit generational contract, with young paying for old, and for many decades the deal was particularly sweet for those grandfatheed into the system, as they received payments well in excess of whatever they had paid into the system.

Such as system - some have compared it to a Ponzi scheme, but that is being unfair - can only function based on two assumptions: first, that demographics will allow the system to continue to work as such, and that excess funds are used to create a buffer to avoid having to cut benefits during economic slowdowns.

The problem, of course, is that the US is not immune to demographic decline: there are more old folks wanting their social security benefits than is good for the system, meaning that when one works through the accounting, a 21-year old that started work yesterday will not receive that which he paid in: there won't be enough young people paying benefits for retirees in 2052 or whenever that person retires. You can deal with this in three ways: increase payments into the system, raise retirement age or change the demographics.

Now, why is this a third rail? Simple: it's a functioning system, and fiddling with it today for the benefit of someone in 50 years is simply too far-sighted for your average voter. Especially when it means cutting benefits: this is, for the vast majority of politicians, something that you simply don't fiddle with, as you can only lose.

The second third rail is abortion. This is so heavily laden with religious and moral opposition to abortion, coupled with progressive demands for abortion, that finding a position in the middle means that you will be unacceptable to everyone for whom this is a major political issue. Suffice to say that most moral, responsible people do feel abhorrence for abortion, but there is also the damning fact that women will seek abortions regardless of the laws. The current situation is ugly and abhorrent for those who believe that any abortion is murder, and barely adequate for those who believe it is the fundamental right of any woman of any age to have the option of abortion. The current situation is satisfying to neither party: those who demand abortion rights ride roughshod over the religious beliefs and sensibilities of those who abhor abortions, and the anti-abortionists invariably fail to recognize that people are fallible and when it comes to romance and sex make mistakes, for which they are not willing to accept responsibility, preferring instead to abort rather than carry to term (I'm ignoring the pregnancy-by-rape argument for now): women have always chosen this option when they see it as necessary, legal or not, and indeed it makes little sense to unnecessarily criminalize desperation.

The third issue, the newest and in many ways most uncomfortable one, is immigration. The US controls its immigration to avoid taking in people who are more of a liability than being or becoming assets to the US economy and political system, and has done so basically from the birth of the republic. The US is, fundamentally, a immigrant society, but has learned that you do have to control immigation in order to avoid creating major societal problems of the kind you can see in the film "Gangs of New York".

Today the problem is more complex. In the past, many immigrated to get away from lack of economic options or because of political repression. There wasn't much of a welfare system outside of private and church support for recent immigrants. Qualified immigrants - educated, trained, with desirable skills - also were quickly assimilated, as they were able to adjust to their new environment more quickly and with less loss than those from less educated and more dogmatic population groups who refuse to give up their identities to become Americans.

Today, the problem is that people come here because they know that they will be better off, vastly so, than if they stay at home. But not because they are working and are climbing up in the economic system, but rather simply because they are here and can exploit the system for really good health care and the like while either working illegally in legal jobs or becoming criminals. The US economic and infrastructure system is simply too attractive for many, who are literally willing to give their entire fortunes and indeed their lives to simply cross the border without being caught.

And they've been successful: there are anywhere between 7 and 20 million people in the US illegally, ranging from highly successful people to absolute losers, deeply criminal. We want the former and I don't think anyone has problems with integrating them: no one wants the latter group. The problem is identifying, finding and successfully resolving the illegal residence in the US.

Now, looking at these three third rails in US politics, we see that abortion is probably the least problematic, driving, if anything, personal commitment for activists on both sides in the political process. Roe vs. Wade remains the law of the land, and it's a good solution because it makes both sides angry: it doesn't outlaw something that will happen anyway, and it doesn't allow it as if it were going to the dentist.

Social security is the one that no one wants to touch, because the point where a hard decision has to be made is far off into the future, especially in political terms (few if any politicians think beyond the next election: the good ones almost always tend to...). To his credit, Bush broached solving the social security system - that the system will run out of money to pay the intergenerational at some point - by moving some of the revenues into personal accounts, i.e. people would also be accumulating capital, rather than simply transferring between generations. As things were/are, the political time is not ripe, nor is it, strictly speaking, necessary: while the sooner one starts accumulating capital, the better, the system itself can bear another 20 years before the problem appears directly looming.

Now, immigration is the biggest current problem. Like I said, the US is a country of immigrants, one with clear and fairly precise principles about immigration that are reflected in the laws of the country. What makes this a third rail is the fact that these laws have been, are and in all likelihood will continue to be broken and ignored: the desire of those outside the US to come here when they cannot get official visas is greater than the fear of being caught. Bringing people into the US illegally is also very lucrative, and simply being in the US is usually very lucrative for the illegals: health care is basically free (the hospitals will not turn you away), you can con your way to welfare, food stamps and other benefits, and even if you find a "legal" job and pay taxes, you'll still be earning vastly more than what you could have back where ever home was.

In other words, just coming to the US is for many a huge incentive to break the law and come here illegally.

Now, this has been a problem for decades, especially in those states bordering Mexico. It's been ignored because there are activists who view it as right and proper that any and everyone should be able to come to the US, the hell with the law, and because of the inherent difficulties in cleaning up the illegal aspects of immigration: arrest and deport, and they'll be back next week.

But now there are demands for amnesty: of legalizing breaking of the law, and more importantly, of fast-tracking illegals to be permanent residents and ultimately US citizens. This last is the critical point, as citizens vote. Illegals aren't supposed to (and there has been voter fraud involving illegals here), but I think that the political calculation of legalized illegals voting for whoever gives them voting rights is fairly accurate.

That's why immigration has become a third rail in US politics: amnesty for illegals, if they achieve citizenship, would significantly change the demographics of a number of US states, and sets a terrible precedence that basically rewards those breaking the law and effectively makes those who took the legal route, with all the costs and delays that includes, to be fools for obeying the law.

Hence the animosity of conservatives to any sort of amnesty. The US government is on the horns of a horrible dilemma: on the one hand, it would be extremely difficult to deport all illegals without screwing it up terribly and creating a huge problem; on the other hand, you simply can't make it legal for people to be here.

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