Denver Post’s Snarky Fact Check Fails: Ken Buck and Social Security

Note to Elizabeth Miller of the Denver Post: when writing a “fact check” about political candidates, you should probably try to make sure that your own statements are correct.

Consider Miller’s snarky — and obviously false — statement about the founders’ beliefs: “[U.S. Senate candidate Ken] Buck called the [Social Security] program unsustainable, and said he didn’t think the nation’s founders intended to have a program like Social Security (let’s recall that these people hadn’t conceived of a fire department or a postal service, either).”

I do not know the founders’ specific views on fire departments, but no serious person thinks they “hadn’t conceived of fire departments.” [August 17 update: a reader sent in a link about Benjamin Franklin’s firefighting efforts.] But regarding the postal service, we have readily available evidence. Perhaps Miller has heard of a little document called the U.S. Constitution, which contains the following line (Article I, Section 8): “The Congress shall have Power To… establish Post Offices and Post Roads…”

A review of the source Miller reviews, John King’s interview with Buck, clarifies that Buck made no mention of fire departments or the postal service.

Miller’s comment is not only stupid in content, it is wildly out of place. (I suppose it’s possible that an editor inserted the comment. If so, Miller, whose name appears on the piece, can take it up with the editor. If the line is indeed Miller’s, then her editor should take up the matter with her.) A “fact check” article is supposed to evaluate the claims of a candidate, not insert the writer’s own editorial remarks.

In fact, America’s founders did not envision Social Security or anything like it. Indeed, they did not envision a federal welfare state, which is almost entirely the product of the past century. Social Security dates from 1935. So Buck’s statement on the founders’ views is entirely correct, which is all that should concern Miller for the piece in question.

It is true that, at times, Buck has seemed to criticize Social Security per se, as when he said “the idea that the federal government should be running… retirement… is fundamentally against what I believe and that is that the private sector runs programs like that far better.” However, it is possible to think that while still advocating reform to save the system now that it is in existence, and that is Buck’s stated view.

I’m surprised that Miller does not reference Buck’s interview with the Denver Post’s own editorial board, which I have reviewed, in which Buck offers a specific plan for reforming Social Security.

To briefly review my own positions, I have indeed called for the privatization of the Post Office. I absolutely oppose the misnamed plan to “privatize” Social Security by transferring a portion of the funds to government-managed investment accounts. Instead, I want to truly privatize retirement planning by slowly phasing out Social Security by incrementally and continually raising the pay-out age. Perhaps Miller will note the difference between stating one’s own views and evaluating the views of others.

Unemployment Whiners

UPI reports:

Some people recently laid-off from religious institutions in Virginia said they were shocked [just shocked!] to find the state does not offer them unemployment benefits.

Carol Bronson, who was laid off from her secretarial job at Temple Emanuel synagogue in Virginia Beach, said she was told her unemployment claim was denied because the tax exemptions for religious organizations under Virginia law include an exemption from paying unemployment taxes, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported Monday.

Steven G. Vegh of the Virginian-Pilot adds that “under Virginia law, tax exemptions for religious organizations include freedom from paying unemployment taxes. The groups still must pay Social Security and withholding taxes.”

You don’t have to pay the tax, so you don’t get the benefits. Sounds pretty fair to me. In fact, it sounds like such a good idea that I think it should be expanded. All businesses should be able to decide whether to pay the unemployment tax. If I could decide not to pay the Social Security tax in exchange for not getting any Social Security benefits, I’d sign up in a second.

‘A Liberation Package’

Recently I criticized Bush’s “stimulus” package, which essentially consists of deficit spending. On February 14, Forbes published an article by Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute titled, “To Stimulate The Economy, Liberate It.”

Brook begins by explaining that the key to economic growth is production, not “consumer spending.” And “a productive, dynamic economy requires of a government is that it restrict itself to protecting property rights from force and fraud, and refrain from interfering in free production and trade.” Brook then goes on to explain how existing political intrusions in the economy have created today’s troubles. He summarizes the main causes of the “subprime meltdown:”

There is the Federal Reserve, which wrought havoc with the markets by manipulating interest rates, first setting them below the rate of inflation and then quintupling them.

The Fed’s initial policy convinced subprime borrowers that if they took out mortgages tied to Fed rates, they could afford homes that they ordinarily couldn’t. The Fed’s artificially low rates fueled a borrowing spree and housing bubble that were instrumental in the subprime meltdown. Then there is the network of entities backed by the government, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were big champions of subprime lending and big propagandists for the idea that everyone needs to own a home to live the American Dream. Finally, there is the government’s long-standing policy of assuring large financial institutions that they are “too big to fail,” which encourages short-range, high-risk investments.

Brook briefly describes how various other restrictions and taxes harm economic productivity. He concludes: “What our economy needs is not a stimulation package, but a liberation package.”

Unfortunately, it is a package in which few of today’s politicians are interested.

Obama on Faith-Based Welfare

Recently I discussed Barack Obama’s comments about abortion in Christianity Today. Now I want to turn to Obama’s comments about faith in general and about the tax funding of religious groups. The article is from Christianity Today, and the interview, “Q&A: Barack Obama,” conducted by Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen, was published on January 23.

Obama makes clear that he is deeply religious:

I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. … Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.

Subscription to the Christian faith is common among U.S. presidents. The problem arises when a Christian politician attempts to impose Christian theology by force of law. Clearly, Obama is restrained by his own party and political beliefs from traveling too far down the path toward faith-based politics. However, he also clearly tries to support the standard Democratic agenda with Christian beliefs.

In the following comment, Obama does not make clear whether he wants to use tax dollars for the programs in question:

I think it is important for us to encourage churches and congregations all across the country to involve themselves in rebuilding communities. One of the things I have consistently argued is that we can structure faith-based programs that prove to be successful — like substance abuse or prison ministries — without violating church and state. We should make sure they are rebuilding the lives of people even if they’re not members of a particular congregation. That’s the kind of involvement that I think many churches are pursuing, including my own.

However, Obama does say that he sees no inherent problem with spending tax dollars on religious groups. Christianity Today asked, “So would you keep the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives open or restructure it?” Obama answers:

You know, what I’d like to do is I’d like to see how it’s been operating. One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune. It can, over the long term, be an encroachment on religious freedom. So, I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment in terms of sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have.

Obama is rightly concerned about political interference in religion, but he does not believe that spending tax dollars on religious groups will necessarily create that problem.

However, Obama completely ignores the other side of the problem: what about the rights of people who do not wish to fund religious organizations? Religious freedom entails the right not to support religious groups against one’s choice.

The example of prison ministry has broader implications. I have no problem with Christian ministry in prisons — so long as it is voluntary for prisoners, prisoners have equal access to secular alternatives, and no tax dollars are involved. Obama talks about Christians “rebuilding the lives of people even if they’re not members of a particular congregation.” Is this Obama’s attitude also with faith-based welfare? But what about people who are not members of any religious congregation? An explicitly religious group that spends tax dollars necessarily promotes a religious message, however subtly. And the religious group itself benefits from the tax dollars. Again, people have the right not to support such things.

Poverty and Responsibility

The following article originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on January 18:

SPEAKOUT: Loading the dice against responsibility

Columnist Campos’ claims about racism riddled with confusions

By Ari Armstrong

Friday, January 18, 2008

The ever-subtle Rocky Mountain News columnist Paul Campos suggests that those who praise “individual responsibility” believe that “poor black people are disproportionately lazy, stupid and immoral.” Campos adds that the same people also mock “the notion that the government (meaning you and me) can do anything but make things… even worse” for the chronically poor. (See Campos’ Jan. 9 column, “Dice loaded against blacks.”)

Campos’ claims are riddled with confusions. There is no contradiction between upholding individual responsibility and finding problems with the circumstances in which the chronically poor find themselves. Nobody disputes the historical fact that slavery and racist laws and prejudices severely harmed black Americans.

But is racism the main cause of today’s problems? Or, as I believe, have a variety of misguided government programs entrenched chronic poverty?

Myriad economic controls, along with payroll taxes of 15 percent, make it hard for the poor to get ahead. Welfare programs have discouraged work, encouraged broken families, and displaced voluntary charity. Government-run schools and other programs often underserve the poor. This is a real (and complicated) debate, and Campos cannot win it by unfairly insinuating that his opponents are racists.

Campos suggests that one must either blame individuals or blame their circumstances. Often that is a false alternative. In fact, as various black leaders have passionately argued, blacks trapped in poverty often exacerbate their own problems. (The point is true regardless of race.) Somebody who impregnates a teenage girl with no plans to raise the child cannot merely blame racists or the government for such behavior. Gangsters who rob and kill, and hook children on drugs are morally responsible for their acts.

The fact is that some people born into chronic poverty break the cycle, earn a decent education, and rise to the middle class or beyond. They are able to do it through strength of character. At the same time, others born to advantage waste their lives. As people should be blamed for their irresponsible behavior, so they should be praised for their achievements. Individual responsibility works both ways.

Campos claims that “the government” consists merely of “you and me,” so why be skeptical of its potential for social planning? This is an odd claim, for Campos implies through his broader comments that some people are politically powerless. In fact, politics is plagued by interest groups and political payoffs. Are welfare programs somehow immune from such problems?

Campos’ broader error is to ignore the particular nature of government. It makes a difference whether “you and I” rely on persuasion and voluntary interaction, or whether we bring to bear the force of government. I believe that it is precisely because political programs rely upon the forcible redistribution of wealth and the forcible restraint of voluntary interaction that such programs tend to miss their lofty aims.

That is not to say that government plays no legitimate role.

Government can be effective when it sticks to protecting people’s rights – that is, preventing crime and protecting people and their property from violence. Higher crime is a major reason why the chronically poor have trouble getting ahead, and government dramatically improves the lot of the poor by protecting people’s rights.

Campos fundamentally misrepresents the arguments of those who champion individual responsibility. Partly because of that, he also fails to make his own case. And for that I blame Paul Campos, not his background or circumstances. Individual responsibility applies to everyone.

Ari Armstrong edits FreeColorado.com and blogs at AriArmstrong.com. He is a resident of Westminster.

Welcome Rocky Readers

Today my Speakout, “Loading the dice against responsibility: Columnist Campos’ claims about racism riddled with confusions,” ran in the Rocky Mountain News. Here are a few quotes:

Myriad economic controls, along with payroll taxes of 15 percent, make it hard for the poor to get ahead. Welfare programs have discouraged work, encouraged broken families, and displaced voluntary charity. Government-run schools and other programs often underserve the poor. …

[S]ome people born into chronic poverty break the cycle, earn a decent education, and rise to the middle class or beyond. They are able to do it through strength of character. At the same time, others born to advantage waste their lives. …

It makes a difference whether “you and I” rely on persuasion and voluntary interaction, or whether we bring to bear the force of government. I believe that it is precisely because political programs rely upon the forcible redistribution of wealth and the forcible restraint of voluntary interaction that such programs tend to miss their lofty aims.

If you’re viewing this web page for the first time based on the reference in the News, this page is dedicated primarily to covering Colorado politics from a perspective of individual rights and free markets. I just recently converted the page to a blog format; feel free to check out the archived articles. I’ve also dedicated my blog at AriArmstrong.com to issues involving religion (from a perspective critical of religion). My plan is to add comments to both web pages nearly every day, so I hope you’ll consider returning.

What Welfare Encourages

In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart hears the story of a man who lived through a localized scheme of pure collectivism, in which the doctrine, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” was the rule. The man tells her:

It didn’t take us long to see how it all worked out. Any man who tried to play straight, had to refuse himself everything. He lost his taste for any pleasure… He felt ashamed of every mouthful of food he swallowed, wondering whose weary nights of overtime had paid for it, knowing that his food was not his by right, miserably wishing to be cheated rather than to cheat… [H]e couldn’t marry or bring children into the world, when he could plan nothing, promise nothing, count on nothing. But the shiftless and the irresponsible had a field day of it. They bred babies… they got more sickness than any doctor could disprove, they ruined their clothing, their furniture, their homes — what the hell, “the family” was paying for it! They found more ways of getting in “need” than the rest of us could ever imagine — they developed a special skill for it, which was the only ability they showed. (pages 619-20)

Or, in economic terms, “You get more of what you subsidize.”

We do not live under pure collectivism; we live under a welfare state, in which a minority of our income is forcibly redistributed to others. But, to the extent that we live under the same principle, do we see the same effects? As I’ve suggested, we do indeed.

Welfare for All

One might think that the welfare state started out soaking the rich in order to subsidize the poor. Yet the Social Security payroll tax, a regressive tax in its collection, has always redistributed wealth from the young to the elderly, regardless of income, though the distribution does favor the poor somewhat. Increasingly, the welfare state is about soaking the middle class in order to subsidize the middle class.

Ernest Istook of the Heritage Foundation provided some scary numbers in a recent editorial. He writes, “Today, almost half of America’s children — 45 percent — have their health care paid for by taxpayers. The children’s health bill (SCHIP) now before Congress would boost this to 55 percent.” SCHIP stands for “State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” which is (obviously) mostly funded by federal tax dollars, Istook notes. Istook calls the jump from 45 to 55 percent “the tipping point.” However, not only could SCHIP put most children in government-run health care, it could increase tax-funding of all health care from “almost half” to “the majority of all health care.” Istook predicts, “Eventually, the whole country would be under Washington-run health care, using tax dollars to pay the bills.”

The SCHIP bill claims to cover kids in families earning three times the level of poverty — $62,000 for a family of four — but it goes further, because states are free to disregard huge chunks of income to make more people eligible. This “free” health care for the middle class mostly substitutes government coverage for existing private insurance, because more than three-quarters (77 percent) of the kids who would be newly eligible are already covered by private policies.

Yes, SCHIP would redistribute wealth from from those with more money to those with less — on average. However, SCHIP would also redistribute more money from people like my wife and me, who have put off having children because of our insane tax burden, to people who choose to have children but not financially support them. The main problem with the welfare state is not that it punishes productivity to reward poverty. Its problem is that it punishes the responsible in order to reward the irresponsible.

Let me say this. It is likely that, when my wife and I finally manage to crawl our way out of debt despite handing over many thousands of dollars every year in taxes, we will make less than $62,000 per year as a household, primarily because we’ve decided to raise our (potential) children ourselves, rather than let government employees raise them. All of you pathetic vote buyers and faux social do-gooders can keep your goddamn “socialism for the children.” We want no part of it. We don’t want the government to force other people to pay for the health care of our children. No self-respecting parent wants that. But, as the welfare state expands, our culture does not value self-respecting parents; it values political nannies.

We ask for only one thing. We ask for you to leave us the hell alone. If you’d just leave us alone — leave us alone, for Christ’s sake! — we’d have no problem affording children or their health care.

GOP: Dems Spend Too Little

Recently I pointed out that Republicans want the government to spend more money. They really mean it. Just today Colorado Republicans blasted Democrat Bill Ritter, the governor, for proposing to spend too little more on higher education. The release states:

Senate Republican leaders said they were underwhelmed today after the governor proposed only a modest funding increase for higher education next year rather than the significant, long-term revenue stream that the state’s campuses need.

The idea that Republicans support free markets or limited government is a laugh. They support spending more of other people’s money on education and subjecting colleges to more government controls.

But do the Republicans really think they can out-Democrat the Democrats to win elections? I’m sure the state’s Democrats will be only too happy to implement — and take credit for — the Republican schemes to expand the power of government.