The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

I Suffered, Therefore So Must Others

I want to expand on this idea, ably put my Amal El-Mohtar here:

This idea seems right: the first is better than the second.

But the actual correct stance is:

This bad thing never happened to me BUT I can imagine how horrible it would be, so I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.

None of us, no matter how bad our lives are, have experienced all the horrible things that can happen. Conservatives are notorious for being terrible except about one thing, you dig and it’s “My child got esophagal cancer so now I champion that,” OR “Someone I care about was shot with an assault rifle so now I’m against that.”

Imaginative empathy allows us to imagine being a blood diamond slave in the Congo, or there during a school shooting, or suffering from grinding poverty even if we’ve had good lives. It allows us to be disgusted and horrified by people cleaning out sewers by hand (Indians euphemistically call this “manual scavenging”) or what it’s like to suffer from anti-black racism or caste oppression. We don’t need to have suffered something either to say, “Others should suck it up,” or “Others shouldn’t have to go through what I did.”

This isn’t a call to removing all risk and stress from life. Not all unpleasant events are bad. The general rule, now well-supported by various studies, is that short term stress is good, and chronic stress is bad.

When I went to school, we had exam hell week: one before Christmas, one at the end of the year. The final exam week usually determined 50 percent of our marks.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

This arrangement made for “good stress:” it was short-term and made you learn how to take high-impact tests. I’ve never feared a test since then: I assume I can pass any academic test, if given enough time to study, and my idea of enough time is a lot less than most people’s.

We don’t want to protect people from good stress — from short term challenges that teach them what they can do.

Chronic stress or traumatic stress, however, we do want to avoid. No one is improved by rape (prison administrators take note). No one is improved by being poor for years or even months on end. No one is improved by chronic hunger or fear.

The larger questions are why some people are unable to employ imaginative empathy: Why they must experience hell first-hand to realize “Oh! Hell is bad!” and why some can’t extrapolate this to “All hells are bad.”

Life is better with happy, healthy people. Heaven and Hell are both other people: if you’re surrounded by happy, loving people, odds are you’ll be happy. If you don’t start that way, you’ll almost certainly wind up that way. We shouldn’t want our fellow citizens to be subject to damaging long-term stress of traumatic events simply because we have to live with them.

The exception, alas, is that some people can’t learn that something is bad if it doesn’t happen to them. Their depraved indifference is a danger to everyone around them and a challenge to ethics. The people who need to be poor or spend time disabled or seriously sick are the people who think it’s no big deal. Some people, it seems, can only learn that “Hell is bad” if they or perhaps someone they love, spends time in Hell.

El-Mohtar’s tweet, of course, was about the possibility of Biden using an executive order to forgive $50k of student debt.

The good way to do it would be to get rid of the bankruptcy bill Biden pushed that made it impossible for student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy, which would sort the situation out fast (it is NEVER a good idea to make it so that creditors do not have to worry about non payment. NEVER.)

But Biden probably won’t have control of Congress, and this is better than doing nothing, even if some people who have paid off student loans feel it is “unfair.” It was unfair they had usurious loans, but just because they suffered doesn’t mean others should.

The best solution, of course, would be to go back to 60s-style universities where tuition is either cheap or non-existent. The cost is a lot less than any of the repeated bailouts of rich people and could be made even lower by doing something about university admin bloat (that’s an entire other article I may write one day) and a more complete solution would be to do something about credential inflation: Most jobs don’t need a degree and the idea that they do today is absurd.

But what Biden can do is forgive $50K with an admin order and he should. It’s a good thing he can do, and if it doesn’t relieve the suffering of people in the past, well, hopefully you are, at least, the sort of person who doesn’t want others to suffer like you did.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 15, 2020


Our Society Is Built on Lying and Breaking Faith


  1. anon

    Many people have used the argument that because they had to pay off their student loans, or their children’s tuition, everyone else has suffer and do the same. So, according to them, we can never have good things like free public college, student loan debt forgiveness, and universal health care because they had to pay thousands of dollars in student loans and medical bills in the past.

    Fifty thousand dollars in debt forgiveness is a start, but it is nowhere near enough. Right now, we need the moratorium on federal student loans extended for everyone at the very least until the end 2021. Preferably, all federal student loan debt would be forgiven, but I know that won’t happen. And, yes, we need free public college for everyone moving forward.

    We have to ensure that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is never eliminated and more needs to be done to make the process easier for people to qualify if they work in public interest, non-profit, and government. People who go into public service for a decade should have every penny of their student debt plus interest forgiven. It is one of the few things that Americans have gotten right when it comes to student loans and the only way out of a lifetime of student loan debt for millions of Americans.

  2. Adam Eran

    One other point about (nearly) free education: it depends on Federal subsidies, which have diminished 55% since 1972. State subsidies have diminished even more.

    So now, not just the students, but the institutions depend on that ever-rising tuition / loans. This means a professor can’t flunk an incompetent without impairing the financial viability of his school. So…rising tuitions also means graduating more incompetents. Wow! A two-fer!

  3. GlassHammer


    Some can’t maintain a relationship (especially an imagined one) without a risk/reward mechanism in place. They only know of human connectivity as the “skin in the game” (the shared risk/reward) between people. The more removed the “skin in the game” is, the less real the relationship is to them.

    What underlies the “skin in the game” approach is that it gets around the issue of “trust in your fellow man” which is a very problematic concept for people who view others as untrustworthy. So instead of trust there is a mental ledger of what have you done for me, what have you done against me, what rewards have we shared, and what losses have we shared.

    This creates relationships of fiercely loyal friends and incredibly vicious enemies. Additionally it creates an unkind view of strangers and makes their plight easy to ignore.

    I can’t explain where the lack of “trust in your fellow man” is coming from or why it is increasing but I encounter this “skin in the game” view of human relationships more each year.

  4. Joan

    My entire generational cohort would immediately declare bankruptcy and finally get on a path to some semblance of financial sanity. Next is the lack of sane housing.

  5. Joan


    Your comment brought to mind a post Ian made a while back about public decency toward strangers. If you are relatively secure, then you don’t have to worry about any repercussions of helping someone in public, because you know they won’t bring you down with them. In desperate conditions, however, you can’t afford to help anyone else because you’re scared of losing your own position, what little you have. It could be this “skin in the game” thought process you mentioned is a byproduct of people experiencing decline and vulnerability, or at least a common response. Under such conditions, it is a rare person who thinks “I still have my own ethics to uphold” as opposed to “I have to survive so my kids will survive.”

  6. nihil obstet

    An opportunity for one of my pet rants on “education” — it’s more than job training. Let’s return to a sense that education should provide the wherewithal to be a good member of society, to take leadership when appropriate, and to think through problems of ethics. Let’s hear it for the humanities.

    Humans are malleable. They can and are now being trained to be self-centered. Reading literary fictionmay increase empathy.

  7. mago

    Walking a mile in the shoes of others is elusive even for a card carrying Buddhist, Western or Eastern, let alone for the average citizen. Empathy is in short supply given dominant cultural conditioning and values.
    The chances of Biden—an architect of no escape from student loans—reversing direction is somewhere between zero and nothing. Although given his mental degeneration who knows?

  8. UserFriendly

    LOL me two days ago:
    “I love this mentality. I suffered, therefore everyone else should too. Even if the suffering has been increasing exponentially every year.”

    AOC 30 min ago:
    “Things were bad for me, so they should stay bad for everyone else” is not a good argument against debt cancellation – student, medical, or otherwise. #CancelStudentDebt

  9. bruce wilder

    I should not have to explain that the roots of the ambivalence you identify as relating at one pole, to a lack of empathy, might also be attributable to a sense of what it means as an individual to strive and sacrifice to achieve admirable ends.

    Someone could feel that she has achieved for herself something by efforts that also redound to a social good and that striving and self-reliance are being punished while failure (admittedly in the face of adversity) is being rewarded.

    This is not my view, mind. But, I have enough empathy to understand how one can come to such ideas without being a sociopath. I do not share this putative outlook, but I think it politically unwise and humanly deaf to disrespect it so completely.

  10. Temporarily Sane

    There is also the “It’s too bad that things are shitty for you right now but my life isn’t going that great either so don’t expect any sympathy from me” school of thought. It’s an attitude that’s become much more common since the 2008 market crash.

    Closely related to “I’m busting my ass for $13/hour while those goddamn unionized employees are pulling down $22/hour for doing basically the same job. Pampered fucking commies!”

    I’ve heard these backasswards attitudes described as negative solidarity.

  11. Ian Welsh


    fair enough, see the large section on useful stress vs. damaging stress. If it was necessary to become a good person, great. That’s why I went into the sort of challenges we shouldn’t get rid of.

  12. capelin

    “The larger questions are why some people are unable to employ imaginative empathy: why they must experience hell first hand to realize “oh, Hell is bad” and why some can’t generalize to “all hells are bad.””

    I’ve always thought that the breakdown/abandonment of inter-generational households, and even communities, has had huge ripples. Losses, mostly.

    One of them being the tangible daily awareness of inter-reliance, family, and group; another being the direct human-to-human transfer of social knowledge and context.

    Both of which would tend to increase empathy.

  13. different clue

    The Democratic Socialists of America has offered a cartoon based on ” the trolley problem” to illustrate the debate around offering debt forgivness to college students or graduates who still have outstanding debt.

  14. Then, again, we have gain-of-function Fauci. According to Dr. Campbell, a Ph.D. Nursing youtube dude, who covers coronavirus updates very frequently, Fauci takes 6,000 IU of vitamin D, per day. (He presented email evidence for this claim.) A smart move, if you follow state-of-the-art recommendations of the crowd.

    Ah, but Fauci is silent about vitamin D for you, isn’t he? Even if you’re old, and/or have darker skin – hence, you need more vitamin D production and/or sunlight exposure – as far as gain-of-function Fauci is concerned, it’s “Vitamin D for me, but not for thee”. We might translate this as “I’m going to use state-of-the-art, extremely cost-effective science to avoid suffering, but if you suffer, and your livelihood and children’s future prospects are ruined, well, isn’t that just too bad?”

  15. Joan


    You make a good point. I would have benefited from more time with my grandparents. The problem is that some people are born to manipulative narcissists, and the only option is to get away from them.


    There will be people who think “I paid $50k in my student debt when I could have saved it for a house.” I wonder whether a stimulus to help people buy homes could be a proper trade-off.


    Indeed, regarding the humanities! There are many skilled crafts that are humanities adjacent, and I could see such programs being offered together in the future. A literature major gets training not only to be a librarian, but also in book-binding and preservation, manual indexing/cataloguing and bookkeeping/accounts record, etc.

  16. Plague Species

    The problem is, debt forgiveness and free college are not being discussed under the aegis of radical education reform. It’s merely yet another bandaid on the current system and as such, will, like all bandaids on the current system pushed under the aegis of reform, fail miserably. Education reform would result in a 70% diminishment of college/university enrollments. It would be a huge hit to the economy since education, like healthcare, is itself one of many financial bubbles ready to pop like a multi-megaton nuclear warhead.

  17. GlassHammer

    “It could be this “skin in the game” thought process you mentioned is a byproduct of people experiencing decline and vulnerability, or at least a common response.” – Joan

    It’s entirely possible that some people can’t create a relationship without shared experience (“skin in the game”, “shared risk/reward”, “the mental ledger of what you done for me lately”) because they either are or simply feel vulnerable. But people don’t talk about their vulnerabilities (real or imagined) unless they trust you so I have only seen that connection a few times in my life.

    There are numerous reasons people decide to disengage from a relationship until the other person does something for them.

    Heck I worked with a guy who wouldn’t give you the time of day unless you not only did something for him but also tolerated him being jerk to you. He justified this because if you could help him and tolerate him then you “really cared” and we’re worth his time. (Needless to say most people never jumped through those hoops to get to know him. I certainly didn’t and I only found out what he was doing by talking to someone who did.)

  18. nihil obstet

    Joan, the point isn’t that humanities can be turned into job training for skilled crafts. It’s that formal education isn’t primarily job training.

  19. js

    What about the 3/4s of the country that didn’t go to college? They need to walk a mile in all those who did and have debt shoes? But tell me does it ever work the other way around? Are they ever not seen as less than by those with more credentials, as lesser humans, lesser employees, maybe not even worth a living wage and certainly not anything more than barest survival.

  20. S Brennan

    Student loans, yeah sure will get to ’em but first…

    Biden’s priority will be to restore America’s neocolonial war efforts back to where they were under the Bush/Cheney/Obama/Biden/Hillary regime but…even better.

    And in close second, Biden’s team is already signalling to R’s that he plans on making Obama’s “grand bargain” on Social Security.

    Remember, when it comes to war, when comes to decimating Social Security, America turns it’s gaze to D’s.

    After watching the Biden circus, I am hoping Sidney Powell’s efforts bear fruit.

  21. GlassHammer

    “Are they ever not seen as less than by those with more credentials” – js

    Typically they are not seen as lesser, they are simply not seen. Just read the NYT or the Washington Post (the media exclusively for the college educated), you will see caricatures of blue collar workers or a white collar worker imagining what it’s like to be blue collar.

    Here is a fun fact about academic credentialing that no college bound person or college educated person will ever admit, the value of your “A” letter grades is exactly proportional to the number of “B-F” letter grades other students recieve in your class. You couldn’t sell yourself on academic achievements if everyone else achieved nearly thr same result. Academic credentialing like everything subsumed under capitalism also requires scarcity in order to demand a significant premium in the market, it could not be a means of social mobility otherwise.

  22. Plague Species

    And in close second, Biden’s team is already signalling to R’s that he plans on making Obama’s “grand bargain” on Social Security.

    Please provide a link to back up this claim. I wouldn’t put it past this prick to do it, but this time around it wouldn’t be because of the deficit per se, which was always his excuse and rationalization in the past, but it would be to justify a robust pandemic response bill that once again rewards the wealthy elite while throwing crumbs to the unwashed. He and his administration would frame it as we have to give a little to get a lot. The little will be a lot, and the lot will mostly be for the rich but well-hidden behind glossy rhetoric to the contrary.

  23. S Brennan

    He wants to make it means tested [but his team insists that you not call it that since FDR warned specifically against doing so]. So during the election do you remember Social Security being a big issue[?] no, neither do I. That is why Biden is the greater evil..Achtung Baby..Achtung

    How Would Joe Biden Reform Social Security and Supplemental Security Income?

    And just a reminder for those feeble minded folks who’s memory is that of a rock:

    “Joe Biden Lied About His Record on Social Security:

    Joe Biden’s 2020 policy adviser was also his right-hand man on cutting Social Security in the Obama administration.”

    And Biden ran ads saying that Trump planned on eliminating SSI, that was bullshit.

    “TRUTH TEST: Does Trump plan to eliminate Social Security? No.”

    Joe Biden Has Advocated Cutting Social Security for 40 Years, when he says “reform Social Security” he means to finally carry out his extremist right wing agenda.

  24. different clue

    @ S Brennan,

    Joe Biden has always been a Catfood Democrat. He always will be.

    This would be a good time for the Republican Party to pretend to do an about face and pretend to be the party of Social Security.

    The Catfood Republicans would never do this on their own. But if ex-President Donald Trump stays in the country and founds a post-Presidential movement for Trumpism, he can pretend to support Social Security and his movement could terrify the Catfood Republicans into supporting it as well. The Catfood Democrats would of course take Trumpism’s support for Social Security as an excuse to finally oppose Social Security openly . . . . because Orange Bad Man.

    Perhaps between Trumpism on the right and AOC Squadism on the left, we can finally exterminate the Democratic Party from existence and wipe it off the face of the earth. Perhaps fast enough to prevent the Kamalabeast from ever becoming President.

    There is a saying which pithily expresses the sentiment ” I suffered, therefor so must others.”
    And it goes like this:

    I had no shoes when I was your age. What do you need feet for?

  25. Plague Species

    S Brennan, great point. To receive any meaningful Social Security benefit, you will have to show proof you were employed full time for 30 years, otherwise your benefit is calculated as a fraction of the lowest benefit which, in effect, is peanuts. It ensures those who were left behind before retirement age will be left behind, if they manage to live until and beyond retirement age, after retirement and it also pays a larger benefit according to how much you earned. You’re right, it’s means testing. I mean, it’s already means tested but he’s doubling down on the means testing especially when you consider that in 20 years more than 50% of the population will be effectively unemployed due to the Great Reset. But hey, seniors now are good, so it’s all good, right? Screw the future seniors. Who cares about tomorrow? That’s tomorrow. This is today and today is all that counts.

  26. anon y'mouse

    all i can hear is some variant of this:

    i had to write everything by hand, therefore you should have to do so. computers are just a hand-out to the lazy.

    i had to walk five miles uphill in the snow to school, therefore you should have to. it’s character-building!

    i used to beat my clothes on a rock, and wring them out by swinging them overhead, therefore clothes washers are from the Devil.

    i used to walk, therefore wheels should not be invented much less made into conveyances.


  27. S Brennan

    Let’s not confuse someone asking you to do your part and not be a pussy about it, with somebody who wants to see people suffer for the hell of it.

    Parents of my time tried very hard to control the amount of TV we watched…”go out and play..don’t sit around on the couch” and we did. And I think it’s perfectly okay for parents to limit “screen time” today.

    “The U.S. adult obesity rate stands at 42.4 percent, the first time the national rate has passed the 40 percent mark, and further evidence of the country’s obesity crisis. The national adult obesity rate has increased by 26 percent since 2008”

    “We exercised and you need to” is not being mean or vindictive it’s a prescription for better physical an mental health. Let’s be careful how far Ian’s reasonable argument goes.

  28. Plague Species

    i had to stare into my cellphone 24 hours a day 7 days a week obsessing over social media to the detriment of all else, so you should too. threshing wheat is for dumb dumbs with no thumbs.

  29. Willy

    I’m taking these predictions down, to revisit them later. When the time comes, the most accurate predictors shall receive the Honorable Welshman Award. The least accurate, the Thomas B Golliday Dupe of the Year.

  30. different clue

    Part of the present day obesity epidemic is the present day epidemic availability of obesigenic shitfood based on high fructose corn syrup, cheapest agribulk-commodity vegetable oil, super-refined carbohydrate food for super-fast GI uptake, etc.

    People who wish to avoid obesigenic shitfood are going to have to adopt a counter-mainstream oppositional culture somewhat like the hippie culture of old. Once they realize the Main Stream culture lords are trying to slow-kill them on purpose just before the age of Social Security, they may develop the hate-based motivation to learn about the low-fun high-nutrition shinola foods which exist and are also affordable. But it would be hard for people to get this information in a civilization designed to keep this information obscure and at best HIDDEN-in-plain-sight.

  31. nihil obstet

    On obesity, something is happening beyond humans’ poor dietary habits. On the same diet and amount of exercise, people are fatter today than thirty years ago. Wild animals are fatter. Hunger regulation and digestive efficiency have lots of inputs. I suspect the rampant use of antibiotics in food production, which spill over into the surrounding environment is a major cause. We live in a chemical stew. Obesity is one of its results.

  32. different clue

    @nihil obstet,

    One also wonders whether other pollutochemicals in the environment, like the artificial endocrine disrupters and others, are pushing exposed metabolisms into an obesity-response.

    One also wonders whether the constant exposure to electromagnetic fields may play a role.

  33. Ten Bears

    I keep telling people if the don’t eat shit they won’t smell like it.

    [sigh] Cassandra’s grandson, nobody listens.

    It is increasingly, perhaps exponentially, a problem, speaking as one who has spent the past fifty or so years avoiding the slipstream, the shit that goes into the food chain. Short of moving to Tibet and growing your own groceries, just can’t get away from it. When you consider that the thin layer of potentially toxic gasses we live inenveloping the only ball of rock we know of we can live on do not recognize the boundaries of “nation/states”, there’s no point in moving to Tibet and growing your own groceries.

    We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

  34. anon y'mouse

    of course, some would take what i said as a way to blame individuals for their plight.

    what i meant was, the undercurrent amounts to “progress should never occur. things should never be made better nor easier for anyone. everyone must suffer, or suffer inconvenience, even if we have the means to eliminate it for everyone.”

    it’s needless. also, aside from all of the psychoanalyzing, capitalism is a moral system that amounts to instilling the idea that Social Darwinism should be embraced, as all else is wasteful. nearly EVERYone in our system believes that “you have to be tough, and tougher than the other guy, to survive and ‘get ahead’.” so, Ian is fighting a losing battle.

    next, five posts in response about how “kind, small capitalism” can be practiced.

  35. Plague Species

    The more I research the issue, the more I agree that Social Security should be means-tested.

    In an era of scarce resources, Social Security cannot afford to continue to pay benefits to every eligible retiree regardless of what other retirement income they have. One approach to preserving the program would be to provide monthly benefits only to retirees who have less than a certain amount of non-Social Security annual income. Those with more income would be guaranteed that if their circumstances change, they would start to receive their benefits. Social Security would continue to be insurance against retirement poverty for everyone, but would focus its benefit payments on those who really need them.

    Back on November 14, 1934, in an address to the committee that was developing Social Security, President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that “It takes so very much money to provide even a moderate pension for everybody, that when the funds are raised by taxation only, a ‘means test’ must necessarily be made a condition of the grant of pensions.” In short, he said that taxpayer-paid retirement benefits should only go to those who really need them or the overall cost would be too high. FDR appears to have subsequently changed his mind, but he had the right idea the first time.

    For example, under one plan individual retirees with more than $55,000 of non-Social Security retirement income would see their monthly benefits reduced. For every $1,000
    of income they have over $55,000, their Social Security benefits would be reduced by about 1.8 percent. So if they had non-Social Security retirement income equal to $65,000, their benefits would be reduced by 18 percent. If they had retirement income over $110,000, they would receive no Social Security benefits. Again, the decision would be based only on their non-Social Security income.

    Couples would see the means test start to reduce benefits if they had non-Social Security income equal to $110,000, and they would receive no benefits if their income was over $165,000. In the case of both individuals and couples, the decision would be based on their annual tax return. If something happened in the future so that their income dropped, Social Security would restart their benefits. In an emergency, they could start to receive benefits very quickly.

    This plan would reduce benefits for about 41⁄2 percent of retirees and eliminate benefits for another 41⁄2 percent. The other 91 percent would not be affected at all.

    There are many other ways to apply a means test, but all of them preserve scarce benefit dollars by paying them to those who really need the income. And all taxpayers, no matter what their income level, receive the guarantee that Social Security will be there for them if they need it. That gives everyone something of value for their Social Security payroll taxes.

    In addition, there should be no work requirement to receive benefits. The purpose of the program is to mitigate geriatric pauperism. Ensuring that the poor and unfortunate remain poor and unfortunate until the day they die is not in the spirit of mitigating geriatric pauperism. This is especially pertinent considering the Great Reset and its implications on employment.

  36. S Brennan

    If your idea of the “more I research it” includes going to the first AARP website proffered by Google and then immediately posting a HIGHLY selective, non-contextual quote I can hazard what other misconceptions imprint upon you mind.

    AARP is an insurance company with a horrible record of writing policies that do NOT perform as they are/were sold. AARP is not what it sells itself as, it profits by this misconception. When Google offers something up that you do not have a background in, research the link.

  37. S Brennan

    “Why Aren’t Social Security and Medicare Means Tested?” – By Joe Minarik

    “[W]hy Social Security and Medicare should not be even more aggressively means tested than they already are?

    But to begin, some backup for the (to some) surprising assertion. The notion that Social Security (Medicare discussion to follow) is not means tested flows from a fairly simple view of the program’s cash benefits. Retirees who earned comparatively higher wages receive higher benefits than those who earned lower wages, the reasoning would go, therefore the program cannot possibly be means tested. Furthermore, the amount of wages subject to the payroll tax that funds the program is capped – and therefore the tax is regressive, and so the overall program must be pro-rich and anti-poor.

    But as some understand, that simple reasoning misses two key aspects of the program’s operations. First, the program’s benefit formula favors lower-wage workers. Benefit amounts are based on the lifetime earnings history. The first dollars of a worker’s wages are replaced at a 90 percent rate. Earnings in a second bracket (mechanically like an income-tax-rate bracket) are replaced at a 32 percent rate. And any earnings above that level are replaced at only a 15 percent rate. Thus, although higher-wage workers receive more dollars in absolute terms, they receive less back in Social Security benefits per dollar of tax paid over their lifetimes. At the extremes, the difference in the implicit rate of return on those contributions is enormous.

    The second key program feature is that a fraction of Social Security benefits can be subject to income taxation, on a progressive basis – and then the income tax that applies to those included benefits itself is progressive. Once a beneficiary’s total income (including half of Social Security benefits) exceeds $25,000 ($32,000 for a married couple), the first dollar of benefits begins to be taxable, up to inclusion of one-half of benefits. And once income (including half of Social Security benefits) exceeds $34,000 ($44,000 for a married couple) the portion of benefits included in taxable income begins to rise further, up to a maximum inclusion of 85 percent of benefits. This provision is designed to have no effect on the low-income elderly, while gradually increasing its impact as total incomes rise.

    The Social Security Administration estimates that the average beneficiary in 2013 received an annual benefit of $15,528. If that person had no other income, he or she would owe no income tax – on Social Security benefits or anything else (although that person certainly would not enjoy a luxurious lifestyle based on that benefit). As incomes from whatever source rise above the $25,000 threshold noted above, benefits progressively become subject to tax, at income tax rates that start at 10 percent and rise according to the total amount of taxable income. Tax is calculated after a $3,900 personal exemption and a $7,600 standard deduction (for single persons of age 65 or older). Thus, a beneficiary with a taxable income of $11,500 (from taxable Social Security benefits or any other source) would owe no income tax, with tax beginning to accumulate above that level only at the bottom-bracket 10 percent rate.

    The theoretical maximum annual benefit in 2013, for a lifelong maximum wage earner retiring at the full eligibility age, was $30,396. If that person also received other income of roughly $40,000, the full 85 percent of that person’s benefit would be subject to income taxation. At the absolute upper end of the scale, a beneficiary in the highest income tax rate bracket with 85 percent of benefits subject to tax would pay tax on benefits at the margin at a rate equal to about 34 percent (that is, 85 percent of the 39.6 percent top-bracket tax rate). And to get into that top income tax rate bracket, that taxpayer would need to have a taxable income, after the personal exemption and any standard or itemized deductions, of over $400,000.

    In other words, the income tax due on Social Security benefits is quite progressive, with benefits for probably most of the elderly not subject to tax at all, but with more than a third of benefits paid back in income tax by the most well-off. Taking into account the lower benefit-formula conversion rates that apply to high-wage retirees, their after-tax returns on their lifetimes of payroll tax contributions, measured in investment terms, would be quite modest – if not in some instances negative (further reflections on that fact later). So Social Security is means tested in reality, if not in name.

  38. S Brennan

    “Would eliminating the benefits of the affluent make a difference? Not really. In one example, the Social Security Administration projected that means-testing benefits would not even change the date of the projected exhaustion point of the trust fund. Mind you, that projection assumes that no one tries to avoid the reduction in benefits.

    The fact is that people will try to avoid losing benefits. A means-test serves as an implicit tax on savings, which will discourage savings and deflate economic activity. The consequence is to discourage people from saving outside of the system. These rules would unintentionally change the system that was created to provide a buffer against poverty-ridden old-age, into one that fosters it.

    Means-testing Social Security largely postpones the crisis only to have it grow in consequence. By removing savers from the system, the mix of beneficiaries will increase overtime in both number and dependency upon the system. We are essentially shifting deck chairs on the Titanic to make room on the boat for more passengers who don’t swim very well.

    Woodward: Trump testing how far people will go along with him
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    Means-testing creates a more serious problem for how we pay for Social Security benefits.

    Today the system is self-financed. That means it borrows money from workers in exchange for the promise of future benefits. This proposal takes money in exchange for nothing.

    One is a contribution and the other is a purely a tax. The distinction is critical to Social Security because a tax brings along the question of priority. Taxes are allocated yearly based on political priority. A contribution is dedicated financing over time. Social Security has grown into the largest expense in the budget in large part because of the perception that benefits are paid for by contribution.

    Social Security’s position within the budget becomes more precarious as we shift the way we pay for the system from contribution to tax. Voters will ask whether it is a wise use of public money to provide a subsidy to the people who had the best jobs over the longest careers. They will ask whether it is fair to pay husbands twice as much as wives. Benefits make a lot of sense when we pay for them with contributions.

    FDR did not want politicians deciding who needs and who doesn’t need benefits. He wanted workers to have ‘a legal, moral, and political right’ to benefits. FDR did not want the needs of the elderly to be just another political priority.

    Social Security was intended to be old-age insurance, a hedge against the cost of the unknown. It was based on four characteristics only one of which remains, that benefits should not be means-tested or based on need. If we preserve none of the qualities of Social Security, why are we keeping the name?

    It is possible to say that the world has changed since 1935. It is possible to say that the system has become more progressive since that time. It is possible to say that means testing Social Security benefits simply extends those changes that we have made over time.

    What it is not possible to say is that means-testing Social Security makes it work. It fixes the system by giving it a new purpose much like fixing a hole in the wall by calling it a window. ”

  39. Ten Bears

    Interesting… “I’ve done some research” is a Q-whistle. Credibility ends there.

  40. Plague Species

    There is a six paragraph statement I posted. Pick it apart or shut up. It matters not where I found it or who it is. It’s the words that matter. What part do you not agree with, Ten Bears? FDR agreed with means testing before he disagreed with it. Why didn’t S Brennan mention that when he said FDR opposed means testing? Why would you advocate for those who already have adequate retirement income to draw more retirement income from Social Security when its solvency is in doubt? Answer the question, Ten Bears, versus trying to erroneously label people Q Anon who are no such thing. That’s a punk move. Cowardice, in fact. Just like the corporate jerks who were once my colleagues and for whom I have nothing but contempt. It’s dishonest and disingenuous.

    The AARP link provides a countering statement that opposes means testing, fyi.

    Here’s some more research. According to this, Social Security is already means tested. It’s a convoluted and complex process, but it’s means testing effectively, so, how can Biden means test Social Security S Brennan and Ten Bears if it’s already means tested? Or do you think Joe Minarik, the author, is Q Anon, Ten Bears? Too funny.

    For everyone else, it’s an excellent article. Highly informative, in fact, and elucidating.

    The premise of the question, which I recall the questioner articulated at least in clear shorthand, was fairly straightforward: The overall federal budget is in trouble, and the contributory and putatively self-financing Social Security and Medicare programs are not living up to their financial billing either. Although many of the elderly are poor in terms of both income and assets, some have comfortable (or even more than that) wealth, which throws off comfortable (or even more than that) income, and yet they still receive benefits from these universal programs. So why would anyone resist means testing those programs to close their financing gaps – through reducing the benefits for those who need the benefits the least, without affecting those who need the benefits the most?

    You (like me) probably have heard this question often, and have seen it in print as well. Accordingly, it would seem to be worth discussing in some detail.

    And the answer, in a nutshell, is that Social Security and Medicare are already means tested. This answer comes as a surprise to many people, so an explanation is called for. But that answer will not preclude a follow-up question as to why Social Security and Medicare should not be even more aggressively means tested than they already are, and that follow-up question deserves an answer, too; we will come to that in due course.

  41. Plague Species

    Fyi, I agree means testing isn’t the answer to Social Security’s solvency crisis, but it is a matter of principle. The program should be used to eliminate geriatric poverty. That was its original intent. Further means testing may defer its insolvency, or prolong its solvency, but it doesn’t solve it. The fact that Social Security is already means tested in effect and Social Security’s solvency is in serious peril is all the proof needed that means testing isn’t the solution. My bet? There will be no solution. There theoretically could be, but there will never be a viable solution. Politics will ensure Social Security becomes insolvent.

  42. Plague Species

    If your idea of the “more I research it” includes going to the first AARP website proffered by Google and then immediately posting a HIGHLY selective, non-contextual quote I can hazard what other misconceptions imprint upon you mind.

    Too funny. You say this and then you provide a link to a Joe Minarik article at the CED. It doesn’t matter to me because it’s an excellent article, but you break your own standard. You have often decried Neoliberalism at this blog and Centrism and yet that is what CED is and that is what Joe Minarik is. CED is a Centrist think tank and Minarik is a Centrist, gasp, economist. Don’t worry, I won’t, like Ten Bears has done to me, label you Q Anon because I know you’re not. You’re intelligent, but you’re rightfully angry and your anger makes you support someone like Trump. Many people supported Hitler for the same reason.

  43. nihil obstet

    The overall federal budget is in trouble.

    Can you explain this statement which is the apparent basis for everything else in your discussion? If you believe it, then

    Adjust taxes, preferably to virtually confiscatory on obscene wealth.

    Audit the Pentagon. Once you’ve shaken the change out of the sofa cushions over there, eliminate weapons purchases that reduce America’s ability to fight. Then, even better, eliminate the buildup to fighting that makes war irresistible to our psychopathic leaders.

    Get the crazy so-called intellectual property system under control, to reduce government costs on virtually everything it buys.

    Any of these things would do a lot more for whatever danger the federal budget is running than messing with Social Security. That argument just shows how you want to meter the misery of your fellows.

  44. S Brennan


    “There is a six paragraph statement I posted. Pick it apart or shut up.” – Plague Species

    I did pick apart when I said that you posted:

    “a HIGHLY selective, non-contextual quote”

    The article used a “a HIGHLY selective, non-contextual quote” of FDR’s which you missed entirely when you read the article…when you posted the article without “researching it” and now, when you defend the article the article’s selective use of FDR’s words. You never thought once to analyze the lack of context in the quote used in the article, you allowed the writer, a propagandist, to “give you” the context and you accepted that unquestioningly.

    Furthermore, it seems to escape you that, when searching for a solution to a difficult problem, the first suggestions are most often, heavily modified, assuming that they are not discarded entirely. Further discussion and analysis leads to superior solutions [except in today’s software, where you just keep throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks]. Anybody who works in the sciences and engineering or, out in the craftsman’s shop knows, the initial sketch is not the final drawing for a reason, [except when you are dealing with a disastrous ego]. And while we should not make fun of raw brainstorming ideas…none of it is Gospel, it’s a starting point.

    So, YOU should do some homework before blithely spouting extreme right-wing talking points that have been repeatedly discredited/[and continually repackaged to fool naive sophomores] over the last 60 years. Just because an idea seems fresh to you doesn’t mean it is, the battle to destroy the last vestiges of FDRism, once the exclusive domain of extreme-right-wing-Republicans has been a bipartisan effort since the late 70’s.

    And guess who was the first D to crossover? Does the name Joe Biden ring a bell? Yeah, that guy. And Biden has already begun the first step in the dismantlement process [helped by the naive who refuse to scrutinize propaganda]. Should Biden be confirmed, the only hope is that R’s read the polls correctly and figure out that they could/should realign the country by finding their inner IKE.

  45. Plague Species

    Destroying the last vestiges of FDRism is as much due to warping a program he initiated to the point it is no longer viable as it is cutting that program altogether. In this respect, both Repubs and Dems are guilty as charged. But hey, I get it, union folks want their generous union pensions and their Social Security. Because you can never be too comfortable in retirement at the expense of the less fortunate who never could land a union job. Like conservatives, they want their cake and they want to eat it too to the point there is no cake for anyone despite means.

    Nihil, your argument is a red herring. We are speaking strictly about Social Security. I am all for cutting the military by 80% within ten years( versus ten bears), but Social Security should never be considered part of the federal operating budget per se. It was LBJ, ironically, who started the process of intermingling the two.

    In early 1968 President Lyndon Johnson made a change in the budget presentation by including Social Security and all other trust funds in a”unified budget.” This is likewise sometimes described by saying that Social Security was placed “on-budget.”

  46. nihil obstet

    You regard addressing the issue of enough resources for a dignified old age as a red herring? I don’t think we’ll get to a good society as long as we carefully color within the lines given us.

  47. Plague Species

    Here’s where I stand. Any government-sponsored old age retirement system should be equitable. Everyone gets he same benefit and if you are fortunate to have other benefits in old age, your government-sponsored old age retirement benefit should be progressively reduced accordingly. There should be no “work” requirement placed upon old age retirement benefits and those who earned more in their lifetime should not receive a greater benefit. In otherwords, the Townsend Plan with means testing.

    Corporate moderates are the ones who helped design Social Security and it figures because corporate moderates are the ones who believe in wage slavery and Social Security as it is comprised is a continuation of that philosophy, hence the use of the word “workers” repeatedly.

    The story of the Social Security Act of 1935 is an enjoyable one to tell — and hopefully to read, despite all the details — because it is so counterintuitive to what all of us believe. Who’d have thought that leaders from some of the biggest corporations of the 1930s — companies such as Standard Oil of New Jersey (now known as ExxonMobil) and General Electric — were strong supporters of the Social Security Act? Or guessed that several of the key experts who worked on the details of the act were employed by the richest person in the United States at the time, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.?

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