Where did all of our money go?
June 6, 2016 5:59 AM   Subscribe

As a society, we once had enough money to build great stuff. Now we don't have enough to even maintain these places. Where did it all go?

I went to a reservoir close to where I live this weekend, a Corps of Engineer flood control facility for the Mississippi River that was built in the 1930's. Beaches, boat landings, picnic & camping areas. I've been going there 26 years. Year after year I've watched it fall further into disrepair.

There may be 5 public beaches, but they only open 1 beach except for holiday weekends when they may open 2 (although they didn't this year). The bathrooms are all closed and this weekend I noticed they have a port-o-potty in front of one of them. The fish cleaning stations are closed as well. The road leading into the area is full of potholes - big ones. The road has never been repaved in 26 years. The grounds are not maintained and the shelters are falling apart.

My question is, at one time we (USA) had enough money to build these things, put roads in, build the pavilions and bathrooms, beaches etc. Now there is not even enough money to maintain them...which I have to assume costs far less than building them from scratch.

How did we have enough money to pay to build these things 40, 50 years ago and now can't even have the trash picked up regularly? Are we spending so much on welfare and bombs now that there is nothing left over? If that is so, where did a billion dollars for Zika come from? I have to assume we have more tax payers now (there's more people, right?), why is there not enough to do what I consider are itty bitty things like this?

I've written my legislators and senators about this in the past and received replies "I will look into this" (which, I guess, receiveing a reply is something at least), but nothing has changed.
posted by bellastarr to Society & Culture (57 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Tax cuts and cutbacks to vital services. The whole post-Reagan "shrink government" thing.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:03 AM on June 6, 2016 [48 favorites]


I'd add wage stagnation for the last few generations, which makes inflation outstrip the growth in revenue from the tax base. That, plus Thorzdad's points, says why there isn't enough money. As for where it goes now, most of it does go to military, healthcare, and yes social security/welfare. If you want to know where the money goes, this page lays it out pretty well.

Also the '30s were the beneficiary of the WPA, an immense work/Public Works program that took a huge amount of federal investment, progressive nationalistic spirit, and political will. They built so much, from roads to parks to dams to bridges, many of which were not provided for maintenance costs over the generations. That WPA-enabling spirit and that will is not part of the modern political landscape and hasn't been for some time. I wonder what we could accomplish if it were.
posted by BlackPebble at 6:13 AM on June 6, 2016 [18 favorites]


The more we build, the more there is to maintain. New things get ribbon cuttings. Repairs are not sexy and don't get funds.
posted by cecic at 6:14 AM on June 6, 2016 [17 favorites]


On the municipal/state level, there's a LOT of money that has to go to pensions. Lots of suburbs/smaller towns that boomed in the postwar era were structured around the assumption of high economic growth forever. Lots of the industries that powered states/cities have consolidated and moved. Wages have decreased so the tax revenue has gotten smaller. There are a lot of pensions that have to be paid out right now for the aging Boomer generation, and not enough left over to both fund current services and maintain infrastructure.

The Federal government used to send more money to the states to help fill in the gap, but there's been a lot of political pressure over the past 30 years to undermine that.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:21 AM on June 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Three letters – WAR – on terrorism, drugs, all our enemies all around the world.

If I ever have grandchildren, I'll tell them how I lived through and witnessed the "fall of America".

We did it ourselves by allowing the schmucks we have who represent, or rather, fleece us.
posted by lometogo at 6:21 AM on June 6, 2016 [14 favorites]


Funding for things like parks is considered discretionary. Our discretionary budget is largely consumed by military spending, not on things like education or science or parks. This breakdown is pretty helpful.

Military spending has increased astronomically. That money is spent keeping rich people (the people who run the large companies that work in defense, like Lockheed and Halliburton and Diebold) rich.
posted by sockermom at 6:28 AM on June 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


Remember that all that big infrastructure built in the 30s was built as part of demand side economics: Build stuff so you can hire unemployed people to build stuff. Once you hire people, you'll be paying them. Once they have money, they'll be able to buy stuff. Buying stuff is what drives the economy.

This has given way to trickle-down economics: Make sure rich people don't pay taxes, and magically the money will move down the economic ladder, because everyone knows, rich people would never just hoard their money.

So part of the answer is that lots of that stuff was built whether you had the money or not, because the political will was there. Now whether the money is there or not, the political will isn't.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:37 AM on June 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


Tax cuts for the rich. Less government spending to promote privatization. Sell that nice swimming hole to a bunch of investors who'll keep it nice and keep poor people out. Or maybe just build a gated community of mcmansions around the swimming hole.
posted by mareli at 6:43 AM on June 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


We definitely aren't out of money, but our total taxes as a percentage of GDP are usually near the lowest among all the statistics gathered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) a group of 34 countries with large economies (though not China or Russia): usually in the last decade or so the sum of all local, state, and federal taxes has been in the mid-twenties as a percentage of total GDP. For example in 2014 at 26.0% we were fourth from the bottom of the list above South Korea (24.6%), Chile (19.8%), and Mexico (19.5%). The average tax-to-GDP ratio among all OECD nations was 34.4% in 2014 and the highest was Denmark at 50.9%.

If you had the impression that taxes in the U.S. were higher it might be because actual taxes paid after all loopholes etc. are exploited are lower than the nominal, stated tax rates, and of course people trying to make it seem as though taxes are high will use the highest theoretical tax rate they can find, or simply make it up.
posted by XMLicious at 6:45 AM on June 6, 2016 [15 favorites]


If you're really curious about this, read "Government's End" by Jonathan Rauch. It is really a terrific explanation of what you're asking about, although I think in many respects both liberals and conservatives will find it very unsettling.

The short explanation is that government spending as a percentage of our economy continues to expand. Existing or incumbent government programs typically do not get reformed to suit modern needs, because those programs acquire constituencies that fight reforms. This means that existing incumbent programs (and their funding needs) wring resources from the economy and block the creation of new programs to solve previously unanticipated problems. Some programs build stuff, some programs blow up stuff, some programs transfer money or resources from one person to another. All of these programs necessarily consume the private wealth that is necessary to fuel an economy.

Here is an instance of the problem Rauch identifies, in my opinion: the Affordable Care Act. I think it is fair to say that the ACA overpromised and underdelivered. The ACA is arguably the central problem of American politics right now, because to deliver on its promises it's going to cost the public much more than was originally advertised. This means that at least some of the following unpleasant consequences are going to occur: more explicit or implicit taxation than was promised, starving of other programs to pay the ACA bill, or rollback of the ACA's scope. The structure of the problem is more or less the same with respect to pension obligations, which in some units of US government have created obligations that are unsustainable as a practical matter.

At the macro level, we see a trend of huge growth in entitlements. Three decades ago, 30 percent of American families received transfer program benefits: now, more than half do. In the last fifty years, entitlement spending moved from approximately one-third to approximately two-thirds of federal spending. The linked article from USNWR is a popularization, but it correctly identifies the trend.

This is not to say that all government programs are bad. It is to say that there are opportunity costs and that the creation and maintenance of existing government programs, and the lost opportunities that this implies, is a choice that the system encourages. These lost opportunities are in two categories: growth and flourishing of the private sector as well as public (government) innovation. As a general matter, fiscal conservatives are frustrated by the brakes that government programs put on job and business creation, while fiscal liberals are frustrated by the constraints that existing government programs put on the possibilities of government reform.

The above explanation poses a serious challenge to conventional-wisdom explanations about how government is shrinking because of tax cuts for the rich, etc. Overall, to say that government is shrinking -- or spending less -- is mistaken. Speaking relatively, government is on a huge spending spree.
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:46 AM on June 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


...by the way, welfare (i.e. WIC etc) is something like 6% of discretionary spending.
posted by notsnot at 7:00 AM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


There have been a lot of changes since the heyday of government infrastructure work (as others have said above, the New Deal Era, chiefly, although parts of that persisted into the second half of the 20th century). One, as mentioned above, is that the government taxed higher income brackets pretty heavily, and that did certinly help swell government coffers a bit. But the main answer to the question, "where did they get all that money?" is "they borrowed it." FDR's presidency was the first to seriously embrace Keynesian economics, and they basically hedged against the future to generate cashflow in the present. The advisability of doing so is one of those things you can get 10 different answers on by asking 9 economists, but it was arguably a good response to the problem of economic stagnation due to a dwindling money supply.

Using a money-as-blood metaphor (which is not a bad one; both money and blood produce vitality by circulating), the problems of the 30s and the problems of the present day are somewhat different: what we had then was basically blood loss, and the solution was transfusion --- from the future, since there were no willing donors, while today what we have is some sort of cardiac failure: the money's there, and it's just not moving.

Because our problems today are different, there are some who argue deficit spending is not appropriate for our current situation and is to be minimized (as I mentioned above, this is a deeply contentious issue). Unfortunately, there are also (overlapping) groups who endorse low tax rates and a fair number of budgetary boondoggles that use up much of what we have.

AFAICT, we have two tools in our box: deficit spending and taxation. Over the last several decades, one or the other has been demonized in turn until neither is really providing what they used to.
posted by jackbishop at 7:08 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


United State tax payers spend more on defense than the tax payers of the next seven countries combined (China + Saudi Arabia + Russia + UK + India + France + Japan)
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:09 AM on June 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


In terms of the increase in "entitlement" benefits: bear in mind that as we've shrunk the government and shrunk the tax burden, people are less and less able to earn enough to survive. So we end up with a backwards welfare state - providing just enough to keep people from rioting in the streets, biasing transfer payments toward voters rather than toward the marginalized, picking up the tax bill for food stamps, etc, when Walmart and their ilk won't pay a living wage.

Ideologically, this is connected to the collapse of public goods like parks and beaches, because it has become impossible to say "this [nice thing] should be provided to everyone regardless of their ability to pay, and we should tax accordingly". So we can't have actual welfare* or actual parks or real rules about wages and working conditions - we can only have all this concealed, backchannel half-ass garbage because the hard right 27% of voters and about 90% of politicians won't let us have anything else.


*I tried, some years ago, to help a friend get emergency welfare benefits, and there's basically nothing, plus you have to jump through a lot of hoops. We spend an enormous amount of time in a huge building full of social workers and file clerks, etc, only to be told that as a single pregnant person she was basically eligible for $300 a month in rent (which had to be paid straight to the landlord, and what can you rent for $300 anyway?) and about $150 in food stamps. So not enough to keep body and soul together or to keep out of homelessness. After a couple of months of trying to make it work, she gave up on getting any benefits at all, because they kept cutting them off for bullshit reasons.
posted by Frowner at 7:19 AM on June 6, 2016 [12 favorites]


Large corporations no longer pay taxes.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:23 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think it is fair to say that the ACA overpromised and underdelivered. The ACA is arguably the central problem of American politics right now, because to deliver on its promises it's going to cost the public much more than was originally advertised.

Blaming the ACA for lack of spending for infrastructure is incorrect. The ACA has not overpromised and underdelivered. The exact opposite is true. It has actually exceeded its original expectations for reducing the uninsured and has done it at lower costs than expected.

According this Congressional Budget Office report, the ACA has reduced the deficit. They also indicate that repealing the ACA would increase the deficit by more than $350 billion over 10 years, not to mention taking away health insurance for 19 million people.

So if you want more spending for infrastructure, repealing the ACA doesn't get you there. It makes the budget worse.
posted by JackFlash at 7:30 AM on June 6, 2016 [21 favorites]


Fair wages. Look at the total wages to build Coolee Dam and than price out what it'd cost today. Include the wages of the suppliers that "inflate" the price of "raw" materials. Don't worry, soon the workers will be replaced by automation and prices will go down. No jobs for anyone, but low prices.
posted by sammyo at 7:36 AM on June 6, 2016


Another enlightening book is American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put America to Work. The main point it made, for me, was that FDR recruited really smart, dedicated people for his initiatives, and put one very competent man (Ickes) in charge of creating the WPA and making it succeed.

Also, wealthy people don't usually use public spaces (they have their own private spaces), so the issue isn't even on their radar when buying political influence.
posted by mmiddle at 7:56 AM on June 6, 2016


Repairs are not sexy and don't get funds.

This is absolutely one of the issues. Senior executives and politicians want to "make their mark" by undertaking/approving big projects that get a lot of attention on the local or national level, but much of the work necessary to maintain infrastructure is or should be invisible if done in a proper and timely manner.

In addition to the basic funding issue, regular maintenance requires that an agency pay attention to the assets in question: they have to know what they have, what its expected life is like, what type of degradation it would experience, what the appropriate maintenance schedule would be, and how much that maintenance would cost. And they have to have staff or contractors available with the skills to do the work.

So you end up with a long tail of decreasing levels of service, until the community the asset serves gets fed up and turns a budgeting/management problem into a political problem, and then the whole cycle begins again.
posted by suelac at 8:26 AM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


New things get ribbon cuttings. Repairs are not sexy and don't get funds.

Don't forget that one can cut the budget for maintenance and then run for re-election as "fiscally responsible" without the consequences of lower maintenance budgets showing up just yet. The same logic is responsible in part for so many underfunded pensions.
posted by Gelatin at 8:28 AM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Our current state is a direct reflection of our politics which is a reflection of our political will as Americans. "Once I built a tower to the sun ... once I built a railroad, made it run ..." If our parents made the America we lionize, their children made the America we lament. I wish people would stop blaming the politicians (we elect), the businesses (we patronize), the corporations (we invest in), the military (we support) for the state of our economic woes and look in the mirror. Personal debt is on the rise but the cost of money is still near zero. Long term bonds have virtually no yield and trilions of dollars of wealth (read "debt") are in the hands of foreign countries. I'm no fan of outsourcing but we need to find a way to give people a reason to believe their way of life isn't slipping away while not pricing ourselves out of the world market.
posted by CollectiveMind at 8:30 AM on June 6, 2016


I will add that in addition to all the great reasons listed above, it has always been easier to finance capital projects than maintenance. You can think of the money used to build something as coming from an entirely different pot than the money to maintain that thing. If you are a government agency and you are building a large infrastructure project, you can use the government's excellent credit rating to finance the project on the bond market. Investors love government bonds because they are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government. Your agency can build the thing, and pay it back a low cost over 30, 40, even 50 years. Then you can use user fees to pay this back. However, maintenance work needs to be funded out of your own agency's budget, which as others have pointed out, has probably been declining since the 80s. Big infrastructure still gets built nowadays, thanks to the bond market, but maintenance will always be a challenge.
posted by chevyvan at 8:37 AM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Two key things:

1. A lot of new infrastructure was build during the 30s as part of the New Deal, and I'm frankly not sure there was a lot of thought given to maintaining that infrastructure. For things like roads, bridges, hydroelectric dams, etc. those structures have to be maintained to keep daily life in those places functional, so those take priority. For things like relatively underused state beaches, it's catch as catch can, which means they're underfunded or not funded. People see a beach as a nice thing to have, not a necessity, and they were initially built as a sop to the economy, anyway.

2. The legacy of "smaller government" approaches. Every time you've ever heard a politician say that they "believe in small government" or want to "cut government bloat", they're talking about things like this. Why pay for beach maintenance when they could just... not pay for beach maintenance?

3. It also occurs to me, having grown up in a relatively poor rural state and spent my adulthood in major cities in more prosperous states, that the reason public facilities are better maintained here (for both the NYC metro area and Southern California) is partially that local governments are better funded and more functional, but also that it's a priority. I'm not sure if it's a function of rural vs. urban (you don't want millions of people packed into a city with nothing to do and services only for the extremely wealthy, even in SoCal where there's been a classist/anti-poor/segregationist bent to urban design from the beginning), or a function of people in rural areas simply not expecting things, so they don't get proposed, and things previously provided (especially if it was by "outsiders" like the federal government) don't get maintained, because having civic recreational stuff just isn't part of the culture. It amazed me when I moved to Los Angeles and found out that there are public golf courses all over the city. Golf is for rich people, right? But apparently here it's considered a civic responsibility to provide golf to the people. Meanwhile my home state struggles to convince the public that it's worth preventing coastal islands from receding into the Gulf of Mexico.
posted by Sara C. at 9:54 AM on June 6, 2016


This is a question I've asked myself many times, and it's an important one (maybe one of the most important). A lot of the answers so far have been (no offense) overly simplistic and ideological, so I decided to try to answer it myself.

I took budget numbers from 1962 (selected somewhat randomly - seems to be a representative post-war year) and 2012. This could skew my numbers a bit, since the OP's example was built before the war, but anecdotally, infrastructure spending still seemed high in the post-war years (the Eisenhower interstate system, etc.). And regardless, this is near the high-water mark (no reservoir-related pun intended) of the US economy.

The missing money is probably not due to military spending. We are actually spending much less now, as a percentage of GDP, than we were in 1962. It's still a pretty sizable amount, but in '62, military spending was 49% of the federal budget. In '12, it's only 19%. If we decreased that to 0%, there would be more money available, but I am not at all certain that it would be spent on infrastructure repair. (Also note that the OP's example is from the Army Corps of Engineers, so the costs related to the original example are probably classified as military, as are other infrastructure-related costs, such as, to use one example, the development of the internet you're using to read this.)

It's also probably not due to corporations "not paying taxes". Corporate income taxes account for less as a percentage of total federal revenue than they did in 1962, but thanks to deficit spending, revenue doesn't really seem to affect spending. Revenues as a percentage of GDP are down from what they were in 1962 (15.3% of 2012 GDP vs 17.0% of 1962 GDP), but spending is up a lot more (22% of 2012 GDP vs 18.2% of 1962 GDP). Again, maybe if we raised corporate taxes, there'd be more money, but it's not at all certain that it would be spent on this sort of thing.

Finally, it's probably not due to wages. Wages haven't kept pace with inflation, so if anything, it's probably cheaper to do large-scale construction now.

There are probably three big explanations:

The first is that the economy just isn't what it was back then. In 1962, GDP was $3.29 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that should be $24.7 trillion in 2012. In reality, the 2012 GDP was only $15.3 trillion. Various recessions and a general slowing of growth have made our economy only about 60% of what it was in 1962. This isn't as crappy as it sounds - the postwar boom was artificial and probably unsustainable. But if your salary was $100k last year, and this year your employer asked you to take a pay cut to $60k, it's only natural that you're going to have to cut some costs.

Second, government spending is radically different now than it was in 1962. In 1962, entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) accounted for 22% of federal spending. In 2012, it accounted for 60%. As Michael Kinsley has said, the primary reason the US Government exists now is to write checks to old people.

Lastly, there's the question of will. Non-military discretionary spending isn't really down *that* much. It was 23% of federal spending in '62, and 15% in 2012. That's not an insignificant drop, but we're still talking about half a trillion dollars in discretionary spending. We are choosing to spend that in other ways (some of which, by the way, are quite admirable and necessary). This is why I don't think cutting military spending or increasing corporate taxes would help much: even if we had more money, we haven't shown much of a willingness to spend it on stuff like maintenance.

This turned out to be a much longer comment than I anticipated.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:07 AM on June 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


New infrastructure is so overpriced compared to the rest of the world, that new construction eats up too much of the infrastructure budget.

In addition, we often outlaw infrastructure that's imperfect but significantly cheaper. Washington state will spend at least $2.4 Billion replacing functioning culverts with slightly bigger ones for minimal expansion of fish habitats. People are also advocating to replace 50+ bridges that will last decades or centuries more so long as trucks don't repeatedly run into them. So here's just two possible projects in one state, costing billions of dollars, that don't offer increased capabilities and just replace things that could've lasted decades more.

There's another article written by a civil engineer's regrets at building sewer systems in semi-rural areas. He got federal money to build them, but now the maintenance costs are too much for the semi-rural economy to support and they're collapsing. He believes they should have stuck with septic systems because that's what the local economy can support. I can't find the article now, but I think it was about a guy from Minnesota and written around 2006?
posted by flimflam at 10:45 AM on June 6, 2016


The first is that the economy just isn't what it was back then. In 1962, GDP was $3.29 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that should be $24.7 trillion in 2012. Various recessions and a general slowing of growth have made our economy only about 60% of what it was in 1962.

No, this is completely wrong. Those GDP numbers you are citing are real GDP, already adjusted for inflation. So the real economy is over seven times bigger in 2012 than in 1962. Some of this is accounted for by population growth, which has nearly doubled, but still, the nation is much wealthier and productive today than in 1962.

A better comparison is real GDP per capita. In 1962 it was about $17,000 per person. In 2012 it had grown to about $50,000 per person, all in inflation adjusted dollars. So the country is producing three times as much as it was 50 years ago.

The idea that we can't afford nice things because the economy has stagnated is nonsense. We, as a nation, are fabulously more well off than 50 years ago.
posted by JackFlash at 11:02 AM on June 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


The rich aren't taxed as much as back then (those in the top tax brackets pay only a third of what they used to - cite) and way too much money is allocated to (and wasted by) the US military.
posted by Rash at 11:31 AM on June 6, 2016




Entitlement spending, definitely - social security, medicare, various programs for keeping poor people afloat. People are also living significantly longer - where social security was once envisioned as a way of keeping people afloat for their 'last years', now you can live for another thirty years after starting to collect social security. Fewer people entering the workforce means less money going in. This isn't to blame anyone - everyone's juggling a train wreck - but there is a limited amount of money and a lot of things to put it in.
posted by corb at 11:46 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Some people claim that entitlements have been crowding out infrastructure spending. So let's look at the numbers. Fifty years ago social security was just getting started as a significant part of the budget and Medicare was not yet in place. Today those two programs constitute about 10% of GDP.

So using the real GDP per capita numbers from above, real national income over the last 50 years increased from $17,000 per person to $50,000 per person. Of that increase we are now spending about $5000 on entitlements, leaving $45,000.

What a fabulous deal! We've gotten much richer -- going from $17,000 per capita to $45,000 per capita and paid for these wonderful entitlements. We could double our spending on entitlements or infrastructure or other nice things and we would still be much richer than we were 50 years ago.

There is no real restriction on infrastructure spending or education spending or health insurance spending except the will to do so. We have the money. We are many times richer than 50 years ago. It's just that we have made political decisions to allow all of the extra wealth to accumulate to a few. We are have decided to tax ourselves at half the rate of many European countries.
posted by JackFlash at 11:49 AM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


"Those GDP numbers you are citing are real GDP"

This is my mistake. My source was not clearly marked. After I dug around for a while, this is true. So my first conclusion is invalid. This is what I get for trying to do stuff at work. :(
posted by kevinbelt at 12:04 PM on June 6, 2016


using the real GDP per capita numbers from above, real national income over the last 50 years increased from $17,000 per person to $50,000 per person...What a fabulous deal! We've gotten much richer

It's not actually that simple (I think Jack knows this). Those stories about movies costing a nickel, etc from your grandparents?

The rate a currency exchanges for goods has a lot to do with how 'rich' a given person feels and what governments can afford. Not that I'm saying this really undermines how small a role entitlements pay in our budget problems. That's more complicated too.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 12:36 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


The rate a currency exchanges for goods has a lot to do with how 'rich' a given person feels and what governments can afford.

We are talking above about real (inflation adjusted) dollars. That is known as the real income increase. We, as a nation, really are much richer than our grandparents. We have plenty of real money to spend on nice stuff.
posted by JackFlash at 1:00 PM on June 6, 2016


I can't find the article now, but I think it was about a guy from Minnesota and written around 2006?

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer?
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 1:08 PM on June 6, 2016


Decline of unions, Insufficient deficit spending and insufficient marginal taxation of the wealthy And businesses. If businesses were taxed at some reasonable amount, then employee salaries would count as tax write-offs, like they used to, and there wouldn't be such incessant downward pressure on wages. Having unions which required that people be paid at some reasonable amount wouldn't hurt either.


As to the deficit, we print our own money. We are not going to fall into some sort of hyper-inflation trap, like various people who should know better keep squaking. In fact, we are more likely to fall into deflation. Currently, Treasuries have a real negative interest rate; we make money (over the inflation rate) with each dollar we theoretically go into debt. Any rational household would borrow like crazy in such a situation. We should be borrowing like crazy, fixing our broken infrastructure and putting people to work at good wages to do it. They will spend those wages back into the economy, making the pie larger. Win-win-win.
posted by djinn dandy at 2:10 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


It is perhaps, misleading, to think that infrastructure was adequately funded in the past. The New Deal largely excluded (intentionally or not) certain groups of people. When we think about the "good old days" we tend to romanticize the suburbs and forget about who couldn't live there. Overall, unlike whites, blacks in this era did not (and still largely) do not have access to good infrastructure like schools.
posted by oceano at 3:55 PM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Planet Money had an episode discussing how Social Security accounting in the federal budget means that in previous decades when there was a SS surplus that money could be used to fund federal spending, essentially borrowing from future generations who would have to pay extra taxes or cut spending in order to cover SS as it moved from surpluses to deficits. Not sure how much that contributes to the overall problem, but it's a piece of it.
posted by doctord at 4:37 PM on June 6, 2016


People are also living significantly longer - where social security was once envisioned as a way of keeping people afloat for their 'last years', now you can live for another thirty years after starting to collect social security.

This is one of those fallacies that never seems to die, no matter how many times it is debunked.

Data from the Social Security Administration shows that the average male turning 65 in 1940 could expect to collect social security for 12.7 years. The average male turning 65 in 1990 could expect to collect social security for 15.3 years. This is an increase of only 2.6 years of retirement. For women the increase is about 5 years.

So no, there hasn't been a massive increase in life expectancy that is straining Social Security. In fact, the rate of increase, about one year per decade, was predicted by the Social Security actuaries back in 1930, so it was entirely expected.


Fewer people entering the workforce means less money going in.

This is numerically false. The cohort of Millennials entering the workforce is the largest in history, bigger than the Baby Boomers who are retired and dying off. In addition, immigration of mostly young people makes up more than half of U.S. population growth. The U.S. workforce is not shrinking. It is growing.
posted by JackFlash at 5:04 PM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


So no, there hasn't been a massive increase in life expectancy that is straining Social Security.

But life expectancy at age 65 isn't really the right metric. I understand discounting people who die in childhood, but we should consider the life expectancy of all adults who live to put money into Social Security and Medicare.

If more people get to age 65 now than they did 50 years ago, it doesn't matter if they have the same mortality rates after age 65. It still costs significantly more.
posted by politikitty at 6:09 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


There was something of an economic golden age in the US between about 1947 and about 1965, and the reason is that all the other industrial nations on earth had their economies wrecked by WWII. During the war, nearly all of the US was outside of the bombing and attack range of any enemy force, so coming out of the war the US economic engine was intact and everyone else was in ruins.

Which meant that the only real way the other countries could reboot their systems was by buying lots and lots (and lots and lots) of stuff from America. Unemployment was low, tax revenue was high, and the American GDP grew like mad for about 20 years, driven by exports.

Well, everyone else finally caught up, and now the American economy isn't a net exporter. We've been running a huge trade deficit for 40 years or so and it keeps getting worse. While in the short term this can feel pretty good, in the long run it means the country is going bankrupt.

So the money that was used for domestic infrastructure spending in the 1950's and 1960's now goes to China for cheap consumer goods. (It's not quite that simple, but that's the general idea.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:34 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


coming out of the war the US economic engine was intact and everyone else was in ruins.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:34 PM


Also, I think it's important to recognize that not only was US industry intact, it was also vastly larger post-war than it had been prior to the war. (IIRC, I've read numbers along the lines of 3-4 times the size of pre-war US industry. No citation, unfortunately.)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2016


If more people get to age 65 now than they did 50 years ago, it doesn't matter if they have the same mortality rates after age 65. It still costs significantly more.

Not significantly more. Take a look at this Social Security life expectancy table. So lets say that the life expectancy of men has increased by about three years since the founding of Social Security. That also means that roughly three more years of people make it to 65. So the people that used to die at 62 now make it to 65. In the table you can see that that only represents about 1% more of the cohort, not greatly significant.

So the lesson is not that there is no effect from increasing life expectancy, but it is much smaller than the fallacy. The total cost increase over the last 70 years is actually maybe 25%, certainly not catastrophic for the financial viability of Social Security. Remember, as the old story goes, everyone used to die a couple years after retirement and now they live for 30 years. Both numbers are exaggerated. They used to live for 13 years and now they live for 16 years. Is that anything to panic about?

Also keep in mind that the full retirement age has been raised from 65 to 67, so most of the three year gain in life expectancy has been clawed back.

Another part of the fallacy is that nobody could have imagined that people would live this long. The truth is that the increase in life expectancy has been pretty constant, about 1 year per decade, for over a century. The actuaries who designed Social Security back in the 1930s knew this and planned for it in their calculations. It is not a surprise to anyone except politicians that don't know actuarial science.
posted by JackFlash at 9:07 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder also if part of the issue is changes in population distribution and the popularity of things. I personally have never noticed this issue with park maintenance, but the parks I tend to visit are really popular. As folks mentioned above, we built a lot of stuff in the 30s in order to employ people, not necessarily because everything built was desperately needed. Between that and the natural shifts in population and what people are interested in, there may no longer be enough demand to justify maintaining these sites. If one beach out of five is open -- is it crowded, or is there no reason to open the other five beaches?
posted by phoenixy at 10:32 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


There may be 5 public beaches, but they only open 1 beach except for holiday weekends when they may open 2 (although they didn't this year). The bathrooms are all closed and this weekend I noticed they have a port-o-potty in front of one of them. The fish cleaning stations are closed as well. The road leading into the area is full of potholes - big ones. The road has never been repaved in 26 years. The grounds are not maintained and the shelters are falling apart.

This is the price you pay for decades of voting in any bozo who promises to reduce your taxes.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:54 PM on June 7, 2016


@ Jackflash:

I have appreciated large parts of the many posts you have made in this thread, but you have made two fundamental mistakes.

1. I don't think that any well-informed person believes that the ACA has reduced the deficit. Congressional Budget Office forecasts for Obamacare’s effect on the deficit have to be taken with a shaker of salt. Because of the complexity of the law as well as the underlying assumptions that CBO must work under, even CBO recognizes that its forecasts are unreliable. Here is what the agency said as a caution: “The uncertainty is sufficiently great that repealing the ACA could in fact reduce deficits over the 2016–2025 period—or could increase deficits by a substantially larger margin than the agencies have estimated.”

Part of the reason for this is that CBO must assume that certain taxes and cost-savings measures will remain unaltered by Congress or the president. This is the case even when there is a history of politicians interfering with these programs, such as the Sustainable Growth Rate formula for Medicare or the Independent Payment Advisory Board. The CBO also uses a ten-year budget window to evaluate the fiscal impact of programs, which helps mask the long-term cost of Obamacare.

2. I think it is hard to justify your claim that we could have huge increases in spending and still be much richer than we were 50 years ago. The reason for my skepticism is that changing the distribution of wealth can change the production of wealth. As I noted in my earlier post, as a historical matter, the US government is on a huge and historically unprecedented spending spree, which creates huge and unprecedented levels of implicit taxation. I think this trend needs to be reversed, and I view the suggestion that we would benefit socially by increasing this trend as highly mistaken.
posted by Mr. Justice at 7:17 AM on June 8, 2016


I don't think that any well-informed person believes that the ACA has reduced the deficit.

Both the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation believe so. You conveniently left off the very next sentence from your quote. "However, CBO and JCT’s best estimate is that repealing the ACA would increase federal budget deficits by $137 billion over that 10-year period." The fact that you would selectively quote indicates that you are not arguing in good faith.


I think it is hard to justify your claim that we could have huge increases in spending and still be much richer than we were 50 years ago. The reason for my skepticism is that changing the distribution of wealth can change the production of wealth.

This is just the same old right-wing "tax cuts pay for themselves" nonsense. Don't believe it? Look at the facts in this chart that shows GDP growth in the U.S. compared to GDP growth in Denmark and Sweden which have total tax rates that are twice as high as the U.S. There is zero, zip, nada evidence for your bogus claim that higher tax rates inhibit GDP.

You are arguing from right-wing religious faith, not fact. There is nothing preventing the U.S. from raising taxes and spending more money on infrastructure, as the OP wondered, except for political will.
posted by JackFlash at 10:24 AM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


You should check Bikeonomics by Elly Blue for details, but if I understand correctly, the interstate highway system was originally expected to be mostly for military and commercial traffic. The proliferation of private automobile travel has vastly increased wear-and-tear on interstates, and the Highway Administration doesn't have the budget to keep up with it.

I can't track it down at the moment, but I believe there was a major announcement by the Federal DOT in the past couple of years explaining that they're advocating a more diverse range of transportation systems because automotive infrastructure costs too much.

So when you see highways falling apart, that's a big part of it - gas taxes, etc. really can't cover the cost of maintaining roads given current usage levels.
posted by sibilatorix at 10:42 AM on June 8, 2016


@JF: The Congressional Budget Office provides a highly abstract & divorced from reality scoring mechanism to satisfy highly abstract & divorced from reality scoring rules so as to satisfy highly abstract & divorced from reality parliamentary procedure. What the CBO doesn't do is predict the future in any strong sense. For instance, CBO only has a ten-year threshold, so it would "score" my mortgage as much cheaper than it actually is. I promise that I have a mortgage obligation that stretches farther than ten years into the future, even if CBO's methods imply otherwise. You are too smart a guy not to understand this.

I appreciate the fact that you have to use phrases like "tax cuts pay for themselves" and "right-wing religious faith" to respond to what I say. Since I never said and do not believe that tax cuts pay for themselves, I think your straw men illuminate that your argument, as such, is not strong. Indeed, it is not clear what you think your tax rate chart demonstrates (is it perhaps the case that you believe that the one variable that separates Denmark and Sweden from the USA is total tax rates?). I appreciate that you believe that there is nothing that prevents the USA from raising taxes and spending more money except for an absence of political will: this strikes me as unpleasantly like what a friend of mine once called the Green Lantern theory of politics, which is that public officials could accomplish just about anything if they just had more willpower. Maybe so -- but I think a much more compelling theory is that when we spend higher and higher, historically unprecedented portions of our economy on transfer programs, people will notice. More technically, the "noticing" consists of markets sending signals to workers and investors -- at some level of GNP confiscation -- that their efforts are worth less, so why work as hard? Political will strikes me as a much less powerful explanation; I've worked with a fair number of legislators before, and although they are often lacking in many areas, they routinely have a willpower surplus.
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:16 PM on June 8, 2016


the interstate highway system was originally expected to be mostly for military and commercial traffic

I think this highlights a key point. When new infrastructure is built, it's being built for the values people have at that point in time. It may be that, in the 1930s when OP's state beach infrastructure was built, there was an expectation that, going forward, most people would prefer do do recreational activities out of doors, in large groups, near where they live, most likely for free or almost free. The way people did things in the 1930s.

Now we're in the "bowling alone" era, when organized activities are much less popular than they were at midcentury. Not to mention the fact that these facilities were created before TV, before mass air travel, before theme parks, before the highway system, etc. Are more people choosing to spend their free time playing video games rather than going to the beach? Are more people prioritizing vacations to further away beach destinations, or Disney, or sending their kids to day camp or privately-owned water parks? Do more people have a pool in their backyard?
posted by Sara C. at 6:39 PM on June 8, 2016


Mr. Justice, if you can talk about the "the Green Lantern theory of politics" then you also know perfectly well that the productivity of the economy does not arise from the surpassing virtue or willpower or inherent superiority of character and moral fiber of "job creators" either. It's the result of the effort and labor of a population of workers who are expected by our society to dedicate their lives to their country's economy. The things you're calling "transfers" are a large part of the reason that during the 20th century the people controlling our economy, politicians and old wealth and barons of industry alike, were able to continuously squeeze higher and higher rates of productivity out of that population.

By ensuring that people have access to basic nutrition our society has prevented them from having to scrape about and carry out subsistence farming on strips of land distant from industrial centers, and thus made them available to labor in industry or be sent off to fight wars for natural resources needed by that industry and for other "American interests" that have nothing to do with territorial self-defense. By ensuring that people reaching the age of retirement after spending their lives working for that economy aren't simply abandoned but have access to health care and other forms of assistance, and that public education and later in the modern era early child care in some places are available and robust, we facilitated and accelerated the movement of women out of the household and into laboring for the economy by reducing the private effort traditionally spent on taking care of children and the elderly in our culture.

One point I'll dispute which JackFlash mentioned is that they're ignoring one of the tables in the first Social Security Administration life expectancy page they mentioned which shows that dramatically many more people survive to age 65 to (possibly) acquire retirement benefits than did in the past, thanks to those government programs and collective societal efforts to improve nutrition, health care, public health measures like vaccinations and preventing job creators from selling poisoned food or drugs and running away with the money (at least in some cases where the poison resulted in quick death, not as successfully with slower-acting carcinogens and poisons), and other factors that have lengthened life. Between 1940 and 1990 the percentage of people who reached age 21 subsequently reaching age 65 went from 53.9% to 72.3% for men and 60.6% to 83.6% for women.

If you add in the number of people who previously died before age 21 due to preventable causes our society has addressed, that's more than a quarter of the population providing additional productive years working for the enrichment of those who benefit the most from higher GDP. In some of those hundreds of millions of cases that's several dozen additional man-years added to the GDP thanks to our collective efforts to improve the lives and survival of the laborers driving the economy, efforts which you are calling "transfers".

I don't know what "tax rate chart" JackFlash presented that you're talking about. In your rush to clutch your pearls about "confiscation" and to feign confusion about how we could possibly be wealthier and better-off as a society than we were when Ronald Reagan made a vinyl album about how Medicare would mean the end of freedom you appear to have misconstrued straightforward quantitative evidence that the per-capita GDP is the same or even higher in countries that devote as much as double the amount of their GDP into "transfers" and other government expenditures according to OECD numbers I posted above. (Because the chart JackFlash most recently linked to is a plot of per-capita GDP over time in the U.S., Sweden, and Denmark.)

Just provide some actual evidence of these countries which should exist according to you which don't bother to coordinate public spending on the health and education and prosperity of the members of its labor force nor on their security in old age, but which supposedly are going to show a greater GDP and greater average wealth than the 21st century U.S. and its fellow OECD nations. Because otherwise it's pretty reasonable to refer to what you're claiming as an article of conservative faith, when there's so much contravening evidence and when even you are forced to call it a "theory" that these supposed terrible consequences of doing what every developed country in the world does, except to a smaller degree, are juuust about to happen any day now, much as terrible calamitous freedom-ending consequences were just about to happen fifty years ago when Reagan made his record.
posted by XMLicious at 3:01 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


@ XMLicious -- I was startled by your first paragraph --

Mr. Justice, if you can talk about the "the Green Lantern theory of politics" then you also know perfectly well that the productivity of the economy does not arise from the surpassing virtue or willpower or inherent superiority of character and moral fiber of "job creators" either. It's the result of the effort and labor of a population of workers who are expected by our society to dedicate their lives to their country's economy. The things you're calling "transfers" are a large part of the reason that during the 20th century the people controlling our economy, politicians and old wealth and barons of industry alike, were able to continuously squeeze higher and higher rates of productivity out of that population.

Do you really believe that I think that economic productivity arises "from the surpassing virtue or willpower or inherent superiority of character and moral fiber of "job creators""? Of course I don't. I am not sure anyone does. Economic productivity comes from the application of resources to needs. People who work hard, or work smart, produce more stuff that other people want. This isn't especially complex.

But I also don't think that many people (let alone "our society") expects a "population of workers to dedicate their lives to their country's economy." That is just weird. Good Lord, I am a "worker," as are many of us who post here. I don't dedicate my life to the country's economy, and neither does anyone else I know (and I know plenty of "workers"). I just show up for work, try to do a good job, and get a paycheck. The notion that people do stuff like this to serve an "economy" is more than a little eerie. The reasons people work are a lot more mundane -- typically, to get stuff for themselves and their families. The "economy" has nothing to do with it.

I don't think that you understand the import of the discussion, which is why so much of your post consists of a series of strange misfires. You've charged that I've "feigned confusion" about how we could be better off now than we were 50 years ago. I never expressed any sentiment that is anything like this; obviously we are much better off now than we were 50 years ago. You simply attributed views to me that I do not actually hold.

You're also making what is, in my opinion, a fundamental mistake about what we can discern from cross-country comparisons. The premise of your argument is something like this: different societies and different cultures are something like one big glop of cake batter that we all start at, and all we need to do is bake our portion of the glop in a certain way. This is wrong. It ignores phenomena like history, culture, real-world resource availability, and geography. That stuff is important. Just because Sweden (or whatever) devotes double the the amount of resources to transfers that the USA does, it does not follow that Swedish policies in the USA would give us Swedish results. (I'm assuming your premises for the sake of argument, because despite your claims, you certainly haven't shown the evidence you claim in your links.) You've misunderstood what evidence here can and cannot do.

(Relatedly, it really shouldn't be that hard for you to understand what I am referring to by the term "tax rate chart." JF claimed that there is no reason to believe that tax rates inhibit growth, and provided as evidence for this proposition three countries' stats on growth and then explaining that their tax rates were different. His conclusion doesn't even begin to follow from that evidence.)

But even if we assume your flawed methodology -- that all societies basically start at ground zero and all come from the same cake batter -- you still get the wrong result. That's because there are prosperous countries that outrank Sweden and Denmark (on a GDP/capita basis) that have significantly less in the way of transfers -- Singapore, Norway, Switzerland, Hong Kong -- according to the IMF's list. (And I'm not counting the oil-rich Middle Eastern nations, of which there are plenty.) We can theorize about why these countries are doing so well relative to Sweden and Denmark, but those are questions of theory and not questions of evidence. The difficulty here is that you are flourishing "straightforward quantitative evidence" and that you apparently believe that it proves your point, but you have overlooked what evidence can and cannot do.
posted by Mr. Justice at 4:23 PM on June 9, 2016


If you're agreeing that the "spending spree" you describe above during the last fifty years during which "entitlement spending moved from approximately one-third to approximately two-thirds of federal spending" according to that USNWR opinion piece you linked to coincides with the U.S. becoming much better off during the same period, then I concede that I misunderstood you. In that case I don't know what the "huge increases in spending" you were talking about are, which in the presence of we can't "still be much richer than we were 50 years ago", because I don't see JackFlash, who I think you were responding to, proposing huge increases in spending or even talking about spending in general but rather about changes in life expectancy, and specifically ones stated as being in line with the planning of Social Security Administration architects in the 1930s.

It's odd to me that you so vociferously protest about all the "misfires" and ways I've supposedly misunderstood your mindset, and assert that my perception of how powerful people—explicitly "politicians and old wealth and barons of industry"—influenced the economy during the 20th century is so eerie and weird and strange to you, but then confidently launched into this creative "cake batter" interpretation of my own understanding wherein I supposedly think history, culture, real-world resource availability, and geography aren't relevant to the topics we're discussing. Total bullshit of course, particularly when I explicitly bring up all sorts of history and didn't remotely make any assertion that economic activity is homogeneous even just within the U.S. much less across countries.

I'm kind of getting the feeling that talking about what "evidence cannot do" is a tacit admission that you're making unverifiable claims and untestable-before-the-fact predictions based on nothing † after of all things criticizing the reports of the Congressional Budget Office as supposedly being divorced from reality. But go ahead and let's hear it, use Singapore, Norway, Switzerland, and Hong Kong to demonstrate why the future of the U.S. is going to be radically different than the past in some way that can't be explained by the actual economic data and history of the U.S. itself nor by economic data from countries with far higher taxation and spending rates.

Or just otherwise, if that's not what you're predicting or that data isn't how you mean to support what you're saying (particularly since Singapore and Hong Kong as singular giant cities confined to tiny islands, one of which isn't even its own country, would appear to be even more dissimilar from the U.S. than Sweden or Denmark, speaking of resource availability and geography...) please demonstrate whatever it is you're trying to say via objectively-examinable sources which aren't divorced from reality.

(Each time I read through what you've written here I feel as though I have a harder time pinning down what your overall point is, so I apologize if I've gone overboard with quotation marks above, just trying to make sure I'm responding to what you've actually said.)

Based on nothing perhaps other than a cultural tradition of making the exact same prophesies constantly during the past 50 years during which you're now saying we became much better off, with the prophets obviously having been constantly proved wrong. This I believe is the sort of thing JackFlash meant by "right-wing religious faith".
posted by XMLicious at 6:56 AM on June 10, 2016


I am sorry that I wasn’t clear. Perhaps the following paragraphs will provide the explanation of my views that I think you are asking for.

A few days ago, JackFlash wrote that “We could double our spending on entitlements or infrastructure or other nice things and we would still be much richer than we were 50 years ago.”

I do not think such a statement is obviously true. It relies on the assumption that aggregate spending will not affect aggregate production. That assumption is what I thought I was responding to, and that assumption is what I have attempted to discuss. JackFlash’s June 8 post then explained that other countries tax more than the USA does, but still have comparative levels of economic growth. I view that argument as essentially irrelevant, because it is not obvious to me that raising our taxes and spending more public money on transfer programs will have Sweden-style effects. This is a different country; local facts can have profound and unpredictable implications.

Sure, I agree that the USA has had an increase in entitlement spending during a recent period of USA economic growth. But we both know that there have been periods of USA economic growth which have not been accompanied by increases in USA entitlement spending, and there have been periods of increases in USA entitlement spending which have not been accompanied by increases in economic growth. And I imagine you might even agree with me that causation in these matters has to be argued for, not just assumed.

So I think there’s a lot of unexamined premises (about, essentially, causation) that come down to unexamined political views in the posts I responded to. Perhaps that explains what I have been trying to get at.

Following are a few sub-issues that are not nearly as important:

1. Surely you’d agree that if you’re going to do net present value analysis, sometimes you’re going to have to look at things more than a decade into the future. The fact that the Congressional Budget Office does not do this makes it a weak analytical fulcrum in some cases. This is one instance of the way that CBO analysis is flawed. Do I have to supply more?

2. You can pretend Hong Kong and Singapore are not countries for the purposes of the analysis if you want. Technically, you’re right. Substantively, you’re wrong. The point is that you can’t just ignore 5 or 10 million people who have created a powerful economy. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether they live on an island or on Lando Calrissian’s cloud city.

3. For the purposes of evaluating what a government program actually does, a politician’s promises and predictions – whether they take place in 1964 or 2010 – are utterly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many broken promises our president made about the Affordable Care Act before it was enacted, and it doesn’t matter what absurd predictions Ronald Reagan made about Medicare, if what we are analyzing is what a program actually does. We all know that politicians make groundless statements about the future (and everything else) all the time, and I decline to get involved in generalizations about which politicians have a better track record in these matters. I could see how political statements about the future could be relevant in various contexts, but not this one.
posted by Mr. Justice at 2:06 PM on June 12, 2016


In JackFlash's post you refer to, they mention that Social Security and Medicare together "constitute about 10% of GDP." In the OECD numbers I listed up near the beginning of the thread total federal, state, and local taxes for 2014 amount to 26.0% of our GDP whereas the ratio among all OECD nations was 34.4%.

(As a refresher: the OECD is the group of developed economies we're a member of where we've usually been at the bottom of the list for the amount we're taxed, until Mexico and Chile joined in the last few years and so now we have some company at the bottom.)

So this hypothetical doubling we're inquiring into of the size of those specific budget components—which according to your own cited USNWR opinion piece makes up the majority of the federal budget by far, and hence is the bulk of "spending on entitlements or infrastructure or other nice things"—even just relative to our current GDP, assuming no growth of the economy in the future whatsoever beyond 2014 levels, would only put us at 36% of GDP: barely above the average for all OECD nations. Forget Denmark spending 50% or more of their GDP, the reason to bring the outliers up was to point out how absurd what you're saying is.

Sweden-style effects aren't required, just the same effects garnered by most other advanced countries in the world who haven't let all their billionaires and I-totally-swear-I'm-a-billionaire celebrities completely run amuck.

Sure, prognosticating about some hypothetical future requires details—like the ones that were already present in this thread—and explanation, also provided here in spades, but the burden at this point by far is on you to demonstrate the special fragility of the United States you are postulating that would result in its economy faltering simply because the people holding most of the wealth and income in our country were expected to shoulder as much of the costs of running a modern society as their peers in the rest of the developed world, or as much as Warren Buffet's secretary and the majority of Americans do.

Hemming and hawing at providing any supporting facts other than a link to an opinion piece (from the free advertising-funded web site of a magazine that hasn't been printed in half a decade by the way) and arching your eyebrow with exaggerated skepticism while telling us about the pointlessness of evidence, because there are things evidence just cannot do, doesn't cut it to demonstrate this special fragility, though.

Nor does insisting that really "substantive" analysis would ignore the giant China-shaped thing currently attached to Hong Kong, or handwavily referring to pre-WWII boom-and-bust cycles in the U.S. because that's where you've evidently retreated to after giving up on finding anything to substantiate your claims anywhere in the rest of the contemporary world or in U.S. history since we've been considered a superpower. Those last two were really good for a laugh though, I have to admit.

But seriously, go ahead and add in Hong Kong as a separate country and Singapore, both of which "created a powerful economy" by ingeniously spending most of the 20th century and before as part of the British Empire, to the OECD numbers. You don't have to do that with Switzerland or Norway because both were founding members of the organization and are already included in the statistics.

Heck, add Macau too! A Special Administrative Region of a nominally-Communist country which is primarily populated by casinos and which exists because the first global empire of the Age of Sail picked it as the port to move most of their trade through five centuries ago seems like just the sort of thing the "we built that" worldview would esteem as a self-contained society of people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. But none of it will move the needle much on the averages or get you out of having to explain why the largest economy in the world would supposedly wilt like cheap lettuce on a fast food burger and fall to pieces if Mitt Romney ever had to pay more than thirteen-odd-percent taxes.

Here's a hint though: you aren't going to be able to demonstrate that the sky would fall if Mitt Romney had to pay taxes like everyone else. Because it wouldn't.
posted by XMLicious at 10:09 PM on June 12, 2016


@XMLicious: Um, no. Your argument is that if we doubled significant portions of government budgets, it would “only put us at 36% of GDP” – and you’re further arguing that this would make us barely above the OECD spending average. Your argument is, as far as I can tell: surely this minor change couldn’t hurt us!

Like it or not, your argument just is the cake-batter theory of economic development, which is (again) “different societies and different cultures are something like one big glop of cake batter that we all start at, and all we need to do is bake our portion of the glop in a certain way.”

Such a theory is a wonderful example of epistemological arrogance. I prefer epistemological humility. You can try to shift the burden of proof all you want, and you can throw in all the distracting and irrelevant slurs you want (“we built that,” “by their bootstraps,” etc. Note, though, that such irritable verbal gestures have nothing to do with the discussion at issue.
posted by Mr. Justice at 3:29 PM on August 7, 2016


So still, after two entire months, you can produce no links or references to corroborate your claims. I'm going to guess you regard this being pointed out as a "slur".

"Cake batter", as before, is bullshit, and is simply a straw man that is an attempt on your part to preemptively dismiss all possible facts which might be used for analysis, so that you don't have to provide any facts of your own to support your own assertions. There is no synoptic theory or model of economics that the rest of us are referencing: just real facts about how real economies function in the real world, including facts about how the U.S. economy itself has functioned.

You want there to be a terrible precarity within the 21st-century American economy which means that if Donald Trump ever pays more than 0% taxes all of civilization will unravel and fall to ruin (because paying even less than Mitt Romney is probably why he's hiding his tax returns; Table 3 in these IRS reports show that every year more and more of the people with the top 400 reported incomes fall into the "0% up to 10%" effective tax rate category, not that Trump is likely anywhere near that wealthy.) The myth of such a special precarity and fragility in America is what allows you and generations of conservatives before you to prophesize utter doom whenever it's convenient, and point at anything you wish and say the economic sky will fall because of it, from immigration to all Americans getting first-world health care to same-sex marriage.

Sure, there could, theoretically, be some fatal flaw that has suddenly appeared in our economic system recently: the equivalent of an aortic aneurysm, where the slightest over-exertion will cause a fatal disintegration of the structures at the core of our economic metabolism. Such that in terms of flexibility and agility, and ability to vigorously pursue economic goals like winning a World War or building hydroelectric dams on every river or converting deserts to farmland, we are a mere shadow of our former selves and are feeble and paralytic next to the other modern OECD economies. A true outlier not only among other nations but even compared to our own history, so that the facts about the economic behavior of advanced economies in any other time or place would be of limited use. There's no actual sign of this whatsoever, but theoretically some invisible injury or infirmity could create this sort of special danger.

However this isn't one of the things where you can with a supposed "epistemogical humility" pull a Trump "Believe me!" and handwavily say something about "local facts" that are so unpredictable, and culture, and cake batter, and then act as though you've demonstrated that all modern historical economic data from the United States itself and all economic data from contemporary OECD states are irrelevant as you "humbly" prognosticate doom.

It's doubly and triply laughable because on top of coming up with nothing to demonstrate the veracity of the dangers you were originally speaking of in ominous murmurs way up above, you keep latching on to the larger and larger hypothetical expenses people have demonstrated as easily borne by a modern advanced economy as proof of your crying wolf, and still you can offer nothing more to counter this with than the same non-specific handwaving about "local facts" and what I expect you imagine to be a cutting incredulous tone, to meet the pedestrian suggestion the U.S. would be entirely able to match up to merely the average performance of overseas economies.

So: to be credible at all you have to explain in specific terms what the economic aortic aneurysm is, or whatever phenomenon it is that makes the 21st-century U.S. economy so much more delicate than all of the most similar economies there is data for, and provide links and evidence that this supposed, novel fatal flaw actually exists, and evidence that it will have the future effects you are claiming it will.

Being unable to offer more than a nonspecific "it's complex" does not make you "humble", it makes you wrong. And in fact the inability to offer any more in a lengthy discussion with the entire internet at your disposal to draw evidence from, is a resounding demonstration of how hollow and impossible to support your claims actually are. If you want to talk about arrogance and humility, Mr. Justice, it's quite an indictment of your own character that you'll call people who carry out economic analysis professionally "divorced from reality" while all you can do is raise more and more outlandish rhetoric to excuse your own incapacity to make fact-based argument and attempt to exclude the use of any evidence whatsoever by others.
posted by XMLicious at 12:29 AM on August 8, 2016


[One comment deleted. Mr Justice and XMLicious: don't continue to comment in here. AskMe's not a debate space, and this back-and-forth should not have gone on as long it did.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:51 AM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


« Older Songs to shout- or talk-sing along to: What are...   |   My new job is a giant over-promotion and I am... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.