Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is Supporting Preserving Social Security As Is While Advocating Combatting Global Warming Hypocritical Confusion?

This is the charge made by Arnold Kling at econlog and in more detail by Andrew Biggs. Biggs is former Bush hit man on social security, and he and Kling both see those who doubt that social security is "in crisis" and those who doubt that global warming "is a problem" as being somehow similar, namely confused, and if one is supporting one and not the other, not just confused, then (implicitly, although neither used this word) hypocritical.

I have commented on Biggs's blog that I think it is not unreasonable to support social security as is while supporting doing something about global warming. He claims that changes to social security are "permanent" (as are changes to global climate), and of course supports the usual pessimistic forecasts. I argue that on social security that a) the pessimistic forecasts have not done too well so far, and b) social security can be changed at any time if indeed things go bad. However, with global warming, the downside is much worse and the lead times are much longer. Also, they do not have the same probability distributions, with social security essentially more of a normal distribution, but with global warming, as Martin Weitzman has pointed out (and similar to financial market returns), there are these non-normal "fat tails," too high a chance of extreme events due to nonlinearities and positive feedbacks in the system, with the geological record supporting the idea that very rapid temperature change has happened in the past. So, we must worry about those non-trivial catastrophic outcome possibilities, much more serious than possible underfunding of the US social security system.


Anonymous said...


No cycle 24 yet... the clock is ticking on the warming trend...

Anonymous said...

"..I argue that on social security that a) the pessimistic forecasts have not done too well so far, and b) social security can be changed at any time if indeed things go bad. However, with global warming, the downside is much worse.."

It depends on how the Social Security money is spent. Okay for organic agriculture that stores carbon. On low energy appliances. On carers, catering, and other human services.

OTOH, if social security payments are withdrawn and older people are forced to stay in the workforce longer; well how is that going to address global warming?

jimbino said...

That is a good example of the misuse of the word "hypocrisy."

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


I don't think how the seniors spend their social security checks is going to be very decisive regarding what happens or does not with global warming.


Clearly I was using "hypocrisy" ironically. It was not used specifically by either Arnold Kling or Andrew Biggs, although essentially implied by both. Biggs has stayed away from the global warming issue until now (he is a social security guy, all for privatizing it), but Kling has at times expressed skepticism about global warming forecasts. He is also a libertarian who is sympathetic about privatizing social security, although that is for ideological reasons, and he has personally been careful not to come on too strongly in support of the pessimistic forecasts about social security.

However, certainly both Kling and Biggs deal with people who support the pessimistic forecasts on social security because they support their ideological favoritism for privatization, while also opposing pessimistic projections on global warming because they raise problems for their pro-free market views. Hence, it is not surprising that Kling and Biggs might well see these ideologically driven people as the flip side of people like me, who are then presumed by them to be unreasonable ideologues unwilling to Face Up To Facts, and all that.


Bruce Webb said...

Anonymous your point is kind of unclear. Retirees by and large are not going to spend much if anything on 'careers' or 'catering'. The only way I can make sense of your comment is in relation to how the federal government spends the money it borrows from Social Security. An amount that is generally overestimated in either absolute dollar amounts or potential economic effects. The cumulative numbers are large but taken year by year not particular so in the context of the total budget.
And Barkley I have a couple of posts up at AB talking about the 'why' of opposition to Social Security. The first (XV in the Soc Sec series) explains it as a simple product of the 19th century ideological struggle of Reaction vs Revolution where the new discipline of Economics simply grew up on the Reaction and so anti-Democratic side of the barricades. The second (XVI) makes the same argument but casts it in terms of a Kuhnian paradigm, that economists are to some degree simply captives of the conceptual tools they have been handed. Which to some degree explains Kling.

Biggs of course is a different story, he is fully self-aware of what he is doing and why.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

For an assessment of the effects of the privatisation of social security take a good look at Australia. We are forced to contribute a significant portion of our wages into a retirement fund called 'superannuation'.

From January 1st this year to 31st March the average worker superannuation fund lost $300/week every week. Thanks to the crisis in the financial and stock markets.

There are extreme limitations on accessing this money. Very few can pull out their funds before they reach 65 years of age. I'm resigned to losing all of mine.

jimbino said...

I object to misuse of "hypocrisy" because I hear such misuse in arguments all the time, such as:

"A thinks SS should be abolished, but he still takes his check. Hypocrite."


"B thinks the tax deduction for mortgage interest should be eliminated, but he claims it himself."

Hypocrisy involves feigning a virtue you don't possess. By deceit, lying, etc, and not mere confusion. Taking advantage of your rights under a government policy you oppose is NOT hypocrisy, and the public deserves to be educated, not mislead.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


Well, this is different from the cases you cite. In both cases what we have is somebody opposing one MSM-supported story that trouble is coming, either in social security or in global temperature, but accepting the other, especially because the combo fits their apparent ideological presuppositions.


Myrtle Blackwood said...

Social Security has an interesting history in the US, from what I've read. President Johnson was the first to incorporate it into the measure of federal budget assets. It was not counted that way originally because it was supposed to be a quite separate and distinct trust fund for social security purposes and nothing else.

In latter US administrations SS began to be used to fund federal government programs, like defense. With IOUs left in the SS account.

A similar situation is occuring here in Australia even with so-called 'privatised' pension funds. Many employers (including government employers) are supposed to put in a contribution to workers 'superannuation' accounts. Instead they simply use IOUs or nothing at all. In Tasmania this is a huge problem in terms of the state government budget. There's an enormous budget deficit in this area that has resulted in the Government selling off public assets for further privatisation.

Closer to home, a member of my family works in (private) job where the workers have combined to ensure the funds gone missing from their superannuation accounts are replaced.

It seems to make no difference at all whether a social security fund is private or public. The fraud still occurs and you still have no control over (i) whether to invest and (ii) how the money is invested. The forest-rape bosses are, not surprisingly, the major beneficiary in Tasmania.

As soon as the money of any
public fund has all become private property, the corporate beneficiaries, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed.