Monday, September 26, 2011

Why I am Against the Death Penalty

In the pro-death-penalty column by Jonah Goldberg that I posted about yesterday, we see this statement:
We hear so much about the innocent people who’ve gotten off death row — thank God — because of new DNA techniques. We hear very little about the criminals who’ve had their guilt confirmed by the same techniques (or who’ve declined DNA testing because they know it will remove all doubt). Death-penalty opponents are less eager to debate such cases because they want to delegitimize “the system.”
This statement seems so strange to me that I am not sure I understand it. For one thing, it should be obvious to Goldberg that the concern for death penalty foes is not exactly the people who got off death row, but what this indicates about the people who did not. So far, the Innocence Project has exonerated 273 convicts with DNA evidence, 17 of whom had been on death row. Since DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of criminal cases, this means that innocent people have been and will be executed in the large number of cases where it is not.

Government does not do anything very efficiently. How efficient do you think it will be at only executing the guilty?

If we have such an institution as capital punishment, we know that we will execute the innocent, just as, when we go to war, we know that we will kill many non-combatants. That is why war can only be justified by the very gravest of reasons -- namely, national self-defense against actual or imminent attack.

What is the reasoning that is supposed to justify capital punishment? Goldberg asks us to consider the many guilty people who are executed.

Maybe the idea is that, while executing the innocent is a bad thing, executing those who deserve it is a good thing. You have to weigh one against the other.

No you don't. He thinks that if we don't have the death penalty, the most heinous offenders will get off easy. They deserve death, but will only get prison time.

Actually, I agree with this statement. But some will get off easy no matter what arrangements we make. After all, aren't some offenders who deserve death a lot worse than others? And yet they get the same punishment -- death. Aren't they getting off easy?

More important, we have no right to maintain a system that we know will execute the innocent, simply in order to inflict a more fitting retribution on those who are not.

On the other hand, maybe I am misinterpreting Goldberg. He might be denying, or merely ignoring, the inevitability of executing the innocent. He says a number of times that his favored policy is to use the death penalty, but only in cases where we are certain of guilt. He does not seem to notice that this is the policy that we actually have. We only execute people when guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt -- and it doesn't work well enough.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Live-Blogging the Second Gary Johnson Debate

Yep, that's how I think of it. It's the first time since May that millions of people have had an opportunity to hear from the former governor of New Mexico and compare him to the rest of this field.

Wow. Michelle Bachman just said: You earned your income, you should keep it all. That's not the government's money. Is she an anarchist, now?

Santorum just said that public employee unions should not be able to negotiate wages and benefits. God I hate agreeing with him!

Herman Cain has a lot of fans in the audience!

Johnson was just invited to attack Ron Paul and he refused. Instead he promoted himself and endorsed the fair tax.

Romney was asked how you define "rich." He didn't answer. I define as rich everyone who lives on an urban lot so large they cannot possibly be annoyed by their neighbors.

That's the only reason I envy the rich.

Rick Perry just said he does not favor considering giving Social Security to the states. That sure isn't how I remember it.

Oooh. Megan is trying to get Romney to apply the S-word to Obama. He says the one label he wants to hear applied to O is "former President."

Herman Cain likes Chilean models. Well who doesn't?

What? What's that? Oh. Nevermind.

I wish Perry would stop smirking. It's going to give me nightmares tonight.

Gary J. said he would abolish the Dept. of Education. Like Ronald Regan did. Oh, that's right. He only said he would.

Perry accused Romney of favoring O's "Race to the Top." Romney: "Nice try." He says what he favors is retaining teachers based on performance alone.

Did Bachmann just become the fourth one to promise to close the D o E? I lost count!

Republicans sure like fences!

Ouch. Romney just scored a hit agst Gov. Perry. Illegal aliens, he says, get free tuition a the U of Texas, while citizens from other states do not. True?

Perry seems to be saying it is -- and accusing those who do not approve of being heartless. That got both cheers and boos.

Santorum is hammering the same point. Boy, do I hate agreeing with this jerk.

Chris Wallace just confronted Ron Paul with one of those comments of his that makes him remind people of their crazy uncle: in this case it was his claim that a border fence might be used to keep us in as well as keeping others out. He wisely refrained from repeating that rather goofy comment.

Foreign policy: They all love Israel. I think Cain just said that an attack on Israel should be regarded as an attack on us. Yikes.

Johnson favors trade with Cuba. Bachmann claims Cuba is a state sponsor of terror and we don't trade with sponsors of terror (like Pakistan?).

Bachmann favors people practicing their religion in the public square.

Would Santorum bring back "don't ask don't tell"? Yes. It sounds like he said that those heterosexuals in the military should keep their sexuality to themselves, too.


Bachmann is invited to revisit her controversial comment on how that Perry vaccine causes mental retardation. She turned it into another attack on Perry.

Perry says he will always err on the side of life. Does that mean he has changed his position on the death penalty?

Cain would be dead if Obamacare had been in effect when he had cancer. Will Wilkinson just blogged: "Because Cain was able to personalise the answer, it was the best of the attacks on Obamacare of all the GOP debates so far."


These people seem to agree about Obama. They are against him.

Johnson just got off the best line of the night: "My neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration."

I think Perry just imagined Newt and Herman Cain being possible lovers.

It's over!

My verdict: Romney was very smewth, as always. Johnson did well and probably advanced his fortunes. Let's see if he gets a bump in the polls.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

Thanks to the Republican debates, the idea the Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is back in the news! I thought I would repost a comment I published on this notion the last time it turned up, during the furor about the Madoff case. Also see my comment on the complexities of this idea here.

Carlo Ponzi had a brilliant idea -- brilliant at any rate by the standards appropriate to judging the intelligence of criminals: Invite people to invest their money in your scheme, and pay them surprisingly large returns. But these payments are merely taken out of the deposits of new customers, who will be payed from deposits of still newer customers. But there really are no investments involved, and they rest of the money isn't going anywhere but into the conman's pockets.

Now that the economic downturn has exposed Bernie Madoff's truly despicable crime, the largest Ponzi in history, such schemes are in the news again, and some libertarians are making the familiar claim that the Social Security Administration is itself a Ponzi pyramid, far larger even than Madoff's . If so, the notion that Madoff's is the biggest such scam ever are in fact wrong. His is merely the largest private one. No one does it like the state.

Is it true that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme? I don't think it is (nor is the related idea true that SS is "insolvent"). I think the comparison does bring out features of the SSA that are ethically problematic, but the ethical problems are rather different from those that consigned Mr. Ponzi to prison (and, were there only such a place, to Hell).

The SSA pays Grampa Jones with money extracted from Jones Jr., who will eventually be paid with money extracted from Jones III. There is that much resemblance to a Ponzi.* The difference of course is that everyone knows from the outset that this is what Social Security is like.

As Nat pointed out to me recently, one of the important features of a Ponzi scheme, very often, is that the swindler sometimes avoids making payments to his victims. "Wow that's a huge dividend! Why don't you just reinvest it for me? I'll make even more!" Why sure, I'll reinvest it for ya. Heh heh. With SS, no beneficiary would ever do that because no one is under the illusion that this is an investment plan.

Social Security is nothing but a conduit by which wealth is extracted from those who produced it and transferred to those who did not. Of course, that is also true of a Ponzi scheme. But the difference is that Pozis do it with fraud, while SS does it with force. Social Security is to a Ponzi scheme as coercion is to deceit.

That is not a morally trivial difference. The people who received dividends from Madoff were benefiting from acts that violated the rights of others. But they were unwitting and innocent beneficiaries. What is Grampa Jones? He may be innocent, but not because he is unwitting. The ethics of his position are more complex and murky than those of Madoff's victims.

There is a particularly vicious sort of coercion involved in the SS system that many others have noticed. Suppose that we the people decide that we want to liquidate the system. What do we do with Grampa? All his working life he has been paying money into this growing, spreading system. Can we abandon him? And where will the money to support him come from? And how will we refund the money that the still-productive who have paid, usually enormous amounts,** into the system? They would have put part of that money into private retirement accounts, but now they can't do so, because the SSA took it from them.

That is why the economic sterility of the system is ethically problematic: not because it is fraudulent, but because it makes it all the more coercive. There is no fund of capital that might have enabled us to liquidate it. The generation that voted SS into being were handcuffing us to a monster. In this way, what they did was profoundly anti-democratic.

Update: Also, see this.
* Interestingly enough, when Junior pays more that Gramps needs, a trust fund accumulates, but by law this money must be spent on government bonds. In other words, it goes into the pockets of the perpetrator of the scheme. Again, like a Ponzi snow job.

** In 77% of cases, the employee's contribution plus that of the employer (which ultimately comes out of the employee's hide as well) is greater than the entire federal income tax paid by the worker.