The case of the over-sampled satirist!


Collins and Petri aren’t swift: The premise never changes.

Gail Collins writes about politics—but she finds politics boring! This must be the ten millionth time she has started a column this way:
COLLINS (11/12/11): Guess What It’s Time For!

It’s the weekend. The air is brisk, the leaves are tumbling, so it’s time for—yes!—another Republican debate!

Who knew there were going to be more of these things than football games?
Who knew? How about anyone alive on the planet in recent decades? In the 1988 primary season, for example, the Democratic candidates engaged in dozens of debates. (Michael Dukakis once put the count at 48.) This year’s series of debates is nothing surprising or new.

To Collins, though, it’s borr-ring! She builds column after column around the idea that there are too many debates; too many candidates; too many primaries; too many speeches and issues.

Sometimes, sports writers say there are too many bowl games. But they rarely say they’re bored by football itself. Lady Collins is bored by her subject. Why won’t this high lady do the right thing and stop writing columns about it?

(Mitt Romney’s dog barks in paragraph 6. Does anyone doubt the possibility that Collins is mentally ill?)

More amazing is Alexandra Petri’s column in today’s Post. To see it as it appears in the wild, click here, then click once again.

As people bereft of ideas often do, Petri works from Swift today, though her reference to the over-sampled satirist is edited out of her hard-copy column. (To read her not-too-swift blog post, click this.) All we’re left with is the garbage which follows.

To Petri, straight outta Harvard, the problem isn’t the one percent. The problem is grandma, who doesn’t enjoy eating cat food:
PETRI (11/12/11): Our society has a long-standing predilection for the old. You have to be at least 35 years old to run for president. Forty-six out of 100 senators were born in 1947 or earlier. And our national finances are a textbook example of the sort of system you would throw together under the assumption that you were going to die soon and would not have to worry where the money would be coming from.

But the trouble is that they won’t. That would be too easy. Instead, they are going to linger on well into the triple digits, at excruciating expense, if modern medicine has anything to say about it. And we’ll be stuck footing the bill!

Look, I have no personal ill will against the old. Except Helen Mirren, because she is better preserved than I am.

But they are easier to catch than those who are merely rich and, according to the census, it all shakes out to about the same thing. They have been so busy making sure that their lives will be better than the lives of their parents that they have forgotten to make sure that our lives will be better than theirs. And the longer they linger, the more we’ll notice.

So let’s move out of the streets and into the retirement villages, off Wall Street and into the gated communities.

Eat the elderly! Except Warren Buffett. He knows where they hid the money.

Sure, they’re old. They’re wrinkly and taste sort of gamy, with a hint of talcum powder.

But the alternative is to continue to allow them to devour us. And it’s getting cold outside.
To this fatuous child, the problem isn’t the one percent. It’s those wrinkly, gamy old people!

How does the palace elite manage to find these people? More intriguingly, why do they always hire women to write this strain of crap?

In our view, it’s kind of amazing that an editor published this column. We’ll be curious to see if the ombudsman gets dragged into the stew. Petri simply isn’t real swift—but she fits right into a fatuous niche which might be called, “Spawn of Dowd.”

Where the heck do they find these people? And couldn’t they please send them back?


  1. I think Petri's basic point is correct. SS and Medicare are pay-as-you-go programs. In other words, the monthly checks and almost unlimited medical care that we retirees receive are paid for by today's working people.

    That's arguably unfair, because on average we oldsters are richer than the workers who are paying for our lavish benefits. Why support a system where the poor subsidize the rich?

    Furthermore, by the time today's young people retire, their benefits will be less generous than ours are today. It's not a question of conservative or liberal. It's that there will be fewer workers to support each retiree. Today's young people are getting screwed.

    I'm surprised more young people aren't complaining about the unfairness of SS and Medicare. I think we will hear more complaints like this.

  2. The real problem is this is actually meant to be filled with humor. It's not. It's not funny at all. Unless you're old as dirt and you like reading crappy newspapers.

    Get off my lawn NY Times! No, I mean it, no way I would have the Times delivered to my home.

    There was a time when I thought the Times was the height of sophistication--maybe a decade ago. I would love spending Sunday mornings reading the entire paper.

    Now, I groan when I see it and if I must read it (like when I"m with my family over the holidays) I'll grab the book review section, the sports section, or the travel section if I take anything.

  3. David,

    Valid point.

    One quibble though is that Petri seems to be complaining about old people as if they are an inherent liability rather than making the case that our political system is set up to unfairly reward one generation over those that follow.

    I do agree that the politicians are coming for Social Security so the claim that there isn't enough money there will be self fulfilling. There is indeed a surplus but we are already seeing politicians treating one bond (held by the American people) as suspect while other bonds (many held by foreigners) are not to be defaulted upon in any way.

  4. And of course the fact it's pay go is indeed regressive. The fact they also paid way ahead of time is also regressive because people thought they were paying into a trust fund and yet it is being stolen--so not only did poorer people pay their own way, they paid ahead and had their investment stolen (well, the crime is about to happen but the criminals are already making their attack).

    Instead of payroll taxes we should increase the capital gains tax by whatever it would take to fully "fund" SS benefits. So what would that be? 10% increase? 20%? Or, let's simply increase the top income tax bracket by whatever it takes. 10%?

    Plus, benefits should be the same. I haven't followed the indexing of benefits but benefits have been lagging, no? Keep them the same. Raise the capital gains or top income tax rate to "balance" it if people insist on that (which is not necessary anyway--the government should spend SS benefits directly without taxing or borrowing the money).

    I bet most people would be more than happy with having their payroll taxes cut and the rich's taxes increased, while people get the same SS benefits.

  5. The Petri column is quite a find. One is hard pressed to understand what it actually means, and yes, it's not the least bit funndy. Old people have too much wealth? Is $170,000 net worth for half the oldies too much? If you've paid off your house over 30 years and have no savings, and are living off Social Security and Medicare, then that is about your net worth. And these are the people we should be plundering?

  6. Walter, in response to Alexandra Petri's column, writes: Get off my lawn NY Times! No, I mean it, no way I would have the Times delivered to my home.

    Lay on, Wit Man [laughing], except it's no use beating up the Times delivery boy: Petri performs for the Washington Post.

    That said, this is astonishingly bad writing; letter-to-the-editor-in-all-caps-with-blunt-pencil-bad writing.

    And worse, as anonymous points out, it's a rhetorical null: There's nothing there. Several hundred words later, when it's finally over, the reader is still wondering what the hell the writer is on about.

    Bob, the insular nature of our media is something you write about often, and I can't think of a better example than this: Who the hell would hire a person who obviously can't write for shit-- as a writer?

    I can't think of any other answer than "legacy," "grandfathering," "old school ties," "family," the whole stinking classism of a "nobility"-- which the US was supposedly founded to repudiate.

    Man [laughing], this country just makes me so mad sometimes.

  7. David in Cal thanks for being here to represent but this subject is best explained by those who have studied the matter. Dean Baker writes:

    >>>>...Since almost no one can be immune to the hysteria that the media have created around the cost of these programs, it is worth putting it in some context. Starting with Social Security, the latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office show that the program can pay all benefits through the year 2038 with no changes whatsoever.

    Even if we never did anything, the program would be able to pay more than 80 percent of scheduled benefits well into the next century. Since the value of benefits is projected to rise through time, 80 percent of the projected benefit in 2040 is considerably higher than the average benefit received by retirees today. Therefore the often-repeated comment that there will be nothing there for our children or grandchildren is a telltale sign of ignorance or dishonesty.

    The cost of making the program fully solvent for its 75-year planning horizon is projected at 0.58 percent of GDP. By comparison, the increase in annual spending on the military as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is 1.7 percent of GDP, almost three times as much. The upward redistribution from the rest of us to the 1 percent over the last three decades was 6 percent of GDP or more than 10 times as much as this shortfall. But it is only shortfall in Social Security that the media want us to see as a crisis.

    The health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid, pose more of a problem, but this is because the U.S. health care system is dysfunctional. We pay more than twice as much per person as do people in other wealthy countries with little, if anything, to show in the form of better outcomes. (We rank near the bottom of wealthy countries in life expectancy.)

    If we had the same per person health care costs as people in Germany, Canada or any other wealthy country, we would be looking at long term budget surpluses, not deficits. But controlling costs involves reducing the income and profits of the 1 percent. It means reducing payments to insurers, drug companies, medical equipment manufacturers and highly paid medical specialists....<<<<<

  8. I guess I'm one of those who should be eaten. I started worked full-time @ 12 and 52 years and multiple college degrees later, I'm still working, albeit part-time now. So my reward should be becoming Soylent Green? Did I mention I'm a veteran and overweight? Yummmy! My net worth is a tad more than the $170k cited above but not by much. Did I suddenly lose some flavor?

    I remember a story from years ago: "The Marching Morons." They're here and they can type for pay.

  9. David writes: SS and Medicare are pay-as-you-go programs. In other words, the monthly checks and almost unlimited medical care that we retirees receive are paid for by today's working people.

    [sigh] David, there's so much wrong in this statement alone that I scarcely know where to start. The benefits received are provided by everyone who has ever paid in to the fund, even those who never benefited from it. That, obviously includes you, payee.

    Look, it may help-- and this goes for you too, Walter-- to remember that SS (and I'm not even gonna talk about medicare) was originally designed to be insurance, not some sort of pension plan.

    The idea was that, by God, nobody in this country should be cast out onto the street simply because they are too old to work any more.

    Simple, right? If you know our country [laughing], you know the answer. The mechanics of SS were tinkered repeatedly throughout its existence, and as a result of that, it now looks more like some sort of government-funded pension plan for all.

    There's a huge difference between a pension and insurance. To wit:

    If you drive, for example, you pay car insurance, which pays for any damage you endure as the result of owning a car-- whether it's as a result of being hit by another driver, or if you pile it up after a night of pulling long necks at the Idle Hour Saloon.

    If you are a careful and cautious driver, and never have an accident, here's what you get: Nothing. See, as a good driver, you foot the bill for bad drivers.

    "Well wait, that's not fair, shouldn't I get all my money back then, if at the end of it all I don't need to draw from the fund?" you say.

    No, of course not, silly, because that is not how insurance programs work. If you don't need it, you don't get it. You knew going in that it was an insurance program, right? And if you got all the money back that you paid in, how would the insurance company cover the greater financial need of a person not as careful a driver as you?

    If you apply this parable to the SS system, you'll see that I'm making the argument that not everyone who pays into the system should benefit from the system.

    As extreme examples, I'll just say that Warren Buffett doesn't need to collect an SS check. Go from there, and work downward on the net worth scale. See where I'm going with this?

  10. OK, I'm confused, a not uncommon situation. Our saintly Blog Owner notes that "Petri works from Swift today." Which seems to say that Petri is attempting satire along the lines of "A Modest Proposal." But then he claims that Petri isn't being ironic but rather is actually complaining about "those wrinkly, gamy old people!" But isn't that like claiming that J. Swift actually wanted people to consume Irish babies?

    Swift was lampooning the cruel and fatuous social engineering of his day. Isn't Petri mocking the the same kind of thinking that proposes deep cuts to social programs today?

  11. Bob writes: I guess I'm one of those who should be eaten.

    Bob, you'll just make yourself all stringy and tough. Stop worrying and stay well-marbled. :-)

    I just had a look at your Blogger page incidentally, and can't resist a suggested answer for a question that Blogger, for whatever reason, asked you:

    Blogger: Come up with some possible band names for your group that features a washboard and a styrofoam tuba.

    And you answered: Thrumming Cousins.

    Ooooooooooooo, I'm sorry; how much did you wager, We were looking for "Sons of the Polymers."

    God I hate myself. I hate puns!

  12. Bob, Last add Soylent Corp, and I can never resist this gag:

    A lot of my friends are vegetarians and that kinda means lots of soy products and lentils, and I commiserate with the problem of spicing up these otherwise bland foodstuffs.

    "Oh hell yeah, I'm always looking for some way to pump the taste a bit", they say.

    "Hey, I know a company specializes in Soy and Lentil products; they just came up with a really interesting additive. You should look 'em up."

    As I say, I can never resist.

  13. Chris, I may know more about SS than you, since I studied its structure as a part of my actuarial training. Although SS was presented to the public as insurance, and although it has some characteristics of insurance, it's not the same as non-governmental insurance. There are two big differences:

    1. With non-governmental insurance, the company must hold funds corresponding its accumulated liabilities. That is, the insurance company first collects and accumulates premiums for a particular cohort, then uses those accumulated funds to pay benefits to that cohort. SS essentially doesn't accumulate funds. That's not quite precise, because SS has accumulated a Trust Fund. However, the amount of this SS Trust Fund is very small compared to what a traditional insurance company would have to accumulate. So SS is pretty much pay as you go.

    2. Insurance benefits are contractual. SS benefits are guaranteed by current law, but could be changed at any time by a new law. E.g., it would be perfectly legal for Congress to reduce all SS benefits by 20% tomorrow. However, even Congress couldn't reduce your life insurance benefits on policies you had already bought and paid for.

  14. TheOnePercentFlyswatterNovember 13, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    My comment deleted? Hmm. What's new, Mr. Somerby?

  15. No, Petri's basic point isn't right. Old people are not insanely rich; our economics problems weren't caused by old people being greedy. Forcing 80-year-olds to reenter the job market won't solve any economics problems; forcing people with Alzheimers to get jobs to pay for their own health care (out of pocket, since who's going to cover them?) won't reduce health care costs.

    Petri is right in that we're either going to have to make old people poorer or rich people slightly-less-disgustingly-rich to solve the shortfalls in both programs. She chooses to save the mega-yacht owning crowd because that's where her loyalties lie.

    Their paychecks have all those zeroes on them, which means no one in the entire universe is allowed to question why they have more money! she crows. Times infinity! cries back the libertarian caucus.

    What's even more annoying is then the Post whines and whines about how people aren't buying their garbage paper anymore. Can you blame people for not wanting to be told that they should be eaten so that America's finest, like Paris Hilton, don't have to pay taxes on their inheritances? Can you blame people for not wanting to be told that 99% of Americans should have no economics security so that 1% of Americans can have toilets made of solid gold?

  16. bah, no edit button to correct "economics problems" twice. Thank you, Blogger.

  17. Alex, you're right that old people aren't "insanely rich". But, we are a lot wealthier than the young, working people who are paying for our SS and Medicare benefits.

    My wife and I receive annual SS benefits of around $50,000. That amount by itself matches the median family income. But, it gets better. Unlike wages, our SS benefits are only half taxable. Our SS benefits aren't reduced by SS Tax, Medicare Tax, local wage tax, state disability tax, or unemployment insurance tax. Furthermore, the average household has 2.6 people, whereas my wife and I have only 2 to support. So, our SS benefits alone make us quite a bit richer than the median family.

    And, SS isn't all of my family wealth. My wife and I also get Medicare coverage, worth over $10,000. On top of that we have earned pensions from jobs we've held and we have accumulated savings to spend during retirement.

    What's more, our living expenses are lower. We don't have a crippling mortgage. We've accumulated lots of possessions over the years, so we don't need to buy as much stuff. And, of course, we don't have expenses associated with work, such as job-appropriate clothing and the costs of commuting.

  18. Chris,

    Yes, I got mixed up--Petri's column was in the Post and not the NY Times--but no matter--my opinion of both papers is about the same. I don't want the Post on my lawn either.

    You also write:

    "Look, it may help-- and this goes for you too, Walter-- to remember that SS (and I'm not even gonna talk about medicare) was originally designed to be insurance, not some sort of pension plan."

    1. Does this issue have to be frozen in time as written by the Social Security Act? I don't think so. I'm fine with expanding the program but I don't think promises should be reneged upon (as David in Cal is proposing). If we've been promised a half-assed pension that we have had to pay into our whole working lives then we better get that, at least. Most Americans would rather tax the rich and get the same benefits the last generation got (and not have games played with indexing of inflation).

    2. If we wanted a more just society we would expand Social Security into a full pension program that is paid for by direct government spending rather than via taxes or issuing bonds.

    3. Even a fully socialized pension program (say where every person over 65 receives a base old age pension) would have similar properties to insurance contracts. If you die at 55 you will have "paid in" to the system but won't receive benefits, just as if you had an insurance contract and paid premiums but never made a claim.

    Maybe you are mistaken Chris and think I'm taking David in Cal's side of this argument because I used the term "pay go" accounting. Maybe I fell into David's trap and that wasn't the right word to use.

    I'm actually a proponent of fully socialized old age, disability and death benefits regardless of one's work history. And these benefits should be paid directly in U.S. dollars printed by the federal government (greenbacks), btw.

    Anyway, I was simply pointing out that people paid into a what they think is a trust fund and then people like David in Cal and Obama are going to try to convince them to take less than they were originally promised.

  19. Walter, I agree that government should keep its promises. As an actuary, I spent 40 years helping to make sure that insurance companies kept their promises. Here's the problem: Companies keep their promises by not promising more than they can deliver. There's such restriction on the federal government. The federal government has over promised officially by $75 trillion! (National Debt 15, SS 18, Medicare 38).

    Some of that can be made up by raising taxes. But, the total is $650,000 per household. That's too much to be made up by tax increases, even over a period of years. Furthermore, we're not economizing. Instead of paying down this debt, we're adding to it, at a rapid pace.

    If the federal government were a private company, it would declare bankruptcy and shut down. Obligations would be paid at pennies on the dollar. George Bush, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the crew in Washington would go to prison, just like Madoff and the Enron leaders.

    Of course, the government's over promising was perfectly legal. But, legality can't avoid the economic consequences. Frankly, I don't think the government is going to make the painful changes necessary to maintain fiscal stability. At some point, I think we'll be in a crisis like Greece, with riots in the street. I think inflation will wipe out peoples' savings and create a worse recession than today's.

    Eventually, I hope the shock will induce politicians to take the steps necessary to prevent a total collapse of the US dollar. When that happens, we will see wholesale slashing of programs. We'll see groups of federal beneficiaries viciously fighting with each other to retain their portion of federal largesse.

    If proper steps aren't taken, the US dollar could become worthless, like Zimbabwean currency. Zimbabwe finally abandoned their currency and substituted the US dollar. I have no idea what we would do if the US dollar became worthless. The possible consequences are staggering.

  20. David, the trust fund makes SS whole for the next 25 years. After that, the twenty percent or so shortfall in promised benefits can be covered by nominal increases in the FICA rate and salary cap. Hardly the stuff of currency collapse, I think.

    By the way, is linking the NCPA really productive for you, as a trained actuary, I mean?

  21. David,

    How can a country that is sovereign in its own currency over promise? Just as with its bonds, there is no valid reason for the U.S. to renege on its promises.

    How much money did we print over the last 3 years to bail out the bankers? Trillions of dollars. It would be less than a trillion dollars, decades from now, to shore up Social Security. This is a fraction of the problem the recent crisis presented and the risk to currency is almost nonexistent.