Friday, June 24, 2005

The Left Backs Private Social Security Accounts!!

Maybe there is now some hope that the left will start creating a new politics, after sticking with old-left ideas for decades after they became obsolete. William Greider, writing in The Nation magazine, has called for reforming social security by creating private retirement savings accounts.

For decades, the right has taken the initiative on this issue by supporting privatization plans that would allow people to invest their retirement funds in the stock market. These plans are so risky that they would inevitably leave an entire age cohort in the lurch some day, after the stock market suddenly droped. Even worse, they would distort our politics: anyone who has invested in the stock market knows that there is a real temptation to back political initiatives that raise the value of your stocks in the short to middle term, even if they are not best for the country in the long term.

The right has made some progress with these proposals, because the left has not advanced any proposals of its own. The left has just defended the existing Social Security System, a dinosaur left over from the 1930s, a time when people had faith in centralized government bureaucracies. Today, most people realize that our society is too dominated by centralized organizations, and they want something smaller scale. Until now, only the right has offered a plan to decentralize social security.

Now, Greider has called for compulsory retirement savings. People should be required to put some percent of their earnings in private retirement accounts, which would be based on the secure investments that pension funds usually make. This is a great improvement over conservative proposals: it keeps their idea of small scale, privately owner accounts, but it removes the risk of investing in the stock market.

I think we advance an even better proposal in the Preservation Institute Study “Social Security: A Liberal Approach to Privatization.” We say that social security taxes should be used to pay for a refundable tax credit that can be put in a retirement savings account, with the same credit for everyone who works.

Our proposal has two advantages over Greider’s. It uses a tax credit instead of compulsion, and it redistributes income: Greider has everyone save the same percent of their income, which leaves low income people with less to retire on, while our proposal gives everyone an equal tax credit to put in their retirement account.

Nevertheless, Greider’s article is an important step. The left has gone beyond just saying “no” to conservative proposals to reform social security. Instead, it has begun to formulate positive proposals of its own.

(William Greider, “Riding Into the Sunset,” The Nation, June 27, 2005, is available at

("Social Security: A Liberal Approach to Privatization" is available at

Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall: Theme-Park Architecture

Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall looks like a glittering piece of tinsel. It is symbolically perfect in the center of tinseltown.

It makes sense that Los Angeles produced Gehry, since his work has all the qualities that Los Angeles developed as the center of the twentieth-century entertainment industry. It is flashy, new and different, striking in a superficial way that is meant to call attention to itself – just like a new Hollywood movie that is short on substance but full of special effects.

Now that we have Disney Hall, modernist architecture critics have to think twice before they talk about “theme park architecture.” Modernists often say that traditional architecture looks like it belongs in a theme park. They thought it was very funny when Disney corporation built the new town of Celebration, Florida: the world’s most famous theme park developer was building in traditional style.

But when Disneyland opened in the 1950s, it included Tomorrowland as well as Main Street USA. Now we have two developments with the Disney name, one that looks like Main Street USA and one that looks like Tomorrowland carried to an extreme. It is time to think again about what “theme park architecture” means.

Theme parks are designed to attract gaping tourists. Celebration, Florida, was designed to look like Main Street, because that is how people want to live. When Frank Gehry built the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, it attracted so many gaping tourists that it revitalized the city economically, and cities all over the world wanted a Gehry building to attract those gaping tourists. There is no doubt that the most successful theme-park architect in history is Frank Gehry.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Capitalism and Socialism: Two Obsolete Ideologies

Capitalism and socialism were the two ideologies of the early industrial revolution. Their supporters argued about which could modernize the economy and create new wealth more rapidly, and which could use the newly created wealth to benefit the most people.

Today, everyone agrees that capitalism has won this argument, but most people do not realize that this argument has become obsolete in the developed countries.

In the developed countries, most people already have all that they need to keep them comfortable – and more. In the United States, we have more cars than licensed drivers. But this symbol of prosperity is so common and so widely used that we have moved beyond the point where it make us happy to the point where blights our cities and leaves us stuck in traffic jams.

American progressives still stick to their old politics, trying to distribute more wealth to underprivileged minorities – but minorities do not win elections.

They would do better if they realized that their old politics is obsolete. In a surplus economy, we need a politics that allows people to downshift and live more simply. That would help the majority of Americans live better lives, and it could win elections.