Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Reading

How Social Security Really Works — The Economist, that bastion of Socialist thinking, explains how Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme and how a few tweaks to the current program will make it solvent for time out of mind.

SOCIAL SECURITY manages to be one of the most popular and misunderstood government programmes. It serves two purposes: to provide an income floor which keeps people out of poverty in retirement (a form of insurance), and to replace income from previous work (a forced saving scheme). There may be more efficient ways to achieve these goals, but generally, Social Security does a decent job at both.

But there is a stunning amount of ignorance when it comes to its financing. On the right, people like Rick Perry call it a Ponzi scheme based on lies. The left prefers to believe there’s nothing wrong with the programme and figures when revenues and the trust fund can no longer cover benefit payments some simple accounting trick will save the day. Both views are wrong and dangerous. Discontinuing the programme and moving to something fully funded would be so expensive as to not be worth the cost. Social Security’s financing problems can be fixed, ideally with some combination of tax increases and progressive benefit cuts. It is a fairly easy fix and the sooner it is done the cheaper it will be. Punting it to the future makes it even more expensive to future generations, and is in my opinion irresponsible, to put it nicely.

HT to CLW.

More below the fold.

Thrust and Perry — Gail Collins looks at Gov. Perry’s leadership in Texas.

If Perry continues on his early trajectory, we will be hearing quite a lot of debate about how good a governor he’s been, but Americans’ lack of interest in anything connected with state government is so vast that in the end, it may turn out to be beside the point. Anyway, the real question isn’t how Texas is doing but whether Perry’s experience there has led him to think about the federal government at all, except as a sinister force that can be identified as the villain when anything goes wrong.

Just one example: health insurance. More than a quarter of all Texans have no health insurance whatsoever. During his first presidential debate Perry blamed that fact — as he has in the past back home — on Washington. (“Well, bottom line is that we would not have that many people uninsured in the state of Texas if you didn’t have the federal government.”) When Bush was in Washington, Texas proposed a half-baked plan to improve its Medicaid program by reducing benefits and coverage. The application was sent back to the state for reworking — by the Bush administration — and the state seems to have expended precious little energy in revising it. But the legend of federal overreaching lives on, a perpetual excuse for why more than six million Texans are uninsured.

Having an interest in national government that’s mainly limited to disliking it might work fine if you’re the governor of a state that has always regarded itself as “low-tax, low-service” anyway. It’s a little more problematic if you’re the guy in charge of keeping the dollar stable, the food supply safe and the national defense ready.

We could live with a president who named his boots “Freedom” and “Liberty.”

Not sure about one who has contempt for the job he’s running for.

How Star Wars Got Made — The release of the yet-again updated version of the saga prompted The Atlantic to go back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars, the franchise of a thousand comebacks, is enjoying another. A new cut of the six-part sci-fi saga is being released today on Blu-Ray discs, rekindling debates about which film is the best (“A New Hope,” obviously), whether directors should keep “updating” their classics, and whether George Lucas is a terrible person.

A 1979 Atlantic profile of the Star Wars director may help inform answers to that last question. In the story by Lynda Miles and Michael Pye, written about two years after the smash-hit success of A New Hope (though the film at that point was just called Star Wars), Lucas revealed just how much business concerns factored into the series’ genesis:

Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys (“I love them, I’m really into that”), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.

From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. “Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio,” he says, “but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn’t ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade.” Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, “already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff.”

…The idea of Star Wars was simply to make a “real gee-whiz movie.” It would be a high adventure film for children, a pleasure film which would be a logical end to the road down which Coppola had directed his apparently cold, remote associate. As [American] Graffiti went out around the country, Lucas refined his ideas. He toyed with remaking the great Flash Gordon serials, with Dale Arden in peril and the evil Emperor Ming; but the owners of the rights wanted a high price and overstringent controls on how their characters were used. Instead, Lucas began to research. “I researched kids’ movies,” he says, “and how they work and how myths work; and I looked very carefully at the elements of films within that fairy-tale genre which made them successful.” Some of his conclusions were almost fanciful. “I found that myth always took place over the hill, in some exotic, far-off land. For the Greeks, it was Ulysses going off into the unknown. For Victorian England it was India or North Africa or treasure islands. For America it was Out West. There had to be strange savages and bizarre things in an exotic land. Now the last of that mythology died out in the mid-1950s, with the last of the men who knew the Old West. The last ‘over the hill’ is space.”

Profit considerations also played a role in how the the name “Star Wars” was selected. “The title Star Wars was an insurance policy,” Lucas said in the article. “The studio didn’t see it that way; they thought science fiction was a very bad genre, that women didn’t like it, although they did no market research on that until after the film was finished. But we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars.”

Doonesbury — Speaking of the movies….