Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Founded by Mark Kleiman (1951-2019)
Why Does Matt Bai Have a Job?
Matt Bai thinks that Social Security is in trouble because he can’t tell the difference between playing the lottery and owning Treasury Bills. He’s an easy mark for spin doctors.
Obviously not for understanding policy. Â In a typically snide and vacuous piece yesterday, he rehearses the typically snide and vacuous Beltway Insider conventional wisdom that Social Security Is In Serious Trouble, criticizing those trying protect the program for being insufficiently bipartisan. Â Then he dismisses their arguments that the system is solvent:
The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile ofÂ Treasury Bills â€” often referred to as i.o.u.â€™s â€” in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.â€™s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases â€” none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term. So this is sort of like saying that youâ€™re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.
Uh, no. Â I’m not an economist. Â I don’t pretend to have macroeconomic expertise, although those who do have it have not really shown that macroeconomics is anything more than shamanism. Â But even I know the difference between winning the lottery and holding Treasury Bills, perhaps the safest form of investment known to humanity at present. Â The Chinese have over $1 trillion worth of T-bills — are they counting on winning the lottery? Â So do all the big banks — mostly with TARP money. Â Are they playing, too? Â There’s a reason why T-bills have a low interest rate: the market thinks that they are a very good risk. Â If Bai wants to argue that the market makes no sense and is underpricing the risk, then he should make that argument. Â But then he’d have to know something.
Bai doesn’t have a hidden agenda: he just can’t be bothered with actually learning anything about what he writes. Â So he’s an easy mark for someone trying to spin him. Â And boy did he get spun here.
Oh, and incidentally: Treasury Bills are not “often referred to as i.o.u.s”. Â They’re often referred to as, well, Treasury Bills.
Author: Jonathan Zasloff
Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees.
Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses.
Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.
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