Monday, January 23, 2006


Index Social Security to Life Expectancy

Numerous attempts to "fix" Social Security over the last thirty years failed to address the underlying root cause of the imbalance in the system. The president attempted to solve the problem with a bizarre scheme of putting the security of the elderly into the hands of the stock market.

The patches and fixes of the last 30 years failed because people are simply living a lot longer. This trend shows no signs of slowing down, and some scientists speculate the "natural" lifetime of human beings might actually be as high as 120 years.

Over the years, the minimum retirement age of 62 has remained basically the same since early retirement for men was instituted in 1961.

Under the current system, increasing full retirement age to 67 is being phased in over a period of many years. With each passing year, the penalty for retiring at age 62 increases in the form of lower monthly benefits. Yet, for the vast majority of people, the financial incentives to retire early remain. That is, with early retirement, most people end up with more money in the long run.

The solution: index the minimum retirement age to average life expectancy.

The minimum retirement age would be revised annually, much as we do now with cost-of-living adjustments. Average life expectancy would be determined by a government bureau, just as the increases in the cost-of-living are now. A phase-in period would be needed to allow people time to adjust their retirement planning.

Indexing the minimum retirement age would:

-Permanently solve trust fund balance problems
-Set up an automatic mechanism
-Insure the security of our elders
-Avoid the need for tax increases

It has been argued that longer lifespans do not mean people retain the ability to work much longer than they do now: but this idea has never been proven. Raising the minimum retirement age does not affect the rules on disability benefits. As it stands now, anyone under full retirement age can apply for a disability. If people age 64 became disabled, then they could still retire under the present rules.

Another argument against raising the minimum retirement age itthat it would disproportionately disadvantage those minorities who have shorter average life spans. Since some minorities have significantly shorter average life spans than others, the payout of Social Security would not be as great for them. In fact, it would be interesting to analyze the contributions and payout ratios for various minorities and see who receives more as relates to the contributions. Since the average pay for minorities varies significantly, the situation is far more complex than it first appears.

As a nation, we still have time to solve Social Security’s long term financing problems. Current projections are that the system will be able to meet 100% of its obligations for 30 to 40 years. After that, the system will pay out about 70% of its obligations; a percentage which will decrease as time goes by.

We still have time, but whatever we do, we need to do it soon. With each passing day the solution becomes more difficult and expensive.

A report on the current state of the system is available here.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Ike on Guns vs Butter

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. Dwight D. Eisenhower

(Quotation verified from four different sources.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Science & Magic Part II

Yesterday I said science functions like magic in the popular mind. Some of the comparisons I made should have riled up any scientifically literate readers I may have; therefore, I lay out these conflations in a little more detail below.

I said, "Both entail long apprenticeships in arcane and esoteric arts." I can easily imagine a science teacher objecting that basic science is neither arcane nor esoteric. Here we need to distinguish between technology and science, application and research, results and process. I would agree that requiring children to look through a microscope presents nothing obscure or terribly difficult. However, the means by which we came to understand what we are looking at, something we call the "scientific method," takes a great deal of effort to effectively communicate.

Science as generally understood, as the cutting edge of human knowledge, is nothing if not arcane and esoteric.

Just try to explain a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, dark energy and the expansion of the universe to someone you bump into on the elevator. Or try to explain the research on new DNA analysis technology; or the theoretical limits on integrated circuit technology.

Well, maybe you could produce a cogent description of these matters in 30 seconds.

But imagine the process by which one comes to work on these problems. Typically one needs 27 to 30 undergraduate college credits in physics, chemistry or mathematics; then another 36 or so credits of graduate work for the Master’s degree; then additional credit hours plus a dissertation to get the PhD. For the vast majority of working scientists; that is the apprenticeship. And the day-to-day details of working with, say, a Bose-Einstein condensate are, unh, arcane and esoteric.

Speaking of science and magic, I said, "Both involve secret or dead languages" In stories about magic, we often see a book of runes, mysterious symbols, and writing in dead languages. Like Indiana Jones, deciphering ancient codes betwixt battles with sorcerers and Nazis. It wasn't that long ago that the primary language of scholars was Latin. The idea was to insulate and isolate scholarly work from common eyes. Nowadays, we see medicine, with its need to elevate the authority of physicians, as an exemplar of the use of needlessly complicated Latin phrases. Why do prescriptions bear the letters "B.I.D.?" They stand for bis in die, Latin for "twice a day." The cultural reasons for this are quite interesting, but not pertinent. Suffice it to say that modern medicine requires a scientific basis and rationale.

But medicine is not the only place where we see a dead language on life support. Biology uses significant amounts of ancient Greek and Latin in nomenclature, almost of necessity. With millions of species to classify, the use of these languages seems almost mandated.

Physics, astronomy and chemistry each have their own special vocabularies. There is no need to go into the justification for terms like mole; Planck's constant; or event horizon. The point, that these terms are not part of the common vocabulary, is obvious.

Another assertion I made about science and magic was "Both follow their own, internal logic and posses internal consistency." The objection could be raised that the whole point of magic is the violation of commonly observed natural laws. Magic, by definition, is inconsistent with everyday experience of the way things usually work. Such an objection misses the point; stories about magic require internal consistency. If, for example, the story says that spells are required for magic to work, you cannot suddenly eliminate this requirement and grant wishes that are not in the form of a spell. Suppose your hero's mouth is taped shut. Since he cannot utter spells, he cannot work magic. To violate the internal consistency rule would annoy readers. This actually stems from the requirement of all narratives for internal consistency.

The other points in yesterday's post appear sufficiently evident to obviate further explanation.

As an interesting aside - the criticism of evolution and science in general is often made that science is "incomplete." That is, there are "gaps" that are not explained by a particular science story such as evolution. To a scientist, any actual gaps are the most interesting parts of his discipline, because that's where new discoveries are most likely. But consider extending the argument of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem to consistent science. In essence, if science if consistent, it is logically required to be incomplete.
As always, comments are welcome.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Intelligent Design, Magic and Science

Recent commentaries in Slate and other venues move me again to write about the conflation of magic and science in our culture. For the average scientifically illiterate citizen, science functions exactly like magic in important ways. This conflation plays a role in the cultural success of intelligent design.

Science, like magic, gives humans abilities and powers far beyond the unaided limits of the physical body. Science, like magic, allows communication over great distances. Both enable transmission of voice, sound, images; material objects; and people through the air. Both have long histories in healing the many ailments the human body is prone to. Both can be used to create great destruction. Both entail long apprenticeships in arcane and esoteric arts. Both involve secret or dead languages, the application of complex formulae, and bad smells. Both make use of rare, esoteric and peculiar ingredients. Both use complex, fantastical equipment. Both follow their own, internal logic and posses internal consistency. Both have a history of state sponsorship. Both have distinct uniforms to be worn by practitioners. (For an expanded discussion of these points, see the next post.)

Neither is really well understood by the average high school graduate.

This last point seems beyond dispute, but must be placed into context. The vast majority of working adults spend very little of their days involved in science. True, we have a good number of science teachers at all levels, practicing scientists and engineers, but beyond that, how many people are interested? In a population of hundreds of millions, two million people, even five million, remain a tiny minority. The other three hundred million took their biology classes in high school or college, scraped by, and never learned much about the conceptual foundations of science.

And why should they?

After all, one need not be an expert auto mechanic to drive a car. Most people have no need to know how to construct a rigorous experiment or how to analyze a data table. We do not need to understand a double blind study to take our blood pressure medicine.

In the United States, high school and college students are not generally encouraged to learn for the sake of learning. (I will never forget the hostility of the dean at UMKC who had to approve my enrollment in undergraduate economics classes after I'd got my first degree. "What do you hope to accomplish?" he demanded. My answer, to learn something, was definitely wrong.) To this particular dean, as well as nearly everybody else, college is merely a superior kind of vocational training.

The nation of the common man often sneers at higher education; places little value on knowledge and experience; often rejects elitist notions of learning to read, speak, write and think well. We reward folksy politicians who stumble over simple declarative sentences with electoral success while punishing other politicians who speak at a higher level.

Ghetto culture, I read, viscously rejects education as "white." Redneck culture, on the other hand, embraces ignorance and produced men like George Wallace, famously both racist and anti-intellectual.

In such an intellectual environment, bizarre notions like: astrology, Bigfoot, tarot, phrenology, alien abduction, flying saucers, cold fusion, parapsychology, telepathy, Scientology, DaVinci codes, left behind; and yes, Intelligent Design, find ready support.

ID comes with all the trappings of science/magic; statistical probability; images of microscopic phenomena; discussions of bacterial flagella; guys dressed in white lab coats; talking heads and PhDs.

If science is no better understood than magic; if the two function almost interchangeably in pop culture, then how can we differentiate between legitimate science and ID? That is, if we as a culture do not know the difference between science and magic, then how can we tell them apart? If a presentation looks like science, talks like science, reads like science, then how can we say it is not science?

The simple truth: most voters cannot or do not recognize the difference between science and magic, much less legitimate science and intelligent design.

The problem reflects a dearth of critical thinking, not defects in science education. And I know of no solid evidence that the ability to think critically can be successfully taught. However, teaching basic logic and reasoning skills could only help. Encouraging open dialog and discussion would help. Taking the time to listen and understand other points of view would also help.

There are no easy answers; no simple way to tell a complex story. But we will continue to keep the conversation going.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Façade of Muslin Unity Threatens Schism

The retired bishop of a Christian denomination from an Islamic country joined my Old Testament class yesterday.

Unlike Christianity in America, Christianity in his home country suffers from actual persecution. (In America, persecution of Christianity is a fiction used to fuel talking heads.) Christians are a small minority, about 10 percent of the population. But despite, or perhaps because of the persecution, it is growing quite rapidly in that country.

Here are excerpts from the Wikipedia article on religious persecution in his country:

(I deleted the references identifying the country because the bishop plans to return there and I've not discussed this writing with him.)

Most of the Christian sects in that country claim to have the only truth. They claim that adherents to others sects will go to hell. This infighting in the Christian community keeps the religion from taking full advantage of recent easing of persecution and restrictions. It hampers efforts to spread the gospel. And, of course, it runs counter to the idea that all believers in Christ are part of the "body of Christ," as expressed by St. Paul.

The bishop then went on to talk about Islamic unity, hidden divisions, and some of the implications.

He compared the state of Islam today to Christendom before the Reformation. Of course, in Christian nations before the reformation, adherents to other religions were persecuted, just as Islamic nations often persecute non-Muslins in those countries. Before the Reformation, the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church were two sides of one monolithic religion. In Islam, we see two sects, Shi'ah and Sunni; though they are often in conflict.

The bishop has become convinced that Islam is no more unified in practice than Christianity. He cited an Islamic author who wrote recently on the subject (don't remember the name - sorry.) But tradition decrees a façade of unity, a fiction that all Muslins regard themselves as brothers and sisters. The resulting tension between practice and avowed tradition, between the pretend unity and actual diversity, has produced what the author called "dishonesty" in Islam. Christianity confronted and dealt with similar "dishonesty" when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church in 1517.

So, from the bishop's point of view, Islam's development lags Christianity by about 500 years. That religion is ripe for a “Reformation” of its own. We may live long enough to see it.

Saturday, January 07, 2006



Well, now that we're ankle deep into 2006, it must be time for some resolutions. I’m feelin' real good about the procrastination thing.

I resolve to:

1.)Never use ten words; or nine words; or any more words than the minimum number, such as one, to convey a thought.

2.)Watch more tv.

3.)Respect others no matter what bone-headed, willfully ignorant, self-serving, stupid, lazy, incompetent, garish, distasteful, hostile, childish, primitive, ill-informed, half-baked, mistaken, and silly products arise from their little minds.

4.)Humbly and gracefully accept criticism no matter how bone-headed, unwise, etc.

5.)Restrain my glee at pointing out how bone-headed, willfully ignorant, etc, etc, the writing, art, music, and so forth beloved by others really is.

6.)Try to take the petty, small-minded, trivial personal concerns of others seriously.

7.)Do more solo drinking.

8.)Take every opportunity to point out errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation in the work of guys who take themselves way too seriously. Respectfully, of course.

9.)Honestly attempt to pay attention, no matter how badly my mind wants to wander, when some idiot attempts to correct my spelling, grammar and punctuation.

10.)Let the little things go.

11.)Get rid of all needless, irritating and annoying redundancy.

12.)Use more semicolons. And italics.

13.)Stop trying to be funny.

14.)Start using fictional quotations from Leviticus to back myself up.

15.)Quit yelling at fathead politicians on tv. No matter how loud I am, I only succeed in waking the kids and making the dog bark.

16.)Lay off the angry letters to Microsoft.

17.)Stop using the cat as a soccer ball.

18.)Use shorter, Anglo-Saxon words in casual conversation. (Who knew Decalogue, epistemology, and counterfactual aren’t part of the average vocabulary?)

19.)Remember the names of my children.

20.)Quit making lists.

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