A Recipe for Civil Political Discourse

May 25th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Is it possible to have a civil and substantive conversation about politics between people of differing (opposing!) ideologies these days? It sure doesn’t seem like it if you read the increasingly over-the-top blogosphere, listen to the hyperbolic talk radio, and watch the overblown 24/7 cable new channels. The result is a truly toxic “mocktail” that is poisonous to our political system and our country as a whole. And the taste, though apparently appealing to many, is pure swill to me (though, admittedly, I have drunk from this Sirens-like concoction periodically in the past)!

I think there are several causes for the popularity of this vile potion. First, though it is a sad reflection on our culture, mean-spiritedness is highly profitable; its purveyors and conveyors get rich just like the peddlers of yore who hawked their miraculous elixirs. Second, it has the magical ability to transform anxiety and fear into righteous indignation and anger, both much more palatable emotions. Third, the anonymity of the blogosphere gives people license to say anything they wish with impunity. Finally, several good swigs of this witch’s brew immediately provides scapegoats for the ills in our society, thus relieving the drinker of culpability and the resulting angst.

I experienced this lethal blend first hand many times over, most recently in response to a blog post I wrote. Another blogger responding to it on another web site not only missed the entire point of my post, he also cherry picked quotes from my post to justify his vitriolic diatribe. Not surprisingly, he began a feeding frenzy on my cyber-carcass among the blogosphere commentariat that included ad hominem attacks on my intelligence, profession, and competence.

This kind of response can found on just about every politically oriented web site from the far Left to the far Right and any other political ideologies that lie outside the traditional political spectrum. But what people who drink this evil draft don’t realize is that, with such off-substance reactions, they belittle themselves as much as they demean the supposed targets of their ire. These “inebriated” bloviators make themselves look childish, petty, and weak of argument.

Despite these frequent reactions of the worst kind, I continue to wade right back into cyber-swamp because I believe that civil and substantive discussions between those of different stripes are not only possible, but essential to our democracy. And it is possible. I’ve had enlightened and enlightening exchanges with fiscal and social conservatives and libertarians over the past few months, both in person, by email, and on my blogs. The experience is deeply rewarding and almost otherworldly (mainly because it doesn’t seem to occur often in our world). Such an elixir could be a cure for the powerful toxins that are currently afloat in America’s body politic.

The recipe for meaningful dialogue between those of opposing viewpoints has only a few ingredients, but the ingredients are hard to come by and finding just the right quantities of each is a challenge.

Here is my recipe:

  • Start with a scoop of mutual respect.
  • Sprinkle in a dollop of open mindedness.
  • Add in a spoonful of patient listening.
  • Pour in a skosh of levity.
  • Don’t let any preconceived notions slip in.
  • Be sure ego doesn’t accidentally get poured into the mix.
  • Finish the concoction off with a very large helping of equanimity.

The result? A richly flavorful and satisfying brew for all those who partake.

Once this tonic took hold between myself and my ideological counterparts, some surprising results occurred. Once our minds were open and our emotions were in check, we were able to get past our ideological talking points and we actually found that we had a lot in common. We learned that, though we may differ in some ways, we share in others, for example, we value hard work, integrity, justice, responsibility, and compassion. When we focused on what we agreed instead of on what we disagreed, we each realized that the other was not Satan incarnate, but rather a decent person and an American much more alike than different. Of course, there were further disagreements on specific issues and policies, but we usually agreed to disagree and allowed each other to make our cases. The result? Greater understanding of those issues and policies and even some unexpected consensus.

We can disagree, for sure; that’s part of a vital democracy. But when we imbibe the foul beverage that seems to be the drink of choice among many Americans and act under its influence, we lose something more fundamental than our democracy. We lose our reason and our humanity.

So, let’s toast with (and drink a lot more of) this new and refreshing cocktail. Cheers!

BTW, be on the look out for my post a week from today in which I am going to propose a National Civil Discourse Day to be held on September 15th of this year (my late mother’s birthday). The goal is, for that one day, along all forms of media, for everyone, from Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on the Left to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the Right on down to the most anonymous members of the blogosphere, to engage only in civil and respectful discourse. I will ask for everyone who is tired of the current tone of conversation and who values calm and reasoned dialogue to help me get the day to go viral.

(This article was also published at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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43 Responses to “A Recipe for Civil Political Discourse”

  1. larry ennis |

    Well Dr. Jim, I admire a man that offers to listen. I’m very much on the conservative side but also a listener as well.

  2. Dan Miller |


    Well said. Civil discourse is certainly better than uncivil, and we should all strive for it. Uncivil discourse is effective only with those who agree with it, and alienates those who disagree with whatever point is attempted to be made. Your recipe should produce some tasty results, if the ingredients are available to those who strive in the kitchen of ideas and don’t much mind the heat often generated by those who take vigorous issue with the points being made no matter how civilly the proponent of those points may assert them.

    I do, however, question this observation:

    This kind of response [uncivil, I assume] can found on just about every politically oriented web site from the far Left to the far Right and any other political ideologies that lie outside the traditional political spectrum. (emphasis added)

    The print and broadcast media often seem no less guilty of incivility than the websites, but that is a different matter. What is the “traditional political spectrum” these days, and why is it to be preferred?

    Perhaps it is just my often cynical point of view on display, but my perception is that many of those in the traditional political spectrum have few real interests beyond getting elected and reelected and reelected some more; that brings power. The traditional political spectrum has usually been the most effective way to accomplish this. The thirst for power is among the most powerful of political motivations, as Bertrand Russell noted in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

    But great as is the influence of the motives we have been considering, [principally vanity and acquisitiveness] there is one which outweighs them all. I mean the love of power. Love of power is closely akin to vanity, but it is not by any means the same thing. What vanity needs for its satisfaction is glory, and it is easy to have glory without power. The people who enjoy the greatest glory in the United States are film stars, but they can be put in their place by the Committee for Un-American Activities, which enjoys no glory whatever. In England, the King has more glory than the Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister has more power than the King. Many people prefer glory to power, but on the whole these people have less effect upon the course of events than those who prefer power to glory. When Blücher, in 1814, saw Napoleon’s palaces, he said, «Wasn’t he a fool to have all this and to go running after Moscow.» Napoleon, who certainly was not destitute of vanity, preferred power when he had to choose. To Blücher, this choice seemed foolish. Power, like vanity, is insatiable. Nothing short of omnipotence could satisfy it completely. And as it is especially the vice of energetic men, the causal efficacy of love of power is out of all proportion to its frequency. It is, indeed, by far the strongest motive in the lives of important men.

    Love of power is greatly increased by the experience of power, and this applies to petty power as well as to that of potentates. In the happy days before 1914, when well-to-do ladies could acquire a host of servants, their pleasure in exercising power over the domestics steadily increased with age. Similarly, in any autocratic regime, the holders of power become increasingly tyrannical with experience of the delights that power can afford. Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure. If you ask your boss for leave of absence from the office on some legitimate occasion, his love of power will derive more satisfaction from a refusal than from a consent. If you require a building permit, the petty official concerned will obviously get more pleasure from saying «No» than from saying «Yes». It is this sort of thing which makes the love of power such a dangerous motive.

    Even today, with multiple vociferous voices coming from all directions, some of them occasionally offering reasonable ideas, the government is likely to remain under the control of those who have long controlled it; from either of the two principal parties, and it may not matter which.

    I submit that we need vociferous voices, lest we all doze off into a euphoric wonderland where all is seen to be good and evil is ignored or otherwise goes unnoticed. A review of the events of the decade leading ultimately to the second world war might be useful in this regard.

  3. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Dan: Great thoughts. I am often accused of encouraging timid or politically correct debate (which I worthless of course); that is how many people interpret ‘civil.’

    Yet, I believe, as you suggest, that we need “vociferous voices and passionate and vigorous dialogue. The key is that there is a big difference between angry and intense.

    So will you help me get this idea to go viral? Stay tuned till Monday for the NCDD announcement.

  4. Brianna |

    Three points

    1) While I cannot vouch for everyone who read your post or the responses to it in American Thinker or here at Opinion Forum, I am fairly certain that the majority of them were fully aware that when you proposed your fictitious department, you did so with full intent of being ironic (certainly the American Thinker article included your qualifier, whatever you think of Dan’s article here). What you failed to realize about their response to your article was that they got angry not because they failed to notice your inclusion about irony, but because they viewed your article as a case of unintentional truth telling by the Left. That is, while very few out there seriously thought you would enact a department of information, quite a few thought that the underlying truth beneath your jest was that it’d be just dandy if you could get all those annoying talk radio people to be quiet and those crazy Tea Partiers to just agree with you, because you’re right and that’s all there is to it. The thing about free dialogue though is that it’s usually very contentious; if nobody’s making noise, odds are good it’s because somebody’s being silenced somehow.

    2) Which leads to my next point. Your comments about civility are wonderful, but again, if everybody’s agreeing with each other, odds are good that if it’s not a survival issue or an “any darn fool” issue, then somebody’s not doing it by choice. Odds are also quite good that there’s no real “debate” going on at all. Rather like Annabel Park’s youtube video about the Coffee Party, where she starts by calling for “civility” in the public debate and ends by saying that “the people should just get out of the way,” calls for “reasonableness” and a “dialing down of extremes” are just as often used to silence opposition by making them feel silly and mean as they are to keep the debate within tolerable bounds. That they are just as often employed by the “useful idiots” of the Left who honestly believe what they are saying only adds credence to what is in logic a very faulty position. As I told you earlier, there are some things you simply do not compromise on, because to do so is to cede the moral ground to your enemy. This in turn causes you to lose everything, even the part your enemy originally said the compromise would let you keep. Not a very useful thing to do, you ask me.

    3) Finally, your article came not long after a speech by Obama where he denigrated the modern media as contributing to the misinformation and distraction of the populace. That really didn’t help.

  5. Dr. Jim Taylor |


    1) Though readers may have made such an assumption about my post, that doesn’t mean that that was my intention. A mistake people make is to engage in mindreading. The problem is that we aren’t capable of reading minds. Or, to be more correct, when we think we are reading someone else’s mind, we are actually reading our own mind and projecting those thoughts onto someone else. This whole hullabaloo began because people made assumptions. And my presence here occurred because someone had the consideration to contact me and ask me what my intentions were. That was a rare and very civil thing to do.

    2) Civil discourse isn’t, as you suggest, ” if everybody’s agreeing with each other.” As I noted in my above response to Dan, “I am often accused of encouraging timid or politically correct debate; that is how many people interpret ‘civil.’ Yet, I believe, as you suggest, that we need “contentious” debates and passionate and vigorous dialogue. The key is that there is a big difference between angry and intense. It is possible to be contentious and civil at the same time. The line is drawn when someone moves from discussions of the issues to those of the person (i.e., challenging the issues vs. insulting the person).

    3) I didn’t hear his comments, so I can only speak for myself on this, but here’s no doubt in my mind that the media (MSM or otherwise) contribute to the problem. Why? Because it is good business.

  6. Dan Miller |

    Jim, If you haven’t recently done so, and you probably have, you might want to read or read again Churchill’s The Gathering Storm. He took vigorous issue during the 1930’s with the powers that be on how to deal with the developing horrors. He may have been less than civil on occasion, but if so I haven’t come across any examples of it.

    During a House of Commons debate in 1934 on Britain’s inadequate air defenses, Churchill recalled but refrained, perhaps mercifully, from reciting some lines about a railway accident:

    Who is in charge of the clattering train?
    The axles creak and the couplings strain;
    And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
    And Sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
    And the signals flash through the night in vain,
    For Death is in charge of the clattering train.

    Churchill’s relations with Neville Chamberlain and his predecessor as Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, remained cordial and there seems to have been a code of gentlemanly deportment. That continued when Churchill became Prime Minister and Minister of War, and his relations with an often mercurial Stalin and a far more collegial FDR managed to combine “diplospeak” with words calculated to get his points across well.

    I would offer Churchill as a role model for those on all sides of current issues.

  7. Brianna |

    1) No, but we are capable of reading their words, and of making the best judgement possible of their intentions based on their words. In fact, that is all we are capable of. It is also what these people did. They may have been wrong, but the fact that they exercised their judgement to the best of their ability does not make them foolish.

    2) You may have meant “civil” the right way, but many others do not, and it is undeniable that the vocabulary you have taken up is misued often.

    3) http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hcoyG-Ck3-VwZB7fqpUFXbffoObg

    Finally, I have to ask. In your heart of hearts, would you honestly have preferred that your words of censorship, however jesting and unserious, were simply laughed off by society as a joke? As I mentioned earlier, you are far from the first person in the last year or so to imply that you’d very much like to have some way to shut people up (never mind whether you meant it or not, you certainly gave the impression that you did). Joe Klein all but accused Beck and Palin of sedition, Arianna Huffington has accused Beck of screaming fire in a crowded room, Woody Allen said it’d be great if Obama could be dictator for a few years, the fairness doctrine has occasionally been nicknamed “hush Rush,” the FCC seems desperate to implement net neutrality, the Obama administration has made repeated attacks on Fox news, a SWAT team was called out on a Tea Party in Quincy IL (and looked quite ridiculous walking down the street to a complete lack of opposition), Homeland Security has issued reports about the threats of right-wing extremists, Eric Holder is on the record as being practically incapable of linking radical islam to terrorism, the Obama administration has attempted to rewrite reports to exclude mentions to radical islam, and along you walk into all this with what you claim was an innocent piece of satire. Frankly, your piece just wasn’t all that funny. And if I had to choose between people being up in arms over a false alarm or snoozing through a real fire, I’d take the former.

  8. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    1) The best judgment possible? Obviously not, given that they were wrong. Only one person in the original post on Lucianne.com had the best (and correct) judgment). And another emailed me to find out the truth.

    I would submit that commenters were interpreting my words through the lens of their ideologies. Other commenters on more liberal sites interpreted my words correctly because of the ideological lens through which they looked.

    I never said anyone was foolish, just presumptuous and wrong.

    2) Yes, misused often. In the future, I shall clarify my vocabulary when it might be misinterpreted.

    3) Not laughed off, but vigorously countered with thoughtful, though passionate, disagreement. Instead, I was personally attacked viciously. That is where I draw the line.

    As to your litany of complaints against the Left, I am quite sure that I could create my own litany of attacks on democracy from the Right. All depends on the lens of our ideology. Recognizing that has softened my self-righteousness and rigidity toward others of opposing views.

    My (Mis) Information Age post was not intended to be funny in the laugh-out-loud sense, but rather to provoke thought and discussion about the real purpose of my post.

    Why do you have to choose between a false alarm and snoozing through a fire? Is it not possible that there is some gray area to how you might respond to the possibility of a fire or the belief that there is a fire? Wouldn’t you be angry if someone cried fire when there was none? And shouldn’t the person who cries fire in a crowded theater when there is none be punished in some way for his/her reckless behavior? Oliver Wendell Holmes seemed to think so.

    I’m sure we could debate all day, but I have a ton of work to do, so I’ll see you at my next post.

    I do appreciate your comments and the passion AND civility with which they are conveyed.

  9. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I agree with you completely. The degree of vicious partisanship that infects our political environment is distressing. It’s not that anyone should expect that partisans of the left and right (or elsewhere) won’t hold strong views. They do, and they should. And it’s always going to be hard, and sometimes impossible, to arrive at compromises on issues like abortion. But we should be able to discuss our disagreements in an atmosphere of decency and respect. In fact, the charges that fly back and forth using wild terms like Nazi, Hitler, racist, communist, socialist, fascist, and so on not only don’t add strength to an argument, they detract from it’s validity.

    Too often people only seek sources of information and discussion that they already know they agree with. That only serves to reinforce a narrow-minded, one-sided view of the world. I often listen to Rush Limbaugh, even though I disagree with much of what he says, and he often outright twists facts to make a point. But at the same time, he’s funny and interesting, and it’s good to know what about 20 million people a week are hearing him say. I also watch shows like Rachel Maddow, and I find that she and others on the left often make good points, when they aren’t off on their own flights of fancy. Conservatives should make it a point to read liberal blogs, liberals to read conservative blogs. It always helps to understand the other side, if only to enhance your ability to counter their arguments.

    Don’t get me wrong — I love a snarky rejoinder and a sharp retort now and then. Dan’s comment put me in mind of Churchill, who said,

    “I like a man who grins when he fights.”

    “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

    “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

    “The length of this document defends it well against the risk of its being read.” (Health care reform legislation, anyone?)

  10. larry ennis |

    Dr. Jim, your notion of a Department of Information could have been intended for more receptive audience. One great plus or minus of a blog is that it can be read by any and all. Pure chance brought your article to the attention of those of us outside your regular audience. Could it be that the D.O.I. notion is better fronted as a fantasy to the likes of a less liberal/progressive audience.
    I have held all along that the present administrations truthfulness is suspect on almost ever issue. This president and his liberal/progressive insiders have either hid the truth or misstated it more than a few times. If perchance this president appointed a czar of information and truth only the very naive would be surprised.
    This president and his administration(?)have dropped the ball on every crisis that they has had touched. The Gulf oil spill is a national disaster made even worse by this president and his insiders that constantly maneuver to salvage a political advantage as the entire gulf coast is destroyed. White House Chief of staff David Axelrod assures the world that the administration and professor Chu(who ever he is) are on top of it? Ever heard the expression “Tip Of The Iceberg”? Don’t these damned people ever stop campaigning? This White House has more train wrecks in progress than any other in history.
    Boy oh boy, wouldn’t it be great if we could control all the information and the truth in particular. We could call it the Department Of Information. Maybe put Robert Gibb’s in charge. Departments Of Information aren’t really new. For instance you might Google Joesf Goebbles. He was a well known information czar of sorts.

  11. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    I just can’t resist responding!

    @Tom: Glad you agree that people engage in what is known as the confirmation bias, whereby they only gather information that affirms their beliefs.

    Interestingly, research (by liberal academics, I’m sure) has found that liberals expose themselves to opposing views, through conservative web site visits and reading conservative newspapers, than do conservatives.

    @Larry: By listing only liberal distortions and failures, you weaken your position. Let’s be honest, a similar litany could be made of Bush II’s missteps and attacks on democracy.

    Do you really believe that “This White House has more train wrecks in progress than any other in history?” If that is true, then most were started by the previous administration (e.g., two wars, financial crisis). I think the Bush years would win that battle hands down, but, of course, I am looking through the lens of my ideology and you through yours. This comment isn’t mean to evoke party warfare, but to simply point out that we cherry pick our examples to support our ideology.

    To make a point that will be stronger and untarnished by ideology, and that will accepted across the political spectrum (or outside of it), I try to think outside of my own ideology and look at the issue from another perspective. I then include examples from both sides of the aisle. There are examples aplenty everywhere.

  12. Tom Carter |

    It’s sometimes hard not to at least smile when I read a typical laundry list of the terrible things Bush, Obama, or (fill in the blank) have done or would like to do. In fact, it’s not hard to help out by filling in an evil deed or two that someone may have forgotten to put on a specific list. That’s what happens when people restrict their information input to only what they agree with — they walk around with a list (at least in their minds) of talking points and things they agree with, and then no more searching and thinking is needed.

    As I’ve written before, the problem is mainly with extremists and those they influence on both the left and right. Aside from the specifics of their ideas, they resemble each other in most ways — closed minds, lack of tolerance for other ideas, and a firm conviction that those who oppose them are not only wrong but evil. Extremists have always been with us, and one of the strengths of our political system is that there aren’t that many of them, relatively speaking. But there seem to be more these days, perhaps as a response to the stress of current events. One sure thing is they aren’t doing the country any good.

  13. larry ennis |


  14. d |

    One point,Brianna,I think the problem with having civil arguements with our opposers,is what you said. You could not compromise to the enemy,are we really enemies? TI think of people with differing opinions as worthy oponents,not enemies. I enjoy the arguement and your point of views,I will concede if you convince me,but not likely. I never see these guys as my enemies,but as much smarter than me,and highly intelligent,people with different opinions. Sometimes they even teach me,and change my hard headed mind. An open mind and listening ear,not a mean response or a derrogatory remark,are all we need. No one should be attacked for their opinion,but a lively arguement is worth while. I will not try to speak for Dr. Taylor,but in my observation,it does not appear he wants to silence anyone,just be respected and not attacked personally. We can certainly discuss our different opinions without thinking the other side is evil, or the enemy or making remarks about his or anyone’s profession ,can’t we?
    Good article,Dr. Taylor.

  15. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Larry & Tom: Amen, brothers!

    @Brianna: I read your reposted post in the Chicago paper and it was intelligent, incisive, and well argued. At the same time, I disagree with much of it and could argue against many of your positions (but I have work to do).

    My point is that I really respect the process of your post, just not your conclusions. And I respect the sharpness of your mind.

  16. Brianna |

    “You could not compromise to the enemy,are we really enemies?”

    I said that one cannot compromise on basic principles, because to do so cedes the moral high ground to your opponent.

    For example, I do not believe in government welfare. At all. Many on this site do. That does not make them my enemy in the sense that they hate me and want to do me harm. On the contrary, they believe they are acting for my own and everybody else’s good. But it doesn’t mean I can concede, “OK, let’s have Social Security after all, just a little bit for a few people in extreme circumstances,” because next thing you know we’ll have social security for all sorts of people, and then somebody will be proposing medicare/medicaid, and we’ll be proposing all sorts of tax credits and tax breaks for things we view as “good,” and we’ll start muttering about universal health care… all because I decided to concede in one small issue. The minute I turn around and say, “OK, government welfare can sometimes be OK after all,” I have ceded the moral high ground to my opponent and have gone from a principled opponent to a bean counter whose best argument is, “I believe in the exact same thing my opponent does, but I think I can do it better than him.” Or to put it more bluntly, “I give up.”

  17. Brianna |

    Jim – which post?

  18. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brianna: This one:


  19. Tom Carter |

    Brianna, you need to straighten your definitions out. “Government welfare” does not include Social Security. Everyone who gets it has contributed (or their spouse/parent has contributed) throughout their lives, and in many if not most cases they won’t get back as much as was put in. Dislike it if you want, complain about mismanagement, advocate financial measures to improve it, but don’t call it welfare.

    Same with Medicare (as opposed to Medicaid). People pay for Medicare on the same basis they pay for SS. A huge number of people even have to continue paying premiums for Medicare after they’re eligible for it because of their income levels. Again, dislike it, complain about it’s financial difficulties, but don’t call it welfare.

    Medicaid and other programs that provide support in cash or in kind to people who need it are “government welfare.” Dislike them as much as you want, and try your best to get rid of them. You’re just wasting your time. Our society is never going to stop helping people in need, nor should it. The real policy problem is to do it right and efficiently. A good step was taken in that direction with the Clinton-era welfare reforms, but much more needs to be done.

  20. Brianna |

    Yes, but it’s still a government-based wealth redistribution program and a ponzi scheme.

    More seriously, while I do appreciate the technical distinction, it was still put in place and carried out under the general sentiment of welfare, which is why I tend to classify it as such when I’m not bothering with the finer points.

  21. Tom Carter |

    Brianna, Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. It isn’t illegal, it doesn’t attract investors with unrealistic promises of future returns on investment, the funds are openly “invested” in low-yield bonds, and everything about it is open to being understood by anyone who’s interested. Social Security has problems, granted, and I’d like to see it solvent and operating with better fiscal management. But overall it’s a good program that benefits a whole lot of hard-working people.

    I don’t mean to nit-pick you on terminology. However, words do matter. It’s one thing to be against programs like Social Security and Medicare, but attaching inaccurate labels to them doesn’t advance the argument.

  22. d |

    Thanks,Tom. I was gonna say that,but I already argued that one with Brianna and Brian,to no avail. I agree with Tom.
    You used the word enemy,twice in your post,I just think enemy is the wrong word and oponent sounds and is,more civil and respectful. I would never want you to give up,don’t think you could,anyway.

  23. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, I’d have to disagree there. There is an “investment” and a “return” on investment with SSI. The problem is that there is no value for value trade with SSI – it’s a something-for-nothing deal, just like any other Ponzi scheme. There is no thing of valuable consideration traded for the money “invested” into SSI.

  24. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    I’m with you, Tom. Words do matter!

    When Brianna uses words like enemy and Ponzi scheme, she is just expressing her ideological talking points and isn’t really examining the issue at hand. So she weakens her own argument.

    As to Brian’s comments, it is not a “something-for-nothing deal.” People contribute during their work lives, then withdraw when they retire. Not much different than any retirement plan, except it is required and administered by the government.

    Is that fair or should people be able to do what they wish with their earnings? Tough issue. Libertarians would argue that it’s their $$$, so they should be able to do with it what they will, whether spend or save.

    But the average retirement “nut” in America is only about $60,000, not enough to live on after retirement (in other words, most people are either irresponsible or unable to save substantially toward retirement). Should we let those who run out of money suffer? Libertarian dogma would suggest yes. But that is certainly not the humane or civilized thing to do. So government steps in and forces savings because individual behavior impacts societal functioning and has societal costs (an issue that Libertarians seem to ignore). Government ensures that workers save for retirement with SSI. This way, the cost is borne by the people and it doesn’t cost the taxpayer after the fact.

    You can argue the merits of government dictating how people use their $$, but, in its basic purpose and value, SSI is reasonable.

  25. d |

    Brian,I understand the difference now. Those on S.S. and those near collecting age, are for it. Those younger folk are against it.The older guys,want to get their return from it,the younger want to end it,so as not to have to pay in to it. The thing of value you get back, is great insurance,believe me I have shopped for it,and your money back that you invested. No,,not all of it, but some or maybe even most of it,if you live long enough. If it goes away now,you really get nothing back for your money paid in. A lot of people, pay for their medicare,it is not welfare,but it is a reasonable rate,not inflated to the max,like most insurance.How can you guys even say it is welfare? We paid for it,and so do you.

  26. Brianna |

    “A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to separate investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from any actual profit earned.”


    Explain to me how this does not describe social security.

  27. Dr. Jim Taylor |


    Two problems here.

    1. SSI isn’t fraudulent. People know how it works and what they are getting.

    2. There is actual profit earned through investment of workers’ contributions.

    Can’t you admit that you’re wrong in your terminology? We would respect you more because you are willing to allow facts override your dogma. :->

  28. Brianna Aubin |

    “By law, income to the trust funds must be invested, on a daily basis, in securities guaranteed as to both principal and interest by the Federal government. All securities held by the trust funds are “special issues” of the United States Treasury. Such securities are available only to the trust funds. [emphasis mine]”


    In other words, the money is invested in such a way that the guarantee of the investment… is the money of the people doing the investing. The federal government does not create value. It does not make a profit. The federal government gets money by taxing it or by printing it, and both methods ultimately garner their value from the people themselves. Additionally, what this paragraph essentially says is that the government is taking your SS money and spending it on their stuff, since that’s what happens with money that goes into federal securities. Your money is not in a trust. It is being spent, right now.

    The system is a ponzi scheme because it takes money from people now with the promise of higher returns later. The only way this could continue indefinitely is with an indefinitely expanding population, as Europe is finding out the hard way. Everybody knows that the collapse of social security is only a matter of time, and that if people had a choice about putting money in, they wouldn’t do it.


    Social Security is a ponzi scheme articles:





    On the other hand, this CNN article claims that SS is not a ponzi scheme


    because people are not being duped (though it admits that the ability to MAKE people invest certainly helps) and because they think the system can be tweaked back into solvency indefinitely. Since this year was the year in which outgo was greater than inflow for social security,


    I think the article is dead wrong about the second pont, and I think that the mandatory part of SS nullifies the “awareness” point. Finally, it argues that it’s not a ponzi scheme because nobody’s getting rich. True enough; the only person who’s getting rich is the government, who gets to plunder the money for its own spending purposes.


    So no, I am going to keep calling SS a ponzi scheme.

  29. Brian Bagent |

    Doris and Dr Taylor,

    There is no profit made by social security “investments.” A low-yield savings account has a higher rate of return than SSI, both of which lag behind inflation. Instead of a gain, there is an actual and real loss of wealth by contributing to SSI.

    Would you give your investment banker $100 if he told you that in 50 years, he was going to give you back $200? At a “modest” rate of inflation of 3%, if you aren’t returned $400 or more after that 50 years, you have lost money, lost wealth. Bear in mind that even if he gave you $400 in 50 years, you have gained absolutely no value, no additional wealth. You are only even.

    So with that in mind, can you honestly say that SSI is not a fraud? If people are led to believe that they are getting something they are not, something for which they pay lots of money, isn’t there fraud being perpetrated upon them?

  30. d |

    No,it is not fraud. We know what we are getting,can you say you do not see folk every day on S.S., in your line of work,who would be surviving with insurance,if not for medicare? In my day,when I was small,these folks begged,borrowed and stole,not to mention,ate dog food,too high now,to live. Now,as I have said before,because they could save or could not afford to save,they have dignity and insurance. Yes,I would give 100 for 200,if I knew I would have nothing any other way,and would be homeless,medicineless,and foodless. You are thinking people will save for their future,or shame on them,but I am seeing the real truth,they need this help,that they have been forced to pay for. S.S. does not cost that much,out of your check,if your check is small,those people are getting a real return on their future.
    I have a problem with those with huge pensions, getting more s.s. than those with none.

  31. Brian Bagent |

    Doris, do you comprehend that the $200 that you are willing to accept in 50 years would be only $50 in today’s money instead of the $100 that you initially “invested”? How is the loss off half of an “investment” like that a benefit to anybody?

    Would you honestly give somebody, today, a $100 bill in exchange for a $50? If you would, then you and I need to meet up. ;^) In all seriousness, though, that is the “deal” that SSI offers. It is not a benefit to have the government (or anybody, for that matter) take anything and “give” you back less than what you gave.

    The reason SSI worked as well as it did so many years ago was because for every person receiving “benefits,” there were 25 or 30 people contributing into the kitty. Today, for every person receiving benefits, there are only 2 or 3 people contributing. That number is going to continue to shrink. It is only going to get worse as more and more boomers retire, as this is the first year that boomers are eligible to retire and draw SSI checks. We have another 18 years to go to get to the end of the boomers. Short of war, famine, or epidemic, social security is going to collapse under its own weight.

    Loose fiscal policy is destroying parts of Europe as we speak, and threatens to engulf the entire continent. It will spread to our shores as well.

  32. d |

    I think,again,I will agree to disagree with you,Brian,just that hard headed. Not giving up,Brianna,just can’t change his or my mind. Still not enemies,but friends,just different opinions,and mine is right.:)

  33. Brian Bagent |

    In an honest debate, there will be a winner and a loser, but both shall profit from it.

    You seem to want to change definitions as you go, Doris. There is not merely a difference of opinions here – one of us is correct, the other is not.

    As with all egalitarian ideals, the devil is always in the details. I agree that it sounds awfully nice that people will be taken care of in their old age when they are unable to take care of themselves, but we are obliged to go about that ethically and honestly. SSI is unethical because it is a lie – it does not do what it purports to do, what you believe that it does. It does destroy wealth, as Brianna and I have both pointed out.

    You may evade reality all you wish, but you cannot evade the consequences of reality, and the consequences of the folly of SSI are real and looming.

  34. Tom Carter |

    To get back to the topic — this whole discussion of Social Security and Medicare illustrates that we can have a generally civil discussion of things we disagree on. Except — listen up! — SS and Medicare are not welfare programs.

    Here’s the real truth: Social Security and Medicare aren’t going away, and they shouldn’t. There are problems, no doubt, and the problems cited by Brianna and Brian are real. The policy problems we have to deal with are limited by reality to making these two programs work. I’d support most reasonable ways of doing that — increase/extend the payroll tax, adjust retirement age eligibility, reduce the payout (within reasonable limits). What I won’t support is means-testing (Doris referred to this), in which those who have other sources of retirement income would receive less in Social Security retirement. Everyone pays in, and everyone should get the same benefit, as adjusted somewhat by the amount of their contributions. The fact is, those who have other sources of retirement income are also usually the people who contributed most and who are least likely to get back what they paid in.

    I don’t have much hope that the necessary fixes can be made. Politicians have to do it, and they’re so immobilized by fear of the reaction to any tinkering with Social Security and Medicare that they’re most like to do nothing at all.

  35. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brian: I felt the need to add my two cents (pun intended).

    In an honest debate, there are not always winners and losers. Some topics of debate do not have definitive answers, so the result may simply be to agree to disagree. The benefit of such a debate, if the participants are open to new ideas, is that both parties may learn a perspective of which they were not previously aware.

    Now to the debate. You are confusing the rationale for SSI with the functioning of SSI. No doubt at a practical level, there are some real problems with SSI.

    But I want to offer a fact, a problem, and two principles.

    The fact: SSI has served people very well for many years.

    The problem: SSI needs to adapt to the challenges that have arisen from changing economic times.

    One principle: As a civilized society, we have an obligation to provide opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (I read that somewhere).

    Another principle: The Constitution was not written for an individual or even a group of individuals. Rather, it was meant to express the fundamental principles of a just society. As such, individuals who choose to be a part of our country have an obligation to act not only in their own best interests, but in the best interests of all citizens of our country. Without that collective mentality (not in the socialist sense, but rather the tribal sense), we would not be a country, but simply a very large group of individuals acting in concert when it serves those self-interests.

    It is that collective that enables us to have our individual freedoms and, at the same time, live in a safe and reasonably just society.

    Now that should stir things up a bit!

  36. d |

    No offence,Dr.Taylor,but you are my new hero. You said that very eloquently and so much better than I could. Thank you,it is nice to have someone, close to on my side,for a change. Brian and Brianna are killing me.:)

  37. d |

    I did listen,Tom,but I still think if you are wealthy,you don’t need S.S.and as a caring citizen,you should not mind your piddlin share helping others. No,not a socialist,but a concerned citizen. Taking care of older citizens should be a priority of all countries,and don’t they deserve our help? We need to fix S.S.,not abolish it. I do see your point,Brian,but I still think we need some sort of forced saving,from the get go.

  38. Tom Carter |

    Doris, Social Security is not a welfare program. People do not receive SS retirement because they need it. They receive it because they earned it — they paid for it. Why is that hard to understand?

  39. d |

    I get it,but just seems unfair,if you have a lot of wealth,seems you don’t need more from the Gov. fund,yes,you paid into,when so many others are suffering. I know, reeks of socialism. You are right. You made it, you should get to receive it,but,if the system is going broke,wouldn’t it help to fix it,if those who are wealthy,not just stable, gave up their share of it to help pay for the poor folk? I do see your point,though,and if I were wealthy,I guess I’d be greedy. Seems you can’t hardly become wealthy,without greed. I know, it’s your money. Not you,literally.

  40. Tom Carter |

    It has nothing to do with greed. It has to do with believing that people who have earned more should be required to give it to people who have earned less. We’re already doing that, to some extent, with the progressive income tax. And to extend your logic a bit — I’d assume you also mean that someone who’s worked hard all his life and saved money for his retirement in something like a 401(k) plan should then be required to give his retirement savings to someone who needs it more than he does? What’s the difference?

  41. d |

    You are right again,I guess I do see your point. I understand that reasoning,no I do not want to share my retirement,either.

  42. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brianna: Thanks for offering both sides of the SSI=fraud argument. Your credibility shot way up with me when you looked at both sides of the argument.

    @all: I’m uncertain about means testing and asking the wealthy to give up their share of SSI. Yes, they earned it. But what many wealthy people don’t recognize is that they didn’t just earn their wealth in a vacuum, but rather they earned it on the backs of those lower down the economic food chain (I don’t mean in a slavery way, but that those below them did a lot of the work that resulted in the wealth. Also, the wealthy gained their wealth in a system of people, laws, regulations, etc. Without that system, that wealth might not have been possible.

    I’m of the mind, I guess, that if you have something and don’t need it, why not give it to others who can benefit, whether an old piece of furniture or your SSI. BTW, I don’t mind paying my share of taxes or accepting a tax increase because not only will it benefit me through basic government services (infrastructure, schools, Medicare, etc.), but it will help those less fortunate (though I am not wealthy, I have had many advantages in my life that have enabled me to live a comfortable life).

    @d: How could I be offended by being called a hero! Your kind words means a lot to me. I read a quote recently that said something like this: “The character of a country is revealed in how it cares for those citizens who are less fortunate and who have less power.”

    @Tom: To say we have a progressive income tax is a canard. As long as capital gains are taxed at a much lower level than normal income, the tax will be regressive. What went wrong with our country that $$ that are not earned in the traditional sense are treated better than $$ earned by the sweat of one’s brow (or, at least, some sort of actual affort).

    Ruh, roh. I think I just opened up a new line of trouble!

  43. Brianna Aubin |

    “@Brianna: Thanks for offering both sides of the SSI=fraud argument. Your credibility shot way up with me when you looked at both sides of the argument.”

    Our main disagreement seems to be not over the facts of SSI, but over the evaluation of SSI. As I said before, while I understand the workings of SSI and that it does not act as welfare for many, when I am in a rush I tend to characterize SSI as welfare because it was enacted and continued under the sentiment of welfare (we must help the poor/disenfranchised).

    If I had the power to do it, I would stop paying into SSI and get rid of it. The only circumstances in which I’d continue to pay into SSI if SSI became voluntary would be if SSI were rewritten to be phased out over a period of time. I understand the plight of those who are stuck on SSI now; I do not think that they deserve to abandoned by what was essentially a contract between them and the federal government and I would not care to see it happen. My main concern is that if SSI goes under, it would throw EVERYBODY under the bus, most of all those who depend on SSI for their income. Since I think that the inevitable fate of SSI is to go under eventually, especially in light of the fact that outflow was greater than income this year, you can understand why I feel that the sooner we reform SSI and come up with a plan to phase it out, the easier that phase out will be for those currently dependent on SSI and the better it will be for everybody in society, whether they depend on SSI or not.

    “Ruh, roh. I think I just opened up a new line of trouble!”

    We’ll save it for another week, shall we?

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