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Lawrence Lessig and I talk Congress, corruption, and the populism of tea parties

By Ezra Klein  |  February 15, 2010; 8:05 AM ET
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Lets talk about Social Security no less. What about 80? 80 is the retirement age responsible legislators should have in mind when developing solutions to Social Security. Why 80? The math goes like this: 63/65 multiplied by 84: where 63 was the average life expectancy in 1938, 65 was the retirement age for Social Security in 1938 and 84 is the average life expectancy today. Without accounting for our increased longevity Social Security, at today's level of benefits, is not sustainable, period.

Posted by: 4blazek | February 15, 2010 8:33 AM | Report abuse

"Why 80? The math goes like this: 63/65 multiplied by 84: where 63 was the average life expectancy in 1938, 65 was the retirement age for Social Security in 1938 and 84 is the average life expectancy today."

OK, first of all, the logical extension of your math would be a Social Security age of 86.67; 65/63=X/84.

Second, average American life expectancy is 78, not 84. You are proposing that a large number of people never receive Social Security by postponing the age of eligibility until after most of them are dead.

Third, we are a much richer society than we were in 1938. One of the things we choose to do with that wealth, collectively, is provide for a more generous retirement system. There is no reason to norm to 1938 standards.

Fourth, and most importantly, when you look at the numbers, we don't actually have a very big Social Security problem, in part because we've been dealing with it as an impending issue for a very long time. Bump the maximum income subject to the payroll tax very slightly and it goes away entirely. Our long term budget deficit is very largely related to growth Medicare, which is, itself, a symptom of the unsustainably rapid growth of health-care spending.

Posted by: adamiani | February 15, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

I don't think 80 is gonna go over well with the great majority of voters, thus the likelihood of that happening is highly unlikely. 70 or 72 (for full retirement) seems a lot more achievable. Offering a portion of retirement if you start taking it earlier seems like a good strategy. It's a defacto reduction of benefits done by the individual--they decide they want to start drawing social security at age 65, then they get half or less of what they would have gotten had they started at 70 or 72. But it's something. So if they don't see any point to waiting, they'll end up getting about as much if they live to 80 and start drawing down at 70. And, if they start drawing down at 65 and live to be 95, they'll receive significantly less for having started drawing down at 65 rather than waiting until 70 or 72.

That's the route to go. Raising the retirement age to 80--which, btw, is actually 2 years above average life expectancy as of 2007, not 4 years below--just isn't going to go over well. I doubt even AARP would sign on to that one.

@bloggingHeads: Good golly, Ezra looks like he's in high school. I keep thinking: Doogie Howser, M.D. And Neil Patrick Harris rocks, so that's, like, totally a compliment.

It could also be because I'm 40 and everyone under 30 looks like a kid now.

That being said, Lessig really need to turn up his mike. Us old folks are deaf.

Another thing on BloggingHeads: when I followed the link to, it gives me the option to "play entire diavlog". I just want to go on record as saying that particular example of trying to torture out a buzzword from wholecloth is particular appalling.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 15, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Early on, Lessig makes the point that we haven't seen a significant change to conservative governance, despite 20 of the last 29 years being "conservative" administrations.

I can accept his example of a lack of a simplified tax code as being a conservative goal (although a lower priority one) unachieved, despite 20 years of conservative "rule", but the example of smaller government is not a particularly great example.

Because Reagan was a pragmatic conservative. He'd grow government if he had to to make other things happen. So he did. His expanded defense. His efforts of shrink government were there, but not exactly major initiatives. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush--especially Dubya--were both Big Government, Weekly Standard conservatives. They were not about the shrinkage of government.

Indeed, one might argue that conservatives would do better not voting for Republicans. I don't know what McGovern would have done, had he won, but I think it's pretty safe to say that the government wouldn't have grown any more under him than it did under Nixon (OSHA, EPA, wage and price controls, etc). Dubya gave us pre-emptive wars (not exactly a conservative foreign policy, in the classical sense), The Department of Homeland Security, signed CFR, yada yada yada.

So one can not really argue that it's something about the system that has prevented these conservatives from advancing the conservative agenda--in most cases, they weren't always that conservative, especially on the size of government, and especially Dubya and Herbert Walker.

Or is the argument that all the money involved ends up electing the least-offensive ideologues? If so, I'm not sure I buy it.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 15, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Nice blogging heads piece. It feels correct to point to congressional paralysis as an existential problem for the republic. As frightening as I find the incoherent rhetoric of the Tea Party, I think Mr. Lessig may be on to something hopeful. It's fair to say that many of the Tea Party's core values and convictions are respectable. It's my hope that Obama WOULD seize this moment to call for a constitutional solve for the institutional failure. I just get the heeby-jeebies whenever I think of the reaction by these folks of such a move. Cry havoc.

Posted by: sdavis3398 | February 15, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

There seems to be some confusion here about what life expectancy estimates mean. The figures we see in various articles are always pulled from tables that list estimated life expectancy at birth. Average in this context doesn't apply to different birth years, it means the average of a single birth cohort (male, female, black, white). The estimate for a given cohort doesn't change over time, higher extimates apply to successive birth years.

In other words, the expectancy estimate for individuals born in 1950 is still 68.2. The estimate of 78 applies to babies born sometime after 2006.

Any plan that would seek to peg Social Security to life expectancy would have to raise the age in steps, not just try to move everyone to a new "average" expectancy estimate.

Posted by: Athena_news | February 15, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Many DC thinnkers are missing a key element of the process problem. While I completely agree with you and Prof. Lessig that the U.S. Congress is dysfunctional and needs thorough reform, I do not think that it is that case that the only reason the Obama agenda has stalled is because Congress is inherently dysfunctional.
Republicans can only be successful in blocking everything if the political costs in doing so are low. If the political cost of forcing a cloture vote on everything is high then they are in a diffrent situation. I really don't think the democrats have been even remotely competent in explaining to voters why things are so tied up in DC so it's too soon to blame the process exclusively. You'll recall that republicans absolutely imposed political costs on Senate democrats during W's presidency. Folks like you and Larry Lessig are smart thinkers on this stuff but I wonder if brain power on the left might be better spent in thinking about how we communicate to voters what the republicans are doing and how they govern. Indeed, if voters are better informed about how republicans exploit weaknesses in the politial process, they might be more open to reform. They might be downright hostile to political reform if they don't understand what the fillibuster is and how it criples the policymaking process. The democrats's problem right now is 25% the system, 25% the economy, and 50% the fact that voters simply do not understand what is going on in DC because the democrats don't know how to convey the message. This is why I think the democrats need a new think-tank on communication. The democrats need the best minds from Madison Avenue and communications expertise to figure out how to talk to American voters.
An astounding number of Americans still do not know what the fillibuster is, given the fact that it has utterly dominated our politics lately, this can only be a sign of a serious communications problem.

Posted by: phillycomment | February 15, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The question nobody is asking is why if people so upset about corruption in Washington, they keep re-electing their representatives. We won't get better Congress, until we have more informed and rational voters.

Posted by: arthur11 | February 15, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

@BloggingHeads Lessig talked about the “dependencies” that the Framers designed for each branch of government.

What Lessig missed was why with their six-year terms, senators like Durbin and Schumer [1] constantly fundraise? (And I don’t think because of slush funds for fancy dinners, etc.) Put another way would the sponsors of the Fair Election Act themselves cease fundraising between their six years between elections? I don’t think so.

Befitting today’s observation of Presidents Day, I am led to Washington’s Farewell Address (paragraphs 20 to 25):

“Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally. ... [T] he common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. ... It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

Over 200 hundred years later, Madison’s solution in Federalist #10 of an “enlarged republic” [2] to cure the “mischiefs of faction” -- particularly party faction -- has failed.

Thus for Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party, per Federalist #10 his historic task -- and David Brook’s [3] challenge of a legacy project -- is to “break and control the violence of [party] faction.” (Remember that in a January 25, pre-State of the Union interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Obama said, "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.") What that will likely mean is throwing the Democratic Congressional leadership, partisan whip and committee systems under the bus, and ideally replacing it with the *deliberative democracy* that the Framers envisioned.

[1] “Durbin and Schumer Prepare For Fight With Donations to Senate Colleagues,” The Hill, February 2, 2010.

[2] Sunstein, Cass R., “The Enlarged Republic -- Then and Now,” The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 5, March 26, 2009.

[3] Brooks, David, “What’s Next, Mr. President?,” The New York Times, February 12, 2010.

Posted by: msa_intp | February 15, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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