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Beltway Books: Tackling taboos

Books | Iconoclastic views on issues ranging from economics to race

Issue: "Future of health care," June 22, 1996

For all of the hue and cry this election season, one issue has remained largely unmentioned: federal entitlement spending. Only Steve Forbes was willing to touch the so-called third rail of American politics, Social Security.

But we must do more than touch it. In his eminently readable analysis, Let's Get Rid of Social Security, businessman E.J. Myers explores the coming financial Armageddon that threatens to overwhelm America's pay-as-you-go retirement system. He warns: "In less than ten years Social Security will no longer have an actual surplus at the end of the year. Then what will Congress do? All it will have is the paper interest the government has been charging itself. At that time no amount of creative bookkeeping will get the job done." Based on the experience of other nations, like Chile, which have privatized their government retirement systems, Mr. Myers proposes protecting current retirees while allowing younger workers to open Individual Security Retirement Accounts.

Although one can quibble with the details of Mr. Myers's program, journalist Phillip Longman leaves no doubt that far-reaching reform is necessary in not just Social Security, but a host of other entitlement programs, including Medicare, federal pensions, and veterans' benefits. He proposes a list of sensible, if not entirely satisfactory, legislative initiatives (like means-testing federal payments), but more instructive in this time of class warfare rhetoric is his call to replace "the ethos of entitlement" with the great Victorian virtues of thrift, family, work, and citizenship. He concludes his excellent book: "Individual Americans will have to rediscover the values that propelled the United States as an industrial power in the last century; they will have to reinvent themselves as sturdy, independent, and thrifty bourgeoisie."

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Also worth reading, as always, is Thomas Sowell. In his latest work, Migrations and Cultures, Mr. Sowell looks at ethnic migrations over time-of Chinese, Germans, Indians, Italians, Japanese, and Jews, in particular. His interesting historical account alone justifies purchase of the book. But Mr. Sowell applies these experiences to some of today's most contentious policy issues. He admits that history cannot always provide answers, but "in some cases it can utterly destroy theories which might otherwise seem plausible within the narrow confines of a particular time and place. History is an anchor in reality against the rhetorical winds of the zeitgeist."

In general, he believes that population migrations have been beneficial: "The history of immigration in all its various forms is an important part of the history of the advancement of the human race," though he acknowledges that immigration is no longer as important a means of transferring human capital. But perhaps even more significant is his judgment that "gross statistical disparities in the 'representation' of groups in different occupations, industries, income levels, and educational institutions have been the rule-not the exception-all across the planet."

In short, Mr. Sowell suggests, the foundation of government-mandated affirmative action, the desirability of equal representation in every cultural, economic, and political enterprise, has no basis in reality.

Also offering historical lessons is George Wright's Racial Violence in Kentucky. Mr. Wright explores a time when virulent racism regularly distorted and sometimes swamped the legal system. The results were ugly and indefensible; thankfully, America has largely eliminated these abuses. Today, however, racism is increasingly impeding the legal system in another way, by preventing justice from being done. Acquitting a murderer because of his skin color is as morally abhorrent as lynching an innocent man because of his skin color. Mr. Wright's book is sure to leave readers uncomfortable at a number of levels.

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