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Weisberg Unplugs the Logic Machine


Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate (“The Republican Death Machine“) that Republicans have “for years” championed “laws that would try to save money by encouraging the inconvenient elderly to make a timely exit.” First, let me get my parochial interest out of the way: Will the folks who condemned me for my book title go after Weisberg too? I won’t: Weisberg’s title is the perfect one for the argument he is making. That argument itself is seriously deficient.

Weisberg spends two of his seven paragraphs on the way the estate tax is scheduled to go down and then snap back up, which some evidence suggests will cause the elderly death rate to spike right before the tax increase. How does this help his case? The Republicans have for eight years been trying to make the abolition of the estate tax permanent, while the Democrats have insisted that it go back up. Weisberg surely knows these facts, but doesn’t mention them, because they contradict his thesis.

Next Weisberg claims that Social Security has driven elderly suicide rates down and adds: “Had Bush prevailed, we would now be undoing income security for the elderly. Those who gambled on the stock market and lost would be less able to afford medicine, food, and heating for their homes. In aggregate, they’d presumably die younger and commit suicide more often.” Where to begin? As Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute notes, the study Weisberg cites to show that Social Security reduced suicide rates merely showed a correlation (“You also had a similar drop in suicide rates over the first couple of decades among working age people [45-54 and 55-64]. So it’s easy to imagine that something else was driving this.”). Bush’s proposal, by the way, would not have allowed near-retirees to begin investing any of their payroll taxes, so nobody who has retired since 2005 would have lost any of their Social Security funds in the stock market. His proposal would also have required that people hold a smaller percentage of their portfolios in stocks as they aged. It would not have allowed anyone, at any age, to invest all of their payroll taxes.

At the end of this article, you can see an estimate of what would have happened if someone near retirement had begun investing some of his payroll-tax funds in 2005 and retired in 2008. He’d see his total benefits drop by 0.1 percent. I don’t think anyone would be slitting his wrists over that. And since most people would see their total benefits increase, presumably their suicide rate, on Weisberg’s assumptions, would drop. Why is he so bent on seeing elderly people die?

Weisberg’s howlers just keep coming. “One of President Obama’s first official acts was to reverse Bush’s executive order limiting government funding for stem-cell research, which remains the most promising avenue for new treatments of diseases that afflict the aged, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.” The Washington Post reported five years ago that people in the field considered it “unlikely” that embryonic stem-cell research would yield treatments for Alzheimer’s. “Clean-air legislation, which the Republicans defeated in 2002, has the potential to save 23,000 lives per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. . . . [T]here are tens of thousands of people who would still be elderly today if Republicans didn’t value the rights and campaign contributions of polluters more highly than their lives.” No. Follow the link. The source of the estimate is indicated on the bottom right of the graph. Go to that source, and you’ll see that the estimate is of the lives that would be saved by the Clear Skies Act — an initiative of President Bush that was blocked by Democrats.

So not a single item in Weisberg’s bill of indictment stands up.


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