Letters

Winter 2012
Social Security Forever?

To the editor:
I stopped reading Nicole Gelinas’s article [“Is There a Retirement Crisis?,” Autumn 2011] at the claim that “the trust fund won’t run dry until 2037.” Using different words, Gelinas had already shown that the “trust fund” is dry right now. How this is so can be explained by answering two questions: Can money that has been spent be spent again? Can IOUs be spent? The answer to both those questions is no. The “extra money” for Social Security was, as Gelinas noted, already spent on everything “from food stamps to national defense” (to bring down the annual federal deficit), and that money cannot be spent again. The “extra money” was replaced, she wrote, with IOUs (special, nonnegotiable Treasury bonds) that are not money and, thus, cannot be spent. The bonds must be redeemed first—which means a payout from the U.S. Treasury of the amount owed, plus interest. Though Gelinas correctly explained the situation—that the “trust fund” is a heap of debt that needs to be repaid, not a pile of money available to spend as needed—she writes as if the trust fund is an asset rather than a liability for the U.S. Treasury.

Lane Core, Jr.
Roscoe, PA

To the editor:
I agree that the limit on IRA contributions should be eliminated. I’ve read article after article on saving for retirement, and it seems that all financial advisors say the same thing: make sure you’re contributing the maximum to your 401(k). The problem is that many workers—like me—don’t have the luxury of working for an employer that offers a 401(k) or similar retirement plan. It’s as if financial advisors don’t know that such people exist. I would love to be able to put more away in my Roth IRA.

Jen K.

Nicole Gelinas responds:
I’m not sure what the quarrel is here. There is indeed a Social Security trust fund. That trust fund holds special Treasury securities. As America grows older, people are collectively paying less into the trust fund than they are putting in. Thus, the U.S. government can no longer look to Social Security as a source of federal borrowing. As I also note in my article, this change will pose a bigger problem for the U.S. government than for Social Security recipients, who have voting power on their side as well as basic accounting. Furthermore, this problem would exist no matter what Social Security had invested its assets in. Even if Congress had authorized Social Security to purchase stocks and bonds, demographically, when you have more sellers than buyers, you will see price declines.

Yes, Americans need more flexibility in planning for retirement. It’s great that you can contribute $5,000 to an IRA—but what if you don’t have $5,000 every year? You should be able to put more money away in some years and less in others, up to a lifetime limit of $1 million. Such a reform would give even people who do have access to 401(k)s more power, since many don’t like the mutual funds that their employers offer through such accounts.

Pax Brooklynia

To the editor:
It’s sad to hear Kay Hymowitz talk about Brooklyn as if it was some cesspool before young, white, midwestern imports showed up and overpaid for uncreative, uninteresting, and cheaply made housing [“How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back,” Autumn 2011]. It’s true that there are consistently bad neighborhoods, such as Brownsville, an area still teeming with crime. Even when New York City wasn’t the safest, areas like Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Windsor Terrace, Sheepshead Bay, Bay Ridge, and many other enclaves kept Brooklyn vibrant and community-oriented. Much of Brooklyn’s uniqueness has been destroyed by the new influx.

I take exception to Hymowitz’s recurring theme that blacks and Latinos are nothing but poor, uneducated, welfare-laden trolls who contribute nothing to society. Please awaken from your doldrums: most employees of Brooklyn’s bustling pre- and postwar manufacturing center were blacks from the South, and the vast majority of these men, along with their wives and children, lived in housing projects. Only when the U.S. economic engine deteriorated did the downward spiral of the black economic and social class take place. Immigrant Caribbeans saved Flatbush Avenue after the bulk of Italians left, buying property and starting businesses. Immigrant Africans opened up restaurants and shops in corridors like Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Pitkin Avenue in East New York, when most others wouldn’t dare. Latinos set up businesses in South Williamsburg and Bushwick. Just because these places didn’t attract upper-income whites doesn’t mean that they should be valued any less than the new coffee shops and other yuppie and hipster ventures that have now replaced the old dives.

Brenda

To the editor:
Hipsters are entrepreneurial? Anyone can see the insanity of having eight coffee shops on one block. These attention-starved adult children embrace the entrepreneurial spirit because there’s no risk involved when your parents just cashed in a chunk of their retirement fund to pay for little Caleb’s urban adventure. Every goofball business idea has to be fun, quirky, artsy, and whimsical. Heaven forbid some fedora-clad film-theory major puts that $120,000 college degree to use and opens a hardware store.

And if things are so bustling, why are there scores of adults crammed into coffee shops at 1:30 in the afternoon? Where is their money coming from? The new businesses won’t last. The whole thing is a Ponzi scheme, an art-school house of cards.

Brooklyn was once a solid, hardworking community. Now it’s a Westworld for hipsters. I never feared for my life when I lived in Brooklyn (where I was born and raised) because we took care of our own. Today’s beta males can’t even hold on to an iPhone for a week before it gets stolen on the L train.

Patrick Ingravallo
Mount Laurel, NJ

Kay Hymowitz responds:
“How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back” set out to describe the broad trends of the past 30 or 40 years that led the borough from its identity as a working-class, industrial city to its early gentrification by an educated “new class” to its new reputation as a postindustrial hot spot. Since history is never a morality play or a simple tale of progress, those trends were bound to include losses and gains.

Brenda wishes to tell a different story, in which Brooklyn’s black and Latino working-class identity was “destroyed” by an influx of “white, midwestern imports.” Her story is not only offensive; it is inaccurate. The changes to Brooklyn were more about class than race; many workers in industrial-era Brooklyn were black—though by no stretch of the imagination was it “most” of them—as are some of the professionals and “creatives” who now populate neighborhoods like Park Slope. Still, as I describe, Southern blacks began migrating in great numbers to Brooklyn in the 1940s, just as industrial jobs were fleeing. Brooklyn lost a half-million residents and tens of thousands of jobs during the mid-century. In the following decades, the whole borough also saw a significant rise in crime—well documented in police statistics. Even neighborhoods like Park Slope and Bay Ridge experienced record crime levels that sent the middle class fleeing.

Patrick shares Brenda’s view that Brooklyn is actually in decline, though I suspect he would not blame midwesterners. He remembers an old Brooklyn of “hardworking” people who “took care of our own.” In his view, that Brooklyn has been ruined by the borough’s new lazy, wimpy, hipster class, which spends all its time in coffee shops. I can’t evaluate the masculinity quotient of the newcomers, but the number of new businesses defies the idea that they are nothing but latte-drinking slackers.