Friday, July 29, 2005

Fiscal language watch

Senator Jim DeMint, sponsor of the Senate bill that would divert annual Social Security operating surpluses into newly created private accounts, is quoted in this week's Tax Notes Magazine as saying that Congress should act on his bill first. Then, once the annual surpluses have thus been "saved," there will be plenty of time to worry about long-term solvency.

This is certainly an interesting use of the word "saved." He proposes to create new benefits, apparently without any financing whatsoever until participants' traditional benefits are ostensibly cut back later on to pay back the implicit loans, and thinks or at least says that money is thereby being "saved."

If the plan passed, Congress would no longer be "spending" the Social Security surplus. True, so far as we can tell it would be spending just as much as previously, and borrowing to replace the diverted funds. But at least it wouldn't be spending those very dollars. It would instead be spending other dollars with different serial numbers printed on the front.

I have an even better idea. Congress could "save" the Social Security surplus by giving it to me. I promise to make good use of it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Peculiar analogies

I am reading "Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince," which my children of course devoured immediately upon its publication and were eager to share with me, not that I resisted. (Too bad for Ian MacEwan's "Atonement," which I kept finding myself reluctant to pick up and keep reading even though I liked or at least respected it.)

Somehow volume 6 of Harry Potter is reminding me of Anthony Powell's "Dance to the Music of Time," of all things, relating to how you get glimpses of a given character at different times, when he or she is at very different stages, and it builds a composite portrait. Somehow I doubt that many other readers, even of both J.K. Rowling and Anthony Powell, have considered this an apt analogy.

The Potter books are undeniably a compulsive read, however one rates them ultimately, and they certainly have considerable virtues as well as limitations. I was amused a couple of years back by a pompous and ponderous essay by Harold Bloom, basically, "the great man of literature reads Harry Potter to tell us whether it is any good." Somehow that essay made me think of Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel."

By the way, has anyone heard about the upcoming sequel to Bloom's recent best seller? It's called "Where to Read and When."

Thursday, July 21, 2005

New York Times coverage of the Roberts nomination

I feel reasonably tolerant of the Roberts nomination for the Supreme Court, all things considered. He is probably similar to some conservative legal academics I know, whom I basically trust and consider reasonable even where I might disagree with them on some issues.

But does the New York Times really need to have such breathless, servile, fawning coverage? Here are some of their front page headlines on Roberts over the last two days:

"Court Nominee's Life is Rooted in Faith and Respect for Law" [Did the White House write this headline?]

"Bush's Supreme Court Choice Is a Judge Anchored in Modern Law" [I guess it's a good thing Bush didn't name a medievalist]

"An Interview By, Not With, the President" [Golly gee!!]

Even with Judith Miller in jail, the Times doesn't seem to have gotten the hang of this thing called "reporting."

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Customer service at its best, a.k.a., DON'T USE DHL

A popular consumer item was due to arrive at our house, delivered by DHL, but they had come by twice and no one was home. So I decide to trudge to their facility at 40th Street and 12th Avenue in NYC, miles (it seemed in the glowering heat) from the nearest subway stop.

For a few precious seconds, I held the item in my hands. But then I had to give it back to them. The problem: the package is addressed to my wife, not to me. Okay, different last names, I can understand that. But what about the fact that my driver's license shows that I have the same address? And that presumably I would have been allowed to sign for it at our house?

Not good enough? What about the fact that my health insurance card has both our names?

Not good enough either. I kept my temper, and trudged the long blocks back to the subway empty-handed.

UPDATE: My strong advice to all readers is DON'T, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WHERE YOU HAVE A CHOICE, USE DHL. The supervisor at their whimsically named "Customer Service Department" promised me a home delivery of the item the next day. I had to be home specially for several hours when this was mildly inconvenient, but I figured why not to get things resolved.

Needless to say, the delivery did not come. Presumably it will sent back to the shipper, and the comedy will have to begin all over again.

I am trying to decide what "DHL" stands for. "DH" is pretty clearly "Don't Help," but what about the L?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Possible tax angle to the Supreme Court appointment

Amid reports that President Bush may well choose a woman to fill Justice O’Connor’s Supreme Court slot, the New York Times today says that Judges Edith H. Jones and Edith Brown Clement, both of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, are considered the two leading prospects among women. The Times further says that Jones is a prominent abortion foe, while Clement’s views on abortion are considered uncertain in White House and conservative circles. Gee, I wonder which of the two this leaves out in front, if this particular tea leaf is indeed the right one to examine.

While tax jurisprudence is hardly the most important issue raised by the appointment, those in the tax field may be interested to recall that Jones was the author of an egregious opinion upholding a corporate tax shelter that the Tax Court had struck down. The case was Compaq v. Commissioner, involving the purchase and immediate, pre-arranged resale of a foreign company’s stock, at a huge loss pre-U.S. tax, as a way of in effect purchasing foreign tax credits (from foreigners who could not use them) to offset other U.S. income tax liability. University of Chicago law prof David Weisbach and I criticized Judge Jones’ decision in a short piece, “The Fifth Circuit Gets It Wrong in Compaq v. Commissioner,” published at 94 Tax Notes 511 (January 28, 2002).

Views about how best to respond to corporate tax shelters may reasonably differ, and I know some good tax lawyers who are anti-shelter and yet who thought the government should have lost in Compaq under the set of arguments that it made. But Jones’ opinion was noteworthy for its misinterpreting (or, less charitably, misrepresenting) the factual record of the case, which clearly showed how completely “pre-wired” the deal was, and for its taking an extremely crabbed view of the economic substance doctrine in income tax law (a key IRS tool in combating new shelters). For example, Jones’ opinion seemed to take the view that economic substance is demonstrated whenever taxpayers either (1) bear economic risk in a deal, or (2) arrange not to bear economic risk in a deal. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for ever finding a lack of economic substance.

In light of the unspoken attitudes that Jones’ Compaq opinion suggests, appointing her to the Supreme Court would probably mean that there were at least three votes (with Scalia and Thomas) for scrapping the entire economic substance doctrine, which has been a central and widely accepted part of the common law of income taxation since the 1930s. Rehnquist, or his replacement if he retires, might make four, and my sense in Supreme Court tax cases is that, if a few Justices feel strongly about an issue, one or two others may be inclined to go along, as they do not care so much.

A Jones appointment would therefore seem to raise the odds of a major victory for tax shelter promoters, albeit one that Congress could call off (at least prospectively) by passing a statute endorsing the economic substance doctrine. That, by the way, would have its own ironic twist. Once the Supreme Court had changed the revenue estimators' baseline by eliminating the economic substance doctrine, Congress might be able to credit itself with billions of dollars of revenue-raising by simply restoring the prior status quo. This, in turn, might be used to “pay” for new tax breaks of some kind. A true happy ending.

UPDATE: Speculating in complete ignorance now that it's Roberts, the fact that he appears to be an establishment type rather than a bombthrower would seem to me to reduce the likelihood that he would want to throw 70 years of settled tax law into disarray.

Did Bush blink on this one, considering his usual rage-filled drive to create maximum distress? Lucky for the rest of us if he did.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Thank goodness for honest men

I was startled some time back when the Republican leadership on the Hill picked, or at least did not veto, Douglas Holtz-Eakin to head the Congressional Budget Office and George Yin to head the Joint Committee on Taxation. They are not only highly qualified individuals, but honorable and honest.

At some point I assume the leadership will switch gears to picking hacks. But we might as well appreciate it while it lasts.

Holtz-Eakin on the favorable budget news: It should be taken "with a grain of salt. There's simply no question if you take yourself to 2008, 2009 or 2010, that vision is the same today as it was two months ago."

Goofus and Gallant

Our own Goofus and Gallant are Buddy, the cat who escaped for 4 days recently and has been on house arrest (much to the backyard bluejays' relief) ever since, and Shadow, the 14-year old exemplar who makes me proud to be a fellow mammal.

Goofus repeatedly claws his owner's briefcase, leaving scratch marks all over it. Gallant always keeps his claws sheathed when on someone's lap.

Goofus chases other cats around the house, ignoring their signals when they don't want to play. Gallant lets other cats approach him peacefully when they want a sniff.

Goofus scratches when children play with him too roughly. Gallant meows when he wants to be let down.

Goofus struts around the house with his tail in an inverted U shape. Gallant holds his tail high in the classic friendly greeting style, or swishes it when there is something he wants.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Strange times

What country do we live in? It's scarcely recognizable to me. Alberto Coll, the subject of this story, is a former college classmate of mine, although I didn't know him well.

Liars and crooks (bringing back happy childhood memories)

Only a complete fool could doubt that Bush was lying when he promised to fire whoever had done the Plame leak. Obviously he knew it was Rove (and perhaps Libby as well?), and was grandstanding because he figured he would never get called on it. Even back then, of course, he tipped his hand via the breezy indifference he couldn't help showing to whether the leaker was ever found.

I'm reminded of Nixon, of whom it was said that the way to detect a lie was to see if his lips were moving.

The complete stonewall they're doing now reflects their understanding of the news business, which is that if there aren't continual new twists on the story it inevitably dies. The wild card, of course, is whether Rove gets indicted.

I'm placing some hope not just on the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which has been the most discussed, but on the Espionage Act, which says in relevant part:

"Whoever, lawfully having possession of, access to, control over, or being entrusted with any ... information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates ... the same to any person not entitled to receive it ... [s]hall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."

Pretty open and shut if Rove had "reason to believe" that outing Plame could injure the U.S. or aid any foreign nation.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Legal niceties

The United States Constitution says: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." It would be a stretch, though perhaps not an impossible one, to say that Karl Rove is literally guilty of this.

But legal technicalities aside, outing CIA agents as part of a domestic political vendetta, at the possible cost of causing CIA contacts abroad to be murdered once foreign governments figure out who the American they had met with really was, certainly fits the spirit pretty nicely. Aid and comfort indeed.

Democrats reportedly are reluctant to turn up the rhetoric on Rove, or other Bush Administration shenanigans, too high. Thus, Howard Dean is told from time to time that he should back off.

If they studied the longstanding Republican playbook, they would rethink this a bit. What they need is someone to play the Agnew role, saying without mincing words that Rove is a traitor and that Bush knowingly tolerates traitors. Then a couple of more prominent Democrats can pooh-pooh this, saying, gee, he's not really quite a traitor, I think that's a bit too strong, etc.

Nixon, when he didn't have an Agnew, would be his own Agnew, describing some scurrilous accusation about a political foe, attributed to "some people say," so that he could then piously decline to endorse it himself.

As the saying goes, politics ain't pushpin. Since political warfare can be a tit for tat game, where you tailor your level of aggressiveness to what the other side is doing, the Democrats are right to think one generally shouldn't play ball this way. But against the Bush Administration it really is the only way to play.

Judith Miller in jail

I generally support press freedoms, whether on First Amendment grounds or otherwise, on the view that the public benefits from greater access to information, including that derived from confidential sources. Still, I can't detect in myself the slightest bit of regret that Judith Miller is currently doing hard time (or, more likely, irksome but not very hard time).

Apart from Miller's being, so far as I can tell, one of the worst journalists in America, who was grotesquely and repeatedly misled by or else complicit with official lies during the U.S. march to war in Iraq, I note, as have many others, that she is not exactly protecting a whistleblower here. Rather, she is protecting leading Administration officials who used her in their drive to punish and deter dissent that took the form of exposing truth in response to officially sanctioned lies.

I wonder if Miller has only been misled and used by the Bush Administration, or whether it is worse than that. Is the Times certain of her loyalty to its interest in presenting honest reporting and in leaving partisan hackery to the Op-Ed page?

Friday, July 08, 2005

Robert Greenstein and Iris Lav on the Graetz tax reform plan

I suppose I shouldn't pile on, but here are a few money quotes from the very thoughtful and thorough Greenstein-Lav piece in the 7/4/05 Tax Notes concerning the effect of Michael Graetz's tax reform plan on poor households:

"Essential details related to the credit [for poorer households] and its administration are missing, raising questions as to whether the credit could actually be implemented in a manner that adequately protects low and moderate-income households and is politically acceptable."

"[H]ow is an employer to know how many children an employee has and whether an employee's spouse or ex-spouse (or a working grandparent who lives with the parent and children as part of a three-generation family) is separately claiming the family's children [as dependents]? The IRS [unlike employers, on whom Graetz relies to administer the credit] has the ability to cross-check children's Social Security numbers ..."

"Although Graetz says that the negative withholding system would be extremely simple for employers, basic nuts-and-bolts issues appear not to have been thought through or to be easily resolved."

"Graetz says in a footnote to his article that it would be 'rare for an employer to have an overall negative withholding balance' [resulting in an extra cash flow cost of hiring low wage workers with children]. That judgment, however, is impossible to make ... Graetz has not determined how large the credits would be, the percentage of workers who would receive them ... and other such questions ..."

With all due respect for Michael Graetz, whom let me state for the record that I value as a colleague in the tax field, what he has offered is really a concept, not a plan. And, in terms of evaluating it as a concept, the details that Greenstein and Lav emphasize support my point in earlier posts that it simply isn't feasible to achieve equity as between the many different types of households with earnings below $100,000, without having household-level taxes that adjust for differences in their personal circumstances.

Responses to the London atrocity

As I expected, right wingers are simply reveling in the attack. Brit Hume said his first thought was that he could make money on the London stock market by buying stock futures, as related here. Other Fox commentators apparently were crowing about its being politically advantageous in terms of their getting to push their favored issues. The Wall Street Journal editorial today crows about how this shows how right we are to keep on torturing those poor innocents picked up off the street who are mixed up with the bad guys at Guantanamo. WSJ Deputy Editor Daniel Henninger treats it as an argument for confirming John Bolton (!!). I can't resist quoting this paragraph from his piece because it is so surreal:

"If the U.S. Senate wanted to send a signal of resolve and seriousness to whoever bombed London, Democrats would join with Republicans their first day back to dispatch proven anti-terror warrior John Bolton straight to the U.N. They won't. They'll keep playing political fiddles while London burns."

Exactly how is this supposed to help? I have an even better idea. Americans must show resolve by, each and every one of them, mailing me $1,000 checks, made out to cash, please. If you don't do this, dear reader, you are basically just encouraging the terrorists. You are showing that you are weak.

Maybe tomorrow the WSJ will say that, in light of the terror attack, we must immediately pass Bush's Social Security plan.

On the left, I get the sense that people, while genuinely outraged as all of us (if human) must be, are also anxous to show how outraged they are, because they know the Karl Rove types will be waiting to smear them if they are not visibly vociferous enough.

This is the sick climate we live in today. One side eager to exploit the terror attacks as an excuse to push all of their pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. The other side desperate to show that they are angry enough.

Is it utterly out of the realm of possibility that, if al Qaeda doesn't cooperate by staging an attack in the U.S., Karl Rove and his minions will plan their own, Reichstag-fire style? I'd like to think they wouldn't. But if someone confidentially proposed this to Rove, I can't imagine any objection that he could possibly have to it, other than feasibility. This is, after all, a man who (I have read) spread what he knew were false rumors that an Alabama judge candidate was a child molester. Only, the upside of taking so large a risk as in the Reichstag fire scenario would have to be considerable.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Marginal tax rates for poor people

Today I was in Washington, commenting on an excellent paper by Stephen Holt that - well, why go through it myself when Vic Fleischer has live-blogged it already? (I saw him typing away on his laptop at the session, but it didn't occur to me, technological primitive that I am, just why.) And apparently Neil Buchanan will be blogging it here on Friday.

The topic - stunningly high marginal tax rates (MTRs) on the poor and near-poor due to rapid phaseout of their various benefits (TANF, Food Stamps, EITC on the downslope, Medicaid, etc.) - is very important and little discussed. As I mentioned in the session, while optimal income tax analyses in the Mirrlees tradition suggest high MTRs at low ranges (still progressive overall if poor people get a large grant), they certainly don't suggest rates so high that moving, say, from a $7.50 per hour full time job to one offering $17.50 per hour should leave a single parent with two children no better off financially, after taking account of the effect on taxes and transfers.

Holt's paper makes good use of a great data set from Wisconsin, permitting matches between the income tax and welfare rolls to figure out what is going on overall. One "mitigating" factor to the high MTRs, except that it really isn't mitigating, is that take-up of the poverty programs by eligible claimants is so low that most poor households don't face such high MTRs after all. But this of course means that people aren't getting the aid we want them to get, in part due to budget-conscious lack of outreach along with unduly onerous administrative obstacles.

I remember, back in early 2001, attending a DC conference that mixed policymakers with academics and (mainly) business lobbyists in tax. Because I was due to talk next, I got to hear Larry Lindsey giving a pep talk re. the 2001 Act (then still percolating through the House) to the lobbyists. What he was saying, back then, was "You guys had better not dare put your special interest stuff into our big tax cut. If you do, and it causes the tax cuts to fail, we'll rip your lungs out, and then we'll go to your house and shoot your whole family." (Not an exact quote, or even an approximate one, but this was my reading of the gist.) "But fear not," he continued (still in paraphrase), "your turn will come." I didn't believe him, given the budgetary picture. I doubt anyone in the room did. But actually he was telling the truth, as the Bush Administration subsequently showed - they didn't care if it was fiscally reckless to keep on cutting taxes, and were willing to give the business folks their turn anyway.

I seem to have gotten sidetracked here, however. That story has nothing to do with today's ATPI session. What I meant to dredge up from that trip down memory lane is Lindsey's statement that day that the Administration's big policy goal was to cut MTRs for people earning $30,000 and up. His words, I'm pretty sure. My thought at the time was, why start at $30,000 when the highest MTRs are below that point? Why aren't you concerned about the lower tier as well?

Not a hard question, I suppose. Although here it is only fair to note that the Republicans have plenty of Democratic company in ignoring the problem. And also only fair to note that the easiest way of doing it - cutting benefits - is not quite right either. Decent-sized grants, followed by non-insane MTRs based on taking an integrated view of all the various fiscal rules' combined effects, is not a very exciting course politically, but it might have great social benefits.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Bush's Supreme Court choice

My guess is that the odds have just increased that Bush is planning to pick an unqualified extremist.

My evidence is the latest flurry in the papers concerning (1) the deliberately trumpeted "rift" between Bush and the radical right, emphasized by quoted statements from White House officials and from Senator Frist's office, and (2) Bush's statements today, quoted in the NY Times, emphasizing that he will not use any particular issue such as abortion as a litmus test, and that "I hope the United States Senate conducts themselves in a way that brings dignity to the process, and that the senators don't listen to the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes."

From the standpoint of White House tactics, this strikes me as a head fake to the center, designed to position his choice as non-ideological and only the Democratic opposition as ideological. By picking an extremist, he avoids alienating the hard right, who are ostensibly being dissed in the above. If he planned to alienate them by picking a relative moderate, I would expect him to make noises at this stage about the importance of restoring constitutional principle or some such thing. (I.e., he would try to throw smoke in their eyes rather than in everyone else's eyes, on the view that his choice was politically safe enough not to need the pre-positioning.)

The alternative explanation is that the Schiavo affair et al have persuaded Bush/Rove that they genuinely need to steer clear of the hard right at all stages. But I still think that they are too obstinate, too wedded to the hard right and the energize-the-base strategy, and too fond of head fakes and deliberate misdirection for this alternative explanation to stand at this stage as the most likely one.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

New London takings case

There has been much comment lately among bloggers and others about the recent Supreme Court takings decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which is succinctly summarized here. The gist is that New London could use the takings power to grab private property that it then sold to developers under the rationale that this would promote economic development. There was no dispute that the city could have taken the property in order to build municipal court buldings

People on the right are mainly incensed with the decision while those on the left appear to be split. The views on both sides are presumably based mainly on policy preferences, as distinct from applying the rules of constitutional interpretation and parsing of precedent that judges are supposed to follow. This is fine with me for discussion's sake, even if one hopes that the judges go about it differently, as constitutional interpretation, however socially beneficial as a judicial practice, is intellectually on a par with the ancient Roman soothsayers' practice of interpreting animal entrails.

Leaving aside constitutional interpretation to focus on policy, the case presents a straightforward (if hard to resolve) political economy question. The reason for a mandatory takings power, which doesn't line up especially tightly with public vs. private use, is the holdout problem if there are multiple property owners. Thus, suppose a road would be worth $100 million to the society, that it requires knocking down 100 homes that are worth $100,000 each, and that each of the 100 homeowners wants to shoot for the entire social surplus of $90 million if they can't be forced to sell.

If we assume a benevolent government, that's pretty much the end of the story. If we instead, more realistically, assume concern about how the takings power will be used, but we still want to have some such power (as even Richard Epstein would agree), then the question becomes where to draw the line as a kind of filter between what are more likely to be good uses and what are more likely to be bad ones.

Public versus private use is certainly one possible way to draw the line, despite the arbitrariness of the distinction between direct public use and indirect public benefit from private use (i.e., positive externalities). Private use might be considered likely to be less strongly connected, on average in such cases, to valuable public goods provision that markets can't handle, notwithstanding the externalities problem that might arise in a given case. In addition, we might have a view that the private use setting invites misuse of political power. (E.g., George Steinbrenner uses his political clout in NYC to get cheap land for a new stadium via the takings power.) On the other hand, there could also be cases where well-intentioned governments find an opportunity to create social surplus by solving the holdout problem notwithstanding that the new use is being outsourced to be done by private parties (who might be better at it if cost-consciousness and responsiveness to consumer demand are important).

I therefore draw the weaselly conclusion that this is a tough question, to be decided based in large part on one's sense of the underlying empirics.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Bad, but not self-contradictory

Although I consider Social Security a key part of my beat here, I initially didn't comment on the DeMint proposal to revive Bush's private accounts by funding the accounts with the annual Social Security cash flow surplus for as long as it lasts, for two reasons. The first was that it seemed too silly to be worth much attention. The second went to comparative advantage as a commentator. While I think I have a good conceptual feel for how to analyze Social Security policy at a broad normative level, I certainly don't have the institutional knowledge about different reform plans that economists who have gotten into the issue possess. This analysis by Jason Furman and Robert Greenstein seemed to me to pretty much do the job that needed to be done in evaluating the DeMint proposal.

But I enter the fray now for two reasons. The first is that I gather this highly dubious plan is actually going somewhere. I simply raised my eyebrows initially when, for example, Wall Street Journal editorials trumpeted the claim that the proposal had fundamentally transformed the public debate about Social Security reform. (I'm not sure what polls they were reading, or what they were smoking.) But recent reports suggest that the House Republican leadership is considering trying to pass it, even though it presumably it has no chance in the Senate. My second reason for weighing in here is that I now feel I have something to say about it, pertaining to the sorts of fiscal language issues that I am writing about these days.

Critics of the DeMint plan who were less well versed in it than Furman and Greenstein have argued that it shows Republican hypocrisy in the following sense. First the Republicans said the Trust Fund is meaningless, as in Bush's photo op in front of the file cabinets, but now they say it is meaningful and they want to use it.

For what it's worth, I think the Republican stance on this actually is internally intellectually consistent. First they say the Trust Fund is meaningless, because it's spent as it comes in, leaving behind nothing but IOUs. Then they say, let's prevent this from happening by actually spending it as it comes in to help Social Security beneficiaries.

Unfortunately, being internally intellectual consistent, while a virtue of a sort, is not enough. A key fallacy on which the DeMint plan rests (or alternatively, that it tries to exploit) is that Social Security participants are helped by spending these particular dollars on them. Problem # 1, money is fungible. Problem # 2, when you're on an unsustainable path, promising new benefits without any new net financing (other than possibly future cutbacks in traditional Social Security benefits) doesn't help. Problem # 3, making the government's fiscal picture worse via new unfunded benefits (see Furman and Greenstein for the point that there is no reason to expect this plan to increase the prudence of other Congressional decisions) is not especially helpful to the people whose future benefits are made even more unaffordable. Problem # 4 (applying to the extent that ## 2 and 3 don't), presumably the people who get the new accounts would be forced to pay something for them via traditional benefit cutbacks, just as under the Bush plan. So this is really just the Bush plan all over again on a smaller scale that has no coherent rationale and that, in some ways, as Furman and Greenstein show (e.g., administrative costs relative to the $$ per account) actually makes it worse.

The political appeal of the DeMint plan (if any) rests on its exploiting the fallacy that, by doing it this way instead of the Bush way, we actually aren't taking money from Social Security because it's just the surplus that would otherwise have been diverted. But if there is a diversion under one, then there is a diversion under both. Or, viewed more accurately, promising new benefits makes no sense, and avoiding net cost by trading fixed for risky benefits makes no sense in the Social Security context, since the idea is to assure people who may be imprudent some minimum level of retirement resources, and since people with other net saving can invest as riskily as they like anyway.