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Saving Social Security

T is surely entitled to argue ("How to Save Social Security," June Atlantic) that the way to "save" Social Security is to slash it. But you call raising the retirement age and lowering the inflation adjustment for benefits "painless." They're not.

Let's take a look at the arithmetic. In 2005, the year in which you propose to increase the retirement age from sixty-six (under current law) to seventy, the average sixty-six-year-old will have a life expectancy of about seventeen years. Thus raising the retirement age by four years will wipe out almost a quarter of the average sixty-six-year-old retiree's Social Security benefits. That's a pretty huge reduction.

It's even worse than that for the many moderate- and low-income workers in their mid-sixties who are simply worn out after spending a lifetime doing hard physical work-and who tend to die sooner than the well-off. For example, a laborer with a life expectancy of only ten years at age sixty-six would lose

40 percent of his or her Social Security benefits under your proposed boost in the retirement age.

Then there's your plan to reduce Social Security benefits by letting inflation erode their real value-a step that, you insist to current retirees, "will not cut your payments" but "will slow the rate by which they increase." If you reduce inflation indexing by, say, one percent a year, then over ten years a typical Social Security recipient will see an inflation-adjusted cut in benefits of about $4,300-equal to about half a year's worth of average benefits in today's dollars. That's $4,300 less in real food, clothing, and shelter that Social Security checks will buy over the ten years.

So how is all this "painless"? Well, I suppose it might seem relatively pain-free for well-off people who don't expect to retire until they're seventy anyway and for whom $400 or $500 a year is a bagatelle. But that description hardly fits most Americans.

Robert S. McIntyre

I recommend a simple but important refinement to your recommendation on how to save Social Security. Don't wait ten years to raise the minimum age for receiving Social Security payments to seventy; begin to raise the age for receiving payments one month a year every year until the system is in balance.

You are quite right about giving people "time to plan." This same principle should be applied to other important matters such as changes in the tax laws. If, for example, one wanted to institute a taxation system in which each dollar was taxed at the same rate and in which there were no deductions, present taxpayers could be given the option of staying with the current system or changing to the new system. That option could extend for ten or twenty or even thirty years, so that plans that had been constructed on the basis of the present tax system would not be unfairly disrupted.

Such gradualism has been denied us at great cost and on the basis that one Congress cannot pass laws binding upon the next Congress. It is true that the next Congress may have an entirely different composition and wish to undo the perceived mischief of preceding Congresses. Whether this represents desirable flexibility or intolerable vacillation may depend upon whether you are a member of the gray and retiring or the young and at work.

But it is certainly clear that we must take a longer perspective than that of the two-year congressional term if we are to avoid generational conflicts, and Social Security is one of the most pressing.

John R. Dykers Jr.

Delayed Childbearing

Gina Maranto's laudable article ("Delayed Childbearing," June Atlantic) recommends that "America put its money where its mouth is on family values." I couldn't agree more. But we need to go even further than she suggests. Though it appears otherwise, the career-family dilemma is beyond the realm of the individual woman employee. Maternity leave, parental leave, and excellent child care are all essential supports if family values are to be taken seriously. In addition, work itself needs to be restructured. Felice Schwartz got clobbered for suggesting special treatment for mothers, but unless corporate America can comprehend that the well-being of the next generations will determine the fate of our nation ("economy" might be more meaningful), nothing will change. Although some shifts are occurring, the individualistic, competitive nature of career advancement makes it difficult for talented, competent, responsible women to take time off for childbearing if they have an interest in advancement. They can't have babies and guard their territory at work too.

Work assignment by project, rather than the traditional up-the-ladder approach, would help, as would tax breaks for child care and other family-related expenses. The emphasis should be on a woman's competence to accomplish her assignments, not her seniority or ability to fence off her empire. I understand that people who choose a career over children resent the inconvenience of motherhood (or fatherhood) on the job, and I can see their point. However, to deal with the deep problems facing both business and families, we need to take a bigger, more creative view of the workplace. If talented women could have babies in their twenties and know that they weren't hopelessly off the career track, it would be an easier decision for them.

Nina Boyd Krebs

As a former infertility patient and a woman who waited "too long" to conceive, I was struck by the following sentence in Gina Maranto's article: "In the bulk of cases, infertility specialists have found, older women who fail to become pregnant using embryos made with their own eggs succeed when the eggs come from a younger donor."

My question is, Can this possibly be true? To me, the word "bulk" implies a majority, and a substantial one at that. Is this what Maranto actually means to say?

The practice we used, Marrs/Vargyas, in Santa Monica, California, told us last year that their success rate stood at 36 percent (though recently it has been running at 58 percent), and I know that Mark Sauer also had a success rate of 36 percent for several years there. A 36 percent take-home-baby rate, while high, does not, to me, constitute the "bulk" of patients. One person I know, a forty-two-year-old woman who is currently pregnant courtesy of donor eggs, says that her physician's rate is now over 50 percent.

Does Gina Maranto have any idea what the actual rate is?

Catherine Johnson

Calling on "society" to enable women to delay careers instead of their childbearing sounds nice but will not get the job done.

Let's face it: If they could, employers would eliminate most employee-rights laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act's limited unpaid leave. They tend to look to short-term profit rather than to the long-term benefits (even financial ones) of a happier and more stable work force.

The exemplary paid family-and-medical-leave policies of European countries did not come about because one employer took the lead and others followed. Politicians created them through laws. In such an environment employers eventually adjust to make similar profits, but only when everyone else is required to follow the rules also.

The only way "society" can eliminate delays in childbearing is to cause delays in the re-election of our representatives in Washington who oppose eliminating them. Until then it is all just talk.

Don D. Sessions

A s Gina Maranto correctly asserts, conception is more difficult for women to achieve once they reach their thirties. The medical evidence for that is quite convincing. She is also right that family-friendly policies in the workplace would make the transition to parenthood much easier for young women. However, the article implies that most, if not all, women who delay childbearing do so for voluntary, career-related reasons and that the medical community should counsel them against such delay. I am afraid this has the potential to create more problems than it solves.

Today many women remain unmarried during their twenties. In fact, two thirds of those aged twenty to twenty-four have never wed. The same is true for one third of those aged twenty-five to twenty-nine. So, unless we want to encourage unwed motherhood, childbirth is simply not an option for many young women. I suppose an argument could be made that voluntary, career-related reasons have kept them from marrying. But we could equally argue that they have just not been lucky enough to find an appropriate partner. Second marriages also present difficulties for the "earlier is better" thesis. Nearly half of all marriages each year are remarriages, and the average remarrying bride is in her early thirties. In spite of their age, many of these people will want children with their new spouses.

Then there is the issue of divorce. Regardless of how one feels about it, the fact is that currently half of all marriages end in divorce, and the highest rates, by far, are among young people. Since arguably the worst effects of divorce accrue to children, a case could be made for advocating that a couple not have children until their marriage has stabilized to the point that divorce appears unlikely. This would put a considerable number of would-be parents well into their thirties. I'm not necessarily recommending such an approach. I merely wish to suggest that an overemphasis on the "biologically correct" age for childbearing can have unintended, and potentially negative, consequences.

Paula Mergenhagen

Regarding egg-donation success rates: by "bulk" I did indeed mean "majority." According to my American Heritage Dictionary, the word means "the major portion or greater part." Richard Paulson and Mark Sauer's pioneering infertility group at the University of Southern California (Sauer has just left the program for Columbia University) has achieved consistently high success rates for egg donation. Paulson tells me that at present well over 50 percent of women entering the program specifically for the procedure go home with babies. Dorothy Mitchell-Leef, in Atlanta, also reports a take-home-baby rate above 50 percent, and says that top programs around the country are averaging 45 to 55 percent. As Catherine Johnson no doubt knows, rates vary considerably among practices, for reasons that are not always identifiable. The Society for Advanced Reproductive Technology, just now issuing results from 1993, calculated a 31.3 percent average per-cycle success rate for egg donation for that year. The caveat is that thatfigure reflects the well-known fact that many infertility specialists offer procedures because their patients demand them, whether or not the physicians themselves have had any success performing those procedures. This drags the national average down.

Paula Mergenhagen appears to have misunderstood me. I singled out women's need to establish themselves professionally as one important-but certainly not the only-factor in the delayed-childbearing trend. I also mentioned that the tendency to marry later and have children at a later age has dominated Western societies for some 200 years, the obvious implication being that many women today exemplify the phenomenon. I would hardly advocate that women rush en masse into single motherhood-nor do I think my piece even intimated such a thing. My point, and the point of the physicians speaking out on the subject, was not to argue that all women must have their children in their twenties but rather to expose some received wisdom as not terribly wise, and to suggest that women take the medical facts into consideration insofar as their life circumstances permit. As for divorce, although it hovers around 50 percent in the United States these days, one suspects that few couples actively intend that their marriage will fail, and it seems unreasonable to suggest that everyone wait to have children until their supposed risk of divorce has diminished to nil. At what point would Ms. Mergenhagen declare a marriage stable enough to pass the test? Five years? Ten? Twenty?

Diversity Myth

In "The Diversity Myth: America's Leading Export" (May Atlantic),Benjamin Schwarz says that the Civil War was a failure of democracy. There are a lot of Americans who still believe that the United States fought and won the Civil War in order that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." But to Schwarz that would be "the hortatory version of our history."

Schwarz would have it that northern expansionism caused both the Mexican War and the Civil war: "To [John Quincy] Adams . . . there was, of course, no doubt that America should effect this imperial union. . . . By 1846 America was ready to pounce." But John Quincy Adams fought in Congress to prevent the annexation of Texas, which was what sparked the Mexican War. The chief opposition to the Mexican War came from the same group that supported the Civil War fifteen years later, and for the same reason: opposition to slavery.

In Schwarz's view, racial and financial power run this country, and moral principle is an "abstract and bloodless notion." But our trust in individual wisdom, imperfectly and inconsistently though we may live it, sets us profoundly apart from many other nations in our own time, and it set us apart from almost all nations in 1861. If that principle doesn't always, or even usually, prevail, it is still at the core of this nation.

In the democracy of Lincoln and Jefferson, military and financial power are in service of that vision. Schwarz gives us a different model; his typical American of 1790 is John Jay, who said, "A country should be run by the people who own it." The United States has held on to Jefferson's ideal, even though much of the time it has taken the path of Jay. Schwarz's failure to acknowledge the still-radical implications of our deeper national vision and its power for good is a hole at the center of his view of this country.

Jonathan Hale

Contrary to Jonathan Hale's assertion, I did not state that northern expansionism "caused"the Mexican War. John Quincy Adams, whom I quoted in my article,

envisioned the expansion of the United States over North America. This belief that the country had a Manifest Destinyto expand over the continent was common among political leaders, both northern and southern, in the United States. Adams did oppose the annexation of Texas, but not because he was opposed to U.S. expansionism per se. Rather, his opposition was based on his fear that if Texas were annexed in 1845, political power within the United States would shift to the South.

I can't accept Mr. Hale's moralistic interpretation of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln repeatedly asserted that the issue at stake was the preservation of the Union (a union in which the North held political preponderance)-not the abolition of slavery. The issue that divided the country at the time of the 1860 election, and that sparked the Civil War, was the extension of slavery into the territories, not its abolition.

Mr. Hale also quotes me out of context. Inever wrote that moral principle was "an abstract and bloodless notion." Isaid that many nation-states that are based on ethnic or religious identity would regard the civil state as "an abstract and bloodless notion."

John Jay was not a typical American-any more than were Lincoln and Jefferson. I quoted Jay's statement from the Federalist, a collection of papers that most historians and political theorists regard as the most profound and original American contribution to political thought. Jay was a central figure in the framing and defense of the Constitution, and hence was an important architect of the system of government under which we live. Incidentally, Jay's notions of the relationship of property ownership to political power were held by all the founding fathers.

Finally, Idon't dispute the point Mr. Hale makes about the importance of American ideals. To me, however, the central-and tragic-fact of our history is that we are a nation haunted by the chasm between our ideals and our deeds. Enraptured by a vision of what we ought to be, America has for 200 years yearned, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "to live out the true meaning of its creed." Mr. Hale's view of America largely ignores this ambiguity.

New England Fisheries

Deborah Cramer's article on Georges Bank fisheries ("Troubled Waters,"June Atlantic) is excellent, readable, and on the spot. However, she is not sufficiently forceful when writing "To preserve New England's fisheries, it will be essential to set quotas that are designed to protect the health of a fishery, not the short-term economic needs of fishermen." In order to preserve fisheries, two fundamental changes are needed. First, there must be a shift in the way people think about fisheries from a focus on the yield (biological or economic) to a focus on the health of the fish stock. Second, we require means to implement this shift, in a manner that embraces, rather than ignores, the great uncertainty of the natural and human worlds. Recent work by my colleagues Tim Lauck, Colin Clark, and Gordon Munro, at the University of British Columbia, and me has shown that a practicable idea is a reserve system, whereby large areas in which the fish population resides are never accessible to fishing pressure. Our calculations suggest that in order to protect stocks, harvested regions should generally be no more than 20 to 30 percent of the total area occupied by the stock. The result may be disquieting, but it has more comfort than the economic extinction of all the fisheries in the world.

Marc Mangel

Deborah Cramer is absolutely correct when she places blame for the destruction of the New England groundfishery resource on the politicized, self-serving New England Fishery Management Council, which has ignored science for a short-term gain, and destroyed a precious national resource. Sadly, all fisheries have been tainted by this terrible example.

For almost twenty years the management of our federal fisheries has been left to such regional councils, with varying results. A study by the World Wildlife Fund found them riddled with conflicts of interest. (Interestingly, current law exempts these fishery councils from conflict-of-interest statutes that apply to every other part of the federal government.)

The current management system has also been a disaster from the economic point of view. The Commerce Department estimates that U.S. marine fisheries are producing far below their potential, at a cost of more than $3 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

Fortunately, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has managed the waters off Alaska very conservatively, with separate quotas for each species. North Pacific groundfish quotas have always been set below what scientists say is safe to harvest while sustaining the fishery. As opposed to New England's shameful taking of 60 percent of the resource, cited by Cramer, annual groundfish quotas in the Bering Sea average 11.6 percent. The result is an abundant fishery that has actually grown by more than four million metric tons since the council began to manage it, in 1977. Some species, such as flatfish, have actually quadrupled.

Unfortunately, although the total quota is set wisely, there are too many boats chasing that quota. This results in shorter seasons and more dangerous and wasteful fishing. Individual quotas, a system in which each fisherman is awarded a percentage of the total quota to be fished year round, would allow the harvest of the North Pacific to proceed more rationally. When individual quotas are transferable, and can be bought, sold, or leased (or revoked for bad fishing behavior), fishermen have incentives to care for the resource over the long term rather than squander it. Had individual, transferable quotas been in place in New England, there would very likely be enough cod, haddock, and yellowtail for future generations.

Joseph R. Blum

Deborah Cramer's ignorance of economics is appalling. As every schoolboy knows, overfishing creates shortages, shortages lead to rising prices, and rising prices create incentives for more individual fish to grow to maturity and spawn. In a genuinely free market, without the dead hand of government interference, it's a self-correcting problem. And it's the same story in the case of dinosaurs and petroleum.

John F. Hellegers