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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 27, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Vigilante Hackers, Social Security

When the news first hit about how hackers calling themselves "The Impact Team" had broken into the Ashley Madison website, I had no idea that such a website even existed.

I knew that plenty of marriages had been broken up by websites like Facebook, when "old flames" and "high school sweethearts" reconnected and decided that their current spouses could be discarded in favor of a recovery of lost youth. Or other such nonsense.

But Ashley Madison was a website for people who wanted to get some on the side without breaking up their marriages. Their slogan was: "Life is short. Have an affair."

To which my answer would have to be: Life is short. Keep your promises.

But apparently there were a lot of guys on the site whose marriage vows meant nothing. When The Impact Team broke in, they took information belonging to up to 38 million members.

Now, those weren't all real people. The hackers discovered that a significant number of the "women" posting profiles on the site were fakes -- put there to give the illusion that there were more married women wanting no-strings sex with some idiot from online than exist in the real world.

Something like 95 percent of the real subscribers to the site were men. Which corresponds with what you might expect, because (a) men are more likely to have a powerful genetic predisposition toward variety in sexual partners, and (b) a woman who wants an affair doesn't have to go to some website to find an eager partner.

The "double standard" (that men are expected to be unfaithful, while unfaithful women are looked down on) exists biologically as well as culturally. Promiscuity makes more sense, in evolutionary terms, for primate males, who can theoretically sire thousands of offspring, while fidelity makes sense for primate females, who can have only a few offspring in their breeding life.

However, the most successful cultures -- that is, the ones that rise to the level of "civilizations" -- tend to be those that have a strict expectation of faithful monogamy for all but the richest and most powerful males.

Since history usually deals with males in the rich-and-powerful category, we can get a false impression that fidelity is rare. But there are reasons to believe that no matter how much some or even most men might have a "roving eye," we've had hundreds of generations of mostly faithful monogamy.

Even in our sex-mad society, where the Idioticists rejoice in having "no rules" and even young teenagers are embarrassed to admit to virginity, a large number of males and females claim, on anonymous surveys, never to have had sex outside of marriage.

If 36 million males (about 95% of 38 million) were on Ashley Madison, however, that represents more than ten percent of the entire US population.

Considering that half the US population is female, about 23 percent are under eighteen, and 105 million Americans age eighteen and older are unmarried and therefore have no particular reason to use Ashley Madison, that leaves us with a married adult male population of just over 70 million.

Which implies that more than half the married men in America are sweating bullets because of the Ashley Madison hack.

Of course that's not true. I dare say that a vast proportion of those Ashley Madison male profiles were multiples -- the same guy upping his chances by making new profiles.

And there were probably a lot of men who signed on "without the slightest intention of ever actually going through with an affair." They were only "testing the waters to see if anybody would be interested." Sort of a vanity check.

Since only five percent of the site's participants were actual living women, we can guess that even if those women were very very busy (or professionals, because why wouldn't Ashley Madison become a virtual pimp or madam for "working girls" who only had to pretend to be married, and find a way to charge money on their own?), most men who signed on did not find the illicit romance of their dreams.

So "try, try again" seems likely to play a role in the number of profiles a would-be cheater would create.

(By the way, while Ashley Madison probably claimed to have a no-hookers policy, it's hard to believe they really meant it, since prostitutes would vastly increase the number of "successes" their male customers scored. As long as the hookers changed their profiles frequently, it was a financial win-win for them and for the website.)

It's hard to guess how many actual men are now petrified that their wife will find out that they were on the Ashley Madison site. But it's also hard to work up even the slightest concern for them.

A guy who divorces his wife in order to take on a younger model is worthy of our disdain, but at least he proceeds with a degree of honesty, letting his ex-wife know exactly where she stands.

The Ashley Madison site was designed for cheaters -- guys who wanted nooky on the side without having any consequences in their marriage. They wanted to keep the rewards of fidelity, without actually being faithful.

So exposure is justice, don't you think? Let them try out their "I was just seeing whether anybody would want me" story on their wives and see how that goes.

Here's the irony. Avid Life Media, the company that owns Ashley Madison, has accused the Impact Team of trying to blackmail their "innocent" customers. But the Impact Team says that this is the opposite of the truth.

When the Impact Team announced their hack, they threatened to release user details unless Ashley Madison shut down their site. That's not blackmailing the site's users. It's not really "blackmailing" Avid Life Media -- because it wasn't asking for money.

It was, instead, a vigilante cease-and-desist order. Stop facilitating marital cheating, or we'll make it impossible for you to stay in business by breaking your supposed confidentiality.

The irony is that, in a way, Ashley Madison has been blackmailing their users all along -- because they demanded a fee for a "Paid Delete" function. That is, if you wanted to have your data permanently and completely removed from the site, you had to pay.

The Impact Team hackers claim that Ashley Madison collected more than $100 million for providing this service -- but they did not deliver. The fact that "many" who had paid for complete deletion were still there among the records proves that the $100 million in deletion fees were fraudulently obtained.

In fact, even though Ashley Madison claimed to be "the last truly secure space on the internet," the hackers said that there was "no security.... You could use Pass1234 from the internet to VPN to root on all servers."

Which is techspeak for saying that Ashley Madison didn't give a rat's petoot about protecting its data. It was like bringing your lock picks and explosives to break into a safe, only to find that it opened with a pull.

The Impact Team is not releasing low level employees' emails -- though the Ashley Madison executives have no such promise. And they won't display on the internet any of the pogs (pictures of genitalia) that make up about a third of the images from the site.

That's kind of them, but it does nothing for security. Unless something's serious wrong with a man's toolkit, it's hard to confirm his identity from a pog.

Here's what I like about the Impact Team: They didn't set themselves up as superior to governments, stealing government secrets and releasing them without regard to the damage it might do to individuals and the nation as a whole.

Instead, they went after a site that was pandering to cheaters, and their goal was to shut them down. I imagine that they have succeeded, since a man seeking a no-consequences affair would have to be too moronic to unzip his fly if he used Ashley Madison now.

The Impact Team has made it clear that they have other targets in mind -- other companies that make their money from exploiting people's addictions or by defrauding them. And since they claim they were rummaging around, undetected, inside Ashley Madison's data for years, they may already have a huge collection of data from other such companies.

So far, at least, I like these guys. And for anyone who hates them because their lives may be ruined by their disclosures, I say this: Nobody pointed a gun at your head and made you sign on to Ashley Madison.

You have no right to expect other people to keep contracts with you, when you can't keep a promise you made to your own wife.

*

I turned 64 this month, which means I'm a year away from the magical age which used to mean mandatory retirement in most businesses.

The trouble is that I can't actually retire from my current jobs. Since I don't get paid for teaching or for writing this column, I'm not sure that "retiring" from those jobs would mean anything.

And I can't afford to retire from writing fiction, because the people who buy my books pay me more, for the present, than Social Security will. So I can't retire from writing till I gomer out too much to write anymore.

I remembered that there used to be rules forbidding you from collecting Social Security while working full time. Which is fine with me. But now that the magic age approaches, I really ought to find out.

Then again, I have always had contempt for the AARP when they raised a hue and cry every time people suggested something rational to keep Social Security solvent -- like taxing the Social Security payments received by people who make more than $100,000 from other sources.

You'd think they were proposing that we allow millions of babies to be killed (oh, wait; we do allow that, don't we ...). "We paid into the system! That's our money! We're entitled!"

Yeah, yeah. You don't need it. The system is going broke. You can afford to let the government take some of it back to help sustain the system for those who do need it. But no, you're entitled.

There was a meme recently going around Facebook, stating that people who get veterans' benefits and Social Security are "entitled," but welfare payments, being unearned, should not be called "entitlements."

The truth is that once there's a law setting the rules for receiving a government benefit, that benefit is an "entitlement" to those who comply with those rules.

You know, like the "entitlement" to a mortgage-interest tax deduction -- the biggest flat-out dole in the tax system, which benefits most the people with the biggest mortgages. But I bet you that the very people who want to make welfare recipients ashamed because they haven't "earned" their entitlement payments would scream if some politician dared to touch their precious mortgage-interest tax deduction.

Another tax dole is the fact that the amount your employer pays for your health insurance is not counted or taxed as income. That's right -- you're getting a free pass from the government for a perk that is money right into your pocket. I know, because I'm self-employed and therefore I don't get that tax deduction.

The employer-provided health-care benefit exempts $785 billion the IRS would collect if Congress made those benefits taxable.

And the tax break on mortgage interest on first homes alone costs the Treasury $405 billion. Please explain to me how that has been earned by those who receive it. In fact, I think it's the opposite -- since it never maxes out, it provides the most benefit to people so rich they buy huge mansions. And the benefit also extends to people who pay mortgage interest on a second residence (which can be a boat or RV).

(The source I used for these numbers was ambiguous about whether the $785 billion and $405 billion figures were per year or over a four-year period. It's a lot of money either way.)

There are other exemptions and deductions that provide the most benefit to high earners, like capital gains taxes on profits on the sale of a primary residence that go unpaid if you invest in another house within a given period of time.

And benefits that go primarily to the rich, not just high earners: The fact that capital gains and dividends from stock ownership are taxed at the rate of 15 or 20 percent, far lower than the rates on earned income.

So let's not tolerate people getting smug about how welfare recipients aren't "entitled." Our tax code includes plenty of tax breaks worth billions of dollars, but because they come in the form of lower taxes, most people feel perfectly all right about receiving those entitlements.

But if those tax breaks were removed, then taxes could go down for everybody instead of giving preferential treatment to those who qualify for the entitlement. Therefore, those tax breaks are being subsidized by other taxpayers who don't receive those benefits.

That's why I have contempt for people who complain about welfare for the poor, while receiving far more money themselves in the form of tax breaks for doing what they would do anyway.

You would buy a house and pay for health care no matter what, right? Why are other taxpayers subsidizing that for you? Why is that different from welfare?

"Oh, I'm only talking about cheaters," they say when I mention their hypocrisy and uncharitability. But the memes I've seen don't make such nice distinctions -- it's all welfare that's condemned as not being a true entitlement because it isn't earned.

Here's the principle that I think applies. When we're born into this world, air is free ... and nothing else. Somebody else's work and effort provides us with water, food, shelter, clothing, education, and protection.

But what if you're a child born to somebody who can't provide all of that? Even if you have lazy parents, or they're debilitated by their own bad choices, is that your fault? In a decent society, some kind of collective effort must make up for the shortfall for children whose parents can't provide for them sufficiently.

Because we no longer live in small villages, where we can easily spot hungry children and feed them, we have delegated the welfare responsibility to governments. They set up rules and then do an imperfect job of enforcing them. Big deal. They do an imperfect job of collecting taxes legitimately owed by wage-earners, too. There are cheaters wherever there's money. But that doesn't void the legitimacy of the effort.

Zoning laws make it so the middle class never has to see the poor. It's easy to make false assumptions about people you don't know. But I have known too many people who had no choice but to accept public assistance for a while, and shame on anyone who makes them ashamed of having done so.

And yes, I've known people who have spent their entire lives on welfare and never qualified themselves for any kind of employment. When they no longer qualify for public assistance, what do we do? Take them out and shoot them, the way we euthanize ex-pets in animal shelters? Or do we compassionately provide for them whether they deserve it or not?

Personally, it's the latter society I prefer to live in. And it's people who don't bitch about it that I prefer to associate with.

And that now brings me back to Social Security. First, let me be clear: We have a good tax accountant who knows all the breaks we are legitimately entitled to. We take advantage of those breaks in calculating our taxes -- because that's all the law asks us to pay. If the law changes, we'll calculate our taxes according to the new law. That's citizenship.

But Social Security feels different to me. Yes, I've paid FICA -- and I've had no help from employers through most of my career, so I've paid a higher percentage than most people. But the Social Security system is in trouble, and at the present moment I don't need to collect Social Security.

At some future time, that might change. But for now, I would feel like I was tapping into somebody else's aquifer if I started drinking from that well. I would be part of the problem, since I'm one of the baby boomers who are now swelling the ranks of Social Security recipients.

Not only that, but the fact that my Social Security would be untaxed would make me a beneficiary of the very policy that makes me loathe the AARP -- the selfish, short-sighted refusal to allow our government to tax the Social Security payments of those who make plenty of money without it.

So at this moment, I don't think I'm going to apply for Social Security when I become eligible. I may learn more information that leads me to change my mind -- I'm not entering into a contract here -- but at present, that's an entitlement that I intend to pass up.

That will put me in the same class as another very large group of people who never collect the Social Security benefits they're entitled to: People who died before they ever received a penny of Social Security, and people who died before they had earned back as much as they paid in.

I'm glad I can afford to receive the same Social Security benefits as those people -- without having to endure the other restrictions and difficulties faced by the dead.

And I offer this as a suggestion to other people who don't actually need their Social Security payments. Since the Social Security system has never functioned properly, any benefits we receive are coming out of the pockets of younger wage earners today. We don't need that money as much as they do.

So if, by not taking Social Security, those of us who don't need it can make it possible for Social Security to remain solvent without raising FICA or other taxes, then that's a worthy contribution to society.

It is, in fact, an act of social conscience.

If you need Social Security, for heaven's sake, collect it! It's yours!

But if you're one of the fortunate few who don't need it, let's give the younger generation a hand by not putting our hands in their pockets.


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