Friday, October 29, 2004

Make It So

By now, people under 30 have heard that Social Security won’t be there for them thousands and thousands of times. It is a popular Republican theme, though one that candidates only utter sotto voce during actual campaigns. Former Senator, current television D.A. Thompson repeated the meme the other day. Don’t kid yourself, the actor/politician warned, the system is headed for inevitable catastrophe. But why is he so sure, especially since, from a strictly actuarial point of view, no such disaster is looming. Well, I figure it’s like the vows exchanged at the altar. From a purely statistical point of view, eternal love may be somewhat unlikely, but we promise it nonetheless. By the same logic, the social security system is not likely to fail on its own, but with sufficient political determination, it can be made to fail. So why are the Republicans confident that Social Security won’t be there for you? The full form of the prophecy would run, “It won’t be there for you if we have anything to say about it!”

There is surely nothing sacred about our particular version of social insurance, and there may well be ways in which the current system could be safeguarded, improved, or even replaced with a better alternative. The Republican dream of a privatized system does not address the real issues with Social Security, however, because it is misidentifies the real problem, which does not concern the financial and distributional arrangements we make to provide income for old people but the economic and demographic problem of providing goods and services for everybody when a smaller proportion of the population is at work. One can bleat like a sheep about compound interest as the solution to this problem, but what’s needed is not compound interest but compound growth, something real, not something notional. In the absence of a more productive economy, the numbers on your account statement, however grand, won’t buy you what you need. On the other hand, granted reasonable economic health, the nation surely has enough wealth to provide a decent condition of life for all its citizens, though it may be that somebody, somewhere, sometime will have to forgo a ski weekend so that old women don’t have to eat dog food.

In a rational world debate about Social Security would be exceedingly wonkish and dull because it would be a discussion about practical and mundane remedies to real but hardly overwhelming problems. Stoking paranoia about the system is hardly helpful unless, as is pretty obviously the case, the warnings about looming disaster convey political and personal benefits on the prophets and their kin. Even more than being the reflex of an ideological fixation, the call for the privatization of Social Security is all about slopping the hogs. What it is not is a response to the logic of history or the arithmetic of pension plans. If it ever occurs, it will be one of those things like the establishment of the Soviet Union that happened because a group of determined people made it happen.

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