Nothing reaffirms my belief in the wisdom of Social Security privatization quite as effectively as listening to its opponents. As with a number of issues, I would occasionally think to myself: “Well, I hang with a predominantly libertarian crowd, and read mags like Reason a lot more frequently than The Nation or Z… maybe there are good arguments on the other side I just haven’t heard.” Watching the debates at a recent triad of Cato Institute conferences on Social Security dispelled that notion pretty quickly.
“Won’t the reforms proposed by Bush’s Social Security commission slash benefits, forcing us to feed the elderly to the wolves?” cried some opponents. (OK, I’m paraphrasing. But not by much.) Hmm… “slashing benefits.” You mean, the proposed reduction in the rate of increase of guaranteed (as opposed to invesment-return) benefits, so that future retirees “only” get the same payout in real dollars that current beneficiaries do? The “reduction” in a rate of increase which, oh yeah, we don’t have any idea how we’re going to pay for at the original level? Is that the “benefit slashing” you were referring to? Riiight. Thanks for playing; have a seat, Chicken Little.
At the “Social Security and Hispanic Americans” conference, my head began spinning as I listened to the very bright and articulate Eric Rodriguez from the National Council on La Raza argue against Social Security reform. Did he say that privatization would be bad for Hispanics? Oddly, no. Rather, he argued only that Hispanics would be unlikely to benefit as much as other groups. I find some of his reasons for thinking this suspect — poll results may indicate that Hispanics would be more likely to invest very conservatively, but that doesn’t mean such preferences would persist once private accounts were in place. Even if he were right, though… who cares? When I asked him why, precisely, we should care how well others do, so long as reform isn’t bad for us (that is, those of us with last names like “Sanchez”), his response… well, failed to illuminate much. “Because,” he explained, “we’d be moving from a system under which Hispanics benefit [relative] most, to one under which they might benefit [relative] least.” Gold star if you can identify the simple geometric shape which describes that argument. At least that expressed preference prevented him from making the “what if idiots put all their money into pet rock futures” argument, which would have been significantly more depressing. Why is it that any time government takes over something for a few years, it’s assumed that people are too incompetent to do it for themselves? If I were ever so slightly more perverse, I’d want to start a nation in a shoebox where state officials dressed and fed each citizen by hand. Then I’d send in a little “feeding and dressing” privatizer, just to see how low faith in humanity would sink.
Another surreal moment came when a representative of one of the big women’s advocacy groups came to deride reform. Now, the current Social Security system has an archaic spousal benefit structure which discourages married women from working. It allows them to take either their husbands’ benefit level (assuming his income is higher, which, in most cases, it would be) or their own. If they take the former route, they get no additional benefit for their decades of paying into the system through payroll taxes: sounds like an invitation to housewifery. So did the women’s group representative blast this absurd setup? Nope, she insisted that our country’s damsels need a big masculine state to take care of them, so that they’re able to remain at home barefoot and pregnant, instead of being forced to take care of themselves. Again, slight paraphrase.
What struck me above all, though, was a theme that ran throughout the conferences, a point I heard one opponent after another touch upon. It seemed as though they didn’t really care whether a private Social Security would make us richer, or promote savings and economic growth, or allow people to pass on benefits in the event of an early death… no, because even if it did all those things, the symbolic loss would be too great. Social Security is, after all, a kind of collective insurance. It’s a way of saying that we’re all in this as a team, looking out for each other. All for one, one for all. Social Security is a magnificent social glue by which all our fates are tied together. Kind of like lemmings.