Sunday, February 27, 2005

My Philosophical Problem With Social Security "Reform"

A month or so ago, a friendly right-winger who blogs as HimOverSin stopped by this blog and chided me for "condemning" Bush's Social Security plan before the details were even released (they still haven't been, as of this writing, thanks largely to sensible protests of the very idea of privatization).
"But what's wrong with ownership in one's SS account?," he asked me. "To get more ppl involved in the stock market?"
Here's what's wrong: Social Security is not an investment program, it is a social safety net designed to protect those who, despite the possibility of having made bad decisions during their lives -- not buying and paying off a home, not saving -- are now faced with the infirmities of old age.
That's a fundamental difference in philosophy between lefties like me and the Bush adherents who believe private investment is always by definition superior to a government-administered program.
Social Security was created in 1935 because of the disastrous results of relying on people's good judgment about how to plan for their old age. It recognizes that some will have worked harder than others, and been smarter about how to spend or invest their money over time -- and says that shouldn't matter when it comes to providing a basic standard of living for the elderly. It takes as a fundamental principle the notion that people have a right to some financial security when they are no longer able to work for a living.
So, the bottom line is there is no argument that will work for me that doesn't acknowledge that philosophical position.
HimOverSin asked me if I had a "risky" 401K. Well, yes, although I haven't contributed as much to it as I should have over the past decade. But again, I think it is a problem to conflate Social Security with pension plans and investments. They serve fundamentally different societal purposes, even if they all can be reduced at some level to the concept of providing income for old age.
I'm enough of a lefty (I'm even left-handed) to believe in the similar kind of safety net provided by Medicare and Medicaid -- two programs that many believe will be the next Republican targets after Social Security. In fact, I believe that if we are to consider ourselves a civilized society, we need to extend the concept of government-funded health care and make it a universal program. Yes, socialized medicine is what I'm talking about.
Some things need to be done because they simply are the correct thing to do (I almost said "right" -- a dangerous, loaded word if ever there was one!)
I lived for a few years in the United Kingdom, and received health care under the national program there. Here's the dirty little secret opponents of universal health care don't want you to know: It's pretty good, at least for routine medical needs. My family and I were able to see a doctor whenever we needed to, and get care that included physical therapy for chronic pain without ever having to fill out an insurance form or make a co-payment.
The clinics didn't have fancy carpeting and soft armchairs, but the doctors and nurses who worked in them were dedicated, professional and at least as caring as any I have had in the United States. They even make house calls, something I only vaguely remember from my childhood in this country.
Those who want to change Social Security and who fight universal health care often do so under the banner of "choice," ironic in that these same people seem so often to want to limit the choices of women on the issue of whether to bear children.
But I would argue that the choice being made by those who would privatize Social Security is the choice to watch our elderly risk financial ruin if they make the mistake of outliving their usefulness to the work force.
We need to be better than that as a society.
I'm not an economist, so there is a limit to my understanding of the monetary issues. But I have read quite a bit about Social Security in the past few months, and have come to understand that the proposals Bush and his supporters have embraced will do nothing to strengthen the system. Rather, they will replace it with a far riskier plan that has the additional flaw of adding to our already staggering national debt through a borrowing scheme.
Paul Krugman, always worth reading, has a very fine article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, in which he looks in some detail at the arguments about both Social Security and health care. I don't want to start quoting him, because I'll end up putting his entire long article inside quotes, but I highly recommend that anyone who cares about these issues read it.