July 10, 2008

Got That One Right!

John McCain has made no bones about not being very knowledgeable about economic issues, particularly as compared to his oeuvre* in foreign policy and military matters. So when he takes on Social Security and says it's a "disgrace," he earns this reaction:
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Social Security has "always been pay as you go, with today's workers paying for today's retirees. What's a disgrace is that this is news to John McCain."
Well, I think maybe the novelty of the issue may enable McCain to see the issue with a clarity that an "expert" with a vested interest in the status quo like union boss McEntee cannot. Because Social Security is a disgrace. This is a system that was supposed to provide for a dignified retirement for older Americans -- back when life expectancy was fifteen or more years less than it was today and workers outnumbered retirees by a ratio of something like eight to one. America has an aging population now; when FDR and his policy wonks put the SSI program together, the Baby Boom had not yet happened and they hadn't considered the possibility of such a thing.

One way of thinking about Social Security is that it is the old stealing from the young. That's not a completely fair way to look at it, but most young people -- "young" meaning people aged fifty or less -- are not particularly confident that they will ever get a penny from Social Security despite a lifetime of paying taxes into it. My parents are older than that and they lack confidence in Social Security. Wisely, they have done what they can to make arrangements to survive as if Social Security did not exist. That's certainly my assumption for my future.

The disgrace is that this "entitlement" has reached sacred cow levels of untouchability in our political debate, and no one dares propose rolling back benefit entitlements, or at least means-testing them more aggressively, and getting our people to work longer. The only alternative is to increase taxes.

There are no other solutions. Period. That is all. Pay less, or tax more. The money will not be conjured out of nowhere by our collective wishes.

Not that the benefits, in their current form, are particularly noteworthy. They have become barely enough for most seniors to survive on anyway. They barely cover the food a senior needs to eat and the utility bills for a great many older folks who have been led to depend on these checks from the government as their sole source of financial support in their retirement. Most of them could not afford the myriad of medicines their doctors have got them addicted them to until we created another welfare program, Medicare part D, to subsidize that part of their lives.

We have created an entire class of idle, unemployable, poor old folks utterly dependent on the government to avoid starving to death. And that class of Americans is going to expand dramatically over the next ten to fifteen years, and younger Americans (like me and my peers) will get to pay for it all.

McCain is right. This is a disgrace. Surely we could have done better for our seniors. Surely we can think of something better to do for the future.

* Yes, I know I promised a few days ago to be clear, direct, and simple in my writing. But oeuvre so elegantly gets at what I'm trying to convey -- it describes both an intellectual interest powerful enough to cause an exclusion of other matters, and a level of expertise within that field worthy of considerable respect.

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