January 5, 2005
Social Security: when is a problem a problem?By Noel Sheppard
Are you tired of all the Social Security discussions that have been flooding the air and print waves the past two weeks? Having a hard time understanding the plethora of opinions —— some good, some bad —— being thrown at you from all directions by people who seem to know what they are talking about, but are spewing venom the likes of which you haven't seen since either the last presidential debate or the most recent episode of The Apprentice? Well, get used to it, because this is just the beginning.
At first blush, the casually interested must be wondering what all the shouting is about. After all, Social Security has been around for seventy years or so, and everybody knows that there won't be any money left when it comes their time to retire. In fact, people have been saying this for roughly sixty—nine years. So, eventually, those who share this view are going to be right, right?
However, what you truly have to love about the current debate is that the warring parties can't even agree on a number of basic issues that probably need to be resolved before they can actually address the problem. For instance:
Confused? Good. That's the point. Remember, a confused constituent will either accept the status quo and, therefore, allow his/her elected official to do absolutely nothing about solving a problem that he/she doesn't understand, OR will cede all responsibility to said representative thereby allowing him/her to do whatever he/she feels is in his/her best interest. This, of course, includes doing nothing if that is indeed in his/her best interest.
Welcome to politics in the new millennium. And you thought that having access to the Internet was going to make it easier for you to understand the most pressing issues of the day. Silly you.
So, now that we've got you exactly where we want you —— though we're not really sure that we have anything to worry about yet —— why are we worrying about it? Well, because the Bush administration —— rightfully, I might add —— believes that this is indeed a serious matter that needs to be addressed now before it becomes catastrophic. Conversely, Social Security reform detractors suggest that the administration is exaggerating the current dangers to elicit support for changes that are not necessary at this time.
To best illustrate this point, I offer the following 'expert' assessments recently reported by AP:
``Social Security is like a car with a flat tire,'' said Peter Orszag, an economist at the liberal Brookings Institution and adviser in the Clinton White House. ``There is a problem. We need to fix the flat tire. But we don't need to replace the car.''
But David John, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the funding problem is real, especially for younger workers.
"Every day we delay raises the cost of a repair to Social Security,'' he said.
Sounds almost like that Fram commercial from some years ago where the grease—covered mechanic is discussing the value of changing your oil filter every time you do a routine service. Remember the tag line: 'You can pay me now...or, you can pay me later?' If you recall, the mechanic's point was that you could pay a few bucks today for a new oil filter, or you could spend hundreds of dollars in the future for a more serious engine repair.
Well, in the case of fixing Social Security, this is the point that the Bush Administration is making. And, frankly, this is precisely what Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, stated during his two previous testimonies in front of Congress. Of course, why should we listen to him? He probably knows as much about Social Security as that actor/mechanic does about oil filters.
Alas, to really understand the depths of the inanity regarding this argument about when a problem becomes a problem, you have to recognize that one side is suggesting that Social Security will begin paying more in benefits than it will be taking in as receipts in the year 2018. Seems like that would be a bad thing, yes? However, the other side, while not disputing this, says we shouldn't worry about this projected shortfall because this looming deficit doesn't completely drain the funds in the Social Security 'trust' until 2042. Isn't this in itself a huge enough divergence of opinion to warrant all this debate?
Well, let's assume that you own a house, and during a routine visit, your exterminator says that you've got a few termites. Nothing serious yet, but they're there. And, they're eating your home. Every day. And, much like rust, they never sleep. Is your decision to act going to depend on whether or not your house will fall down in fourteen years or thirty—eight? Or, regardless, you're going to only pay the two dollars to fix this problem when it is clear that your house is actually starting to collapse? And, if that's not any time soon, it's Miller time.
As amazing as it might seem, that's the position that some folks are taking on this issue —— that since the crisis is not yet imminent, we shouldn't concern ourselves yet. In essence: Don't worry —— be happy! Conversely, the other side believes that whether the problem becomes a crisis in two decades or four, it makes more sense to begin dealing with it now when it will cost less to fix.
Now isn't that the way adults behave? Or, should we sweep this issue under the rug and allow our children or grandchildren to deal with it some time in the future when they have fewer options at their disposal? After all, that's the way our parents acted when they chose to stick their hands out much further than Franklin D. Roosevelt would have ever imagined as he first set this whole program in motion. Consequently, why shouldn't we, who have inherited this problem, behave just as selfishly as those who created it, and, therefore, pass it on to our children along with THEIR legacy?
C'mon. We are the ME generation, aren't we? The lyrics are, 'Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,' not 'Sex, and Drugs, and Retirement Plans.' I mean, just like Roger Daltrey, I really DO hope I die before I get old. Of course, like many of his generation, Roger is not only NOT dead, but is probably getting fitted for dentures, an electronic wheelchair, and a new hip —— all likely funded by the British National Health Service.. But, hey, he can still sing I Can See For Miles pretty well even though he can't see five feet in front of him without his glasses on.
Luckily for us rock—and—rollers who don't yet have one foot in the grave, the Democratic House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, recently weighed in with her opinion on this subject to assuage the concerns of a dazed and confused nation:
Mr. President, the non—partisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that Social Security is secure for nearly 50 years, without any changes whatsoever.
Thank you, Nancy. It's comforting to know that the very organization, which in the year 2000 predicted budget surpluses 'as far as the eye can see', is forecasting a rosier scenario than the Social Security actuaries who specifically manage the program in question. I personally will sleep much better this evening secure in the knowledge that the leading Democrat in our country who will be participating in the analysis of the complex mathematical equations necessary to amend this program —— including population growth models as well as mortality and morbidity projections —— possesses the arithmetic acumen to conclude that something that is admittedly going bankrupt is by her account 'secure.'
Talkin' 'bout my g—g—g—generation.
Noel Sheppard is an economic and geopolitical analyst and writer residing in Northern California. Noel receives e—mail at email@example.com.