Monday, August 16, 2010

Leave It Alone

Let's be up front right up front. I am drawing social security; my spouse is drawing social security. Both of us elected to start drawing it when we turned 62. So if you were inclined to quibble about what follows, you could always claim that I'm not a totally disinterested party. If you were so inclined.

That said, I have to bemoan the continuing clamor from the right about ending (or "privatizing" it, which amounts to the same thing) this most successful of government social welfare programs. It's an agitation that's never really ceased since the Bush administration.

Which is why I'm grateful to Paul Krugman. One of the coolest heads around among economists, Krugman's always managed to make the "dismal science" intelligible to me. I didn't know that last week marked the 75th anniversary of social security. If I had I might have set off some firecrackers. But the occasion didn't escape Krugman, and he devoted his column yesterday to a consideration of the program's current state of being.

Here are some of his most salient points:
  • The people who are attacking social security . . . their math doesn't add up. They are basically concerned with ideology anyway, and they are either ignorant of or indifferent to the lives of most Americans. 
  • Because of the way it's set up--with its own dedicated funding and part of the Federal budget--there are only two money problems the program could face. Inadequate dedicated funding or unsupportable costs for the larger Federal budget.
  • Neither problem is "a clear and present danger." The program has run surpluses for years, and its trust fund won't run dry until 2037 according to its actuaries, and there's a good chance that won't happen.
  • Over the next 20 years the aging population will cause the cost of social security to rise from 4.8 to 6 percent of GDP, significantly smaller amount than the rise in defense spending since 2001, which was certainly no crisis in Washington's eyes.
  • Cries of crisis in the system are result of bad-faith accounting. And although the crisis is invented, many Washington elite buy it, all the Republicans and even some Democrats. They propose to deal with the "crisis" not but cutting benefits to present recipients of social security, but those out in the future.
  • What's really going on is that the right hates social security for ideological reasons: it undermines their claim that government always screws things up. 
  • Currently fashionable idea to raise retirement age eventually to 70--life expectancy has risen, so goes the argument and people can work till they are 70. Yeah right, if you are a white collar worker, and therefore somebody who needs social security the least.
  • It's not just a matter of being able to work at comfortable office job vs. manual labor. No, it's deeper. "American is becoming an increasingly unequal society--the growing disparities extend to matters of life and death. Life expectancy at age 65 has risen for people at the top of the income distribution, but much less for lower-income workers.
  • Bottom line: cuts to social security should not even be on the table.
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