Advancing a Free Society

Days of Reckoning

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Excerpted from Social Security: The Unfinished Work.

Social Security is sinking while its would-be rescuers squabble over how to save it. Time to make common cause. By Charles Blahous.


On Social Security, it sometimes seems as though everything has been said dozens of times. Over the past two decades, there have been countless books, articles, and advisory panel reports, all purporting to explain the program’s operations and finances. Many of these argue for (and against) specific measures to keep the program solvent. More than a few portray Social Security as being under threat from the designs of others with wrongheaded or malicious ideas.

After more than fifteen years of work on Social Security policy, first in the U.S. Senate and later in the White House, I have reached the opposite conclusion: everything has not been said—far from it. I believe there is a dire need for another Social Security book, and in particular for a book fundamentally different from those published to date.

My new book, Social Security: The Unfinished Work, is premised upon the conviction that our national Social Security debate is more polarized than it needs to be, even given the depth of legitimate differences over the program’s future. Our Social Security disagreements often devolve into shouting matches fueled by unexamined analytical differences. Unless we identify and understand our initial assumptions, we will not be able to fathom the conflicting policy initiatives that they drive.

Many of these conflicting assumptions are in turn fostered by confusing program accounting that is a legacy of the 1983 Social Security reforms. Before 1983, there existed profound disagreements about Social Security policy choices but general agreement on the state of Social Security finances. Increasingly after 1983, there has been widespread disagreement on both. This has paralyzed our capacity to agree upon adjustments to Social Security policy and has perpetuated confusion that will fatally undercut legislative discussions until it is untangled.

To understand where we are, we must understand what happened during the 1983 Social Security reforms and how it has led to sharply divergent views of program finances today. My book retraces this ground and reviews the policy value judgments—from how generous and expensive Social Security should be, to how redistributive it should be—that must be made. It also addresses the analytical and scorekeeping controversies of the Social Security debate. One person’s policy choice is incomprehensible to someone trying to solve a different problem and analyzing it in a different way. Until there is broader understanding of how these analytical differences drive opposing policy conclusions, we will continue to be like the workers in the tower of Babel, speaking ever more passionately and urgently but making ourselves less and less understood.

If there is a part of society whose conduct on Social Security has been most disappointing, it is probably the community of experts within think tanks and academia. Ideally, they would bend the least to external political or parochial pressures and be the least susceptible to a herd mentality. However, intellectual shortcuts, whether willful or accidental, are common and foster profound misimpressions. Too often, “experts” have fueled the ill-founded prejudices of their surrounding communities, bent to the predilections of their funding sources, and slanted their messages for political advantage. Perhaps more than any other group, the intellectual class has poorly served American citizens in the Social Security debate.

There is no excuse, for example, for credentialed academics and think tank experts to continue to write that the projected Social Security problem is merely a figment of overly conservative projections. Nor is there any excuse for academics to issue what are effectively press releases for political campaigns under their academic letterheads.

More generally, we as a society must do better, and I believe we will. The question is when. We are living through some growing pains of the information age. The explosion of free information sources and the personal mobility of modern life have permitted us to increase our segregation along cultural and political lines. More than ever, we can choose to live and socialize with people who share our political predispositions. More than ever, we can engage in systemic selection bias, frequenting information sources that support our prejudices and implicitly filtering out information that contradicts them. Americans will grow to realize the intellectual perils of sealing themselves off from disagreements; reality will persistently shove itself forward to contradict our fondest wishes and beliefs. Each time it does, we will learn more lessons about the importance of attending to inconvenient truths.

For the Social Security debate, the process cannot move quickly enough. Each year that we dither, the cost facing younger generations grows larger. We must do better—and soon. Our children and grandchildren are depending on us.

(photo credit: asmythie)