Advancing a Free Society

Resources for Understanding the Social Security Debate

Thursday, December 2, 2010

As it happens, the President's fiscal responsibility commission is considering Social Security reform at precisely the moment I have a number of explanatory works being published.  This is especially fortuitous for me, as I had undertaken these projects to help broaden understanding of the issues with which policy makers are now publicly wrestling. 

Today, the Hoover Institution's Policy Review journal published an article, "The Social Security Challenge," that is essentially a set of highlighted points from my new book, "Social Security: the Unfinished Work."  The article, like the book, is divided into three main sections:  how we got here, the value choices we together face, and the state of the Social Security debate.

As the article states:

Americans care deeply about Social Security, which is possibly the nation’s most cherished domestic program. One might naively assume that political rewards would accrue to elected officials who accept responsibility — and credit — for strengthening the program’s finances. But policy makers face a further challenge, in that not only are Americans sharply divided about Social Security policy choices, but they are divided even about the underlying facts and the problem to be solved. Despite years of bipartisan efforts to objectively define and quantify the Social Security financing challenge, consensus agreement even on basic factual predicates remains elusive. An equitable solution will be unobtainable unless elected leaders bring stakeholders together around a common understanding of the facts and the need to take reformative action.

Action on Social Security, perhaps more than on any other issue, is paralyzed by conflicting views of underlying facts. Many of these conflicting interpretations are driven by misunderstandings of the 1983 program reforms. That legislation placed a layer of confusion over program finances, and engendered a further tendency toward gridlock in what was already an intensely polarizing issue. Before 1983, there existed profound disagreements about Social Security policy choices, but general agreement on the state of program finances. Today, there is widespread disagreement on both. This has had a paralyzing effect on our capacity to agree on adjustments to Social Security policy, and has perpetuated confusion that will fatally undercut future legislative discussions until it is untangled.  To understand the choices now before us, it’s useful to know what happened in 1983, why it did, and how the result has led to sharply divergent views of program finances today. 

You can read the whole article here:  The Social Security Challenge.