Social Security ‘Crisis’: Lensing the Framing: Part 1

by Bruce Webb

The immediate economic/political news this week will revolve around Health Care and then transition to Jobs. Which is a good thing because I could really use a job with health care benefits. But Social Security blogging is what I do so here is a piece on the various ways in which Social Security ‘crisis’ is viewed which in turn controls the structuring of the proposed solutions. A lot of meta with not much in the way of numbers so I’ll tuck it unobtrusively under the fold.

Once again I’ll let Baker and Weisbrot set the stage from their 1999 ‘Social Security: the Phony Crisis’

We have a chance, said President Clinton, to “fix the roof while the sun is still shining.” He was talking about dealing with Social Security immediately, while the economy is growing and the federal budget is balanced. The audience was a regional conference on Social Security, in Kansas City, Missouri, that the White House had helped bring together.

The roof analogy is illuminating, but we can make it more accurate. Imagine that it’s not going to rain for more than 30 years. And the rain, when it does arrive (and it might not), will be pretty light. And imagine that the average household will have a lot more income for roof repair by the time the rain approaches.

Now add this: most of the people who say they want to fix the roof actually want to knock holes in it.

Exactly so. Meaning that the first step in engaging in a defense of Social Security is to determine if your opponents falls in the ‘mend it’ category or the ‘end it’. Is the problem that Social Security is fundamentally broken? or that it exists at all?

By the Seventies the latter question seemed to be settled, Social Security was the Third Rail of American Politics, conventional wisdom said if you tinkered with it you died. This is not to say that people believed the program itself was perfect, Social Security having been adjusted both as to form with the addition of first survivors and later disability insurance and requiring periodic adjustments in the tax rate, but apart from some Randian Objectivists few people were willing to attack the concept openly even if they doubted the ultimate solvency. But those who were in what we would now call Movement Conservatism, that strand leading from Landon to Reagan never embraced Social Security and warned against expansion of the concept via Medicare and federalized Welfare programs, it was just that through the sixties and seventies they were stymied by a combination of the Democratic coalition forged in the New Deal along with the more liberal to moderate North East style Republicanism that came to be known as the Rockefeller Wing, which could be typified as those Republicans who believed in Good Government (in previous generations known as ‘Goo Goos’

But of course the ground was moving under their feet. The forces unleashed by the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, environmentalism, and the counterculture served both to fracture the New Deal Coalition, particularly as a result of the Southern Realignment and to undermine the mostly Northeastern and Mid-Western power structure of the Republican Party and moved that power South and West and we could add Right as well. And one result among many is that fundamental hostility to Social Security transformed from being a fringe position to being that of the center of Movement Conservatism and Reaganism.

The end result of the Greenspan Commission of 1982-83 was a compromise fix of Social Security and this has fed a myth that all parties were pre-committed to a ‘mend it’ and not ‘end it’ position. The accounts of the actual participants show this was not true, the decision to mend came after a bitter deadlock, that was broken only after Reagan concluded he didn’t have the votes to do what he wanted. Even at that it was a close thing, Reagan having committed to the deal having to do some arm twisting on some of the Republican Commissioners and still ending up with three No votes on final.

In the aftermath of what they called among themselves the ‘fiasco’ represented by the 1983 compromise, ideological opponents of Social Security literally regrouped themselves around what would become the Cato Project on Social Security Privatization (now Cato Project on Social Security Choice) and undertook a joint reframing exercise on Social Security that in one incarnation was labeled the ‘Leninist Strategy’. Rather than an open attack on Social Security as being a bad thing in and of itself, a position largely untenable at the time, they simply set out to undermine future support for it, primarily among younger workers, and selling the message that whatever you thought of Social Security in principle, that long term it was guaranteed to fail in practice, and so that while it could be patched, there was no permanent ‘mend it’ solution, meaning that at some point it would need to be addressed by an ‘end it’ or at least ‘transform it’ strategy.

Which is where we are today. The fundamental opposition to Social Security is where it has been since Alf Landon ran against it in the 1936 Presidential election, but the framing built on top of that foundation has been reshaped into one where the problem is not that Social Security is inherently bad, but that it is irretrievably broken. The problem for those opponents is that they can not concede either on ‘irretrievable’ or ‘broken’, that would simply case them to fall back on a ‘socialism’ argument that has been proven unpersuasive to a population that can say with no apparent sense of irony ‘keep government out of my Social Security’.

It is this commitment to the concept of “irretrievable” that seems to baffle supporters of Social Security. They live in a mental world that believes ‘Social Security is a social good that if possible should be fixed” as opposed to a mental world that holds ‘Social Security is a social evil that is also broken, but should not be fixed in any event’. For opponents ‘crisis’ is more seen as ‘opportunity’. Which is why you have to smile at the naivete of progressives who see the answer as being blindingly obvious, just raise the cap. For opponents any fix to Social Security misses the fundamental problem it poses, and the very worst possible approach would be one that moves Social Security even farther in terms of redistribution. For them the answer to socialism is not more socialism, supporters of a cap increase might as well be speaking Martian in terms of likelihood of delivering that particular message.

For years I thought that the answer to Social Security ‘crisis’ was to point out that the problem, to the extent it even was a problem, was small, on balance shrinking, meaning that the cost of a fix going forward would likely end up smaller than projected, and expect this would be received as good news. Who wouldn’t want a cheap and easy fix to an issue that was being framed as being broken? Not quite getting that for opponents of Social Security that brokenness was the best feature of Social Security, it giving them the opening they needed to address the real problem, which is socialism in America. They believe they have their hands around the neck of socialistic Social Security which is half-choked and ready to be shoved in Grover Norquist’s bathtub for final drowning and here come Coberly and Webb suggesting the patient would be okay if you just opened up his airway a little. Man talk about missing the point.
This post was originally heading in a different direction. That argument will have to be saved for Part 2.