Lifted from comments: Program sustainability is?

Lifted from comments comes a beginning thought on the term ‘sustainability’ for programs…Sustainability

Rusty asks:

Is there an accepted definition for “sustainability?”
I tend to think of it in an environmental context, but apparently it is used more broadly.
Your thoughts?

Bruce Webb’s quick reply:

STR, well in Social Security lingo ‘sustainable’ is mostly used in a hyper-specialized way. So to the extent that SS policy has injected the word into discourse it might not be fully representative. I’ll think about it.

Operationally ‘sustainable solvency’ for SS means not just being solvent (as defined) over the projection period (there 75 years) but having the metric of solvency (in this case Trust Fund ratio) trending up at the end of the period and so likely to be longer-term or permanent.

Rhetorically it is an argument against ‘patching up’ a problem or as the Fix the Debt people put it in their messaging “Kicking the Can (Down the Road)”. If the need is permanent so too should be the structure that provides it, come what may there will be some need to provide transit of goods and people from San Francisco to Oakland as long as those cities exist. Showing that both BART and the new Bay Bridge will proper maintenance will suffice for 35 years is not good enough, long range planners need to think about year 36 and year 50.

Now whether given all the uncertainties in the specific case of Social Security we should be worrying about years 76-100 (sustainable solvency) or all years to Heat Death of the Sun (unfunded liability over the Infinite Future Horizon), that is whether this is just reasonable prudence or pointless crisis-mongering to ‘sustain’ a ‘current’ ‘crisis’, is an open question. For example the current funding ‘crisis’ in the Post Office forcing shutdown in Saturday delivery is the result of a requirement to pre fund retiree health care for 75 years, or for the new hires of 2053.

Similarly Congressional restrictions on Social Security Administration have forced field office consolidation and early closing even though those expenses are billed back against a Trust Fund with $2.6 trillion in legally available assets (which presumably have to be paid back SOMEDAY, why starve SS today?)

I am not really aware of ‘sustainable’ being deployed in that many other policy areas, then again I have a certain amount of tunnel vision on this topic. So to the degree that SS has actually been the source of injection of this term into political discourse it’s precise usage may not be illuminating to your overall question.