Social Security

This is a subject that tends to boil my blood. The United States has a reasonably solvent, well-managed, and efficient federal pension system, and political extremists are trying to destroy it. I’m not referring to Cassandras who are raising an alarm in good faith about structural problems threatening Social Security’s solvency; I’m referring to a different, much more malign faction, a faction of angels of destruction who clearly do not want Social Security to remain viable because their goal is to dissolve it. There are very few good reasons and many bad reasons to want to destroy a social insurance system and leave its former beneficiaries completely to their own devices.

These people who want to dissolve Social Security are epic concern trolls, and unfortunately they’re preying upon a citizenry that is ripe for concern-trolling. Public opinion polls are showing a increasing number of young people who expect that Social Security will be gone by the time they reach retirement age. Some of these young people raise a corollary objection to contributing to this plan that they expect to be insolvent or formally dissolved by the time they’re eligible to draw retirement pensions.

These beliefs raise an important question: why the fuck would Social Security not survive in some form until 2065? As a social insurance system, it is ultimately dependent on the faith and credit of the government overseeing it. What could cause the United States government to completely lose its ability to raise and disburse revenues in the next fifty years? In the event of a national partition, what circumstances could prevent any of the daughter states from maintaining their own pension plans? If portions of the current United States were annexed by Canada or Mexico, what would prevent the Canadian or Mexican governments from integrating their new citizens into their existing social insurance systems?

Absent a collapse into Dark Ages barbarism and backwardness, I can’t conceive of any circumstances making it impossible for whatever government or governments will have sovereignty over the present-day United States to honor Social Security obligations to those alive today. There might be solvency problems necessitating adjustments, but no functionally sovereign government presiding over a functioning economy would be completely unable to make a good-faith effort to provide a safety net for the elderly. A Dark Ages redux would make the collapse of Social Security look innocuous in comparison to the collapse of everything else, but absent such a total civilizational collapse, the only obstacles I can envision to the maintenance of Social Security (and Medicare) in some form are entirely political in nature. There should be no need to throw the indigent elderly to the dogs, but there may well be a political desire to do so.

This political desire to destroy Social Security, falsely represented as a need, is exactly what elements of the American right wing have today. This is what motivated the Republicans’ failed attempt to privatize Social Security during the Bush Administration, on the basis that it’s unfair to force people to contribute to this bullshit government pension program when they could be investing their money at higher rates of return in private retirement accounts. Never mind that Social Security was established at a time when many elderly Americans had lost their life savings in a stock market crash followed by a secular depression, or that private investment funds often have high administrative costs, or that the investment market is infested with frauds and shysters (Bernie Madoff with my money again!), or that many Baby Boomers are retiring with significant debts and negligible assets, circumstances that would render them utterly indigent without a job or a pension (and that often leave them struggling despite having both).

So far the privatization schemes have failed in the face of angry opposition. How long this state of affairs will hold is anyone’s guess. The closest the United States has been able to get to across-the-board national health insurance, as opposed to a half-assed patchwork of socialized medicine for politically favored groups, is the crackpot state-corporate hybrid health insurance mandate of Obamacare. Barack Obama is the American Tommy Douglas. As Americans, we should be ashamed. But this is the case because we are a foolish and ignorant people. Asked what Tommy Douglas did for Canada, the average American would probably say that he was a hockey player. Yes, the Canuck answer to the beloved Yankees slugger and fleet-footed left fielder Franklin Delano “Franky-boy” Roosevelt. He must have been that.

Apparently even Vermont is fucking up its introduction of single-payer healthcare by involving featherbedding consultants. No state in the Union is able to replicate what was done half a century ago in Saskatchewan. You know, the English-speaking province bordering North Dakota and Montana. Their provinces are like our states, eh, and don’tcha know, most of theirs border at least one of ours. Shit, even Nova Scotia, which is wicked isolated from the Great Satan compared to anything else at its latitude, has direct ferry service to Maine. Plus the whole fucking country speaks English, even the intransigent French part once they learn that you aren’t from Ontario, and the whole fucking country has across-the-board socialized medicine. So where do we, sharing a primary language and our longest land border with these furry northern friends, turn for medical policy?

The Heritage Foundation.

But hey, at least we got Ann of Green Gables out of the deal. Also Bieber and Nickelback.

If we fall for shit like Obamacare, maybe we in fact will fall for some scheme to gut Social Security. The hopeful possibility is that the American public is more dysfunctional than it is foolish, ignorant, and venal. More Americans than one would assume, judging from the mainstream partisan political discourse, realize that Obama, Pelosi, et al. led them into a sewage treatment plant while telling them that they were touring a chocolate factory. These include Democrats. They realize that they took it up the Hershey Highway and, honey, that ain’t chocolate. Yes, please, do tell Mr. Wonka about how Barack Obama used a Rube Goldberg policy contraption from the Heritage Foundation to socialize American medical care.

One thing that certainly won’t help maintain Social Security is convincing young people that it won’t be there for them when they retire. Feeding into their natural worries about the long-term solvency of the fund for ulterior motives is simply evil. It’s antisocial agitprop abetting a shortsighted, antisocial descent into the black market. There are nasty elements on the political scene who would love to contrive a crisis of confidence. These are roughly the same shysters who are promoting the “sharing economy.” Like, isn’t it totally cool that all these people are using their cars as e-jitneys and renting out couches in their apartments to strangers from the internet? Uh, no. Absolutely not. These are hallmarks of a desperate and degraded people. And what kind of sick shit test was Lyft’s pink mustache? What sort of freak or servile loser would drive around with something that embarrassing on the grill of her (or, worse, his) car?

It doesn’t speak well to the character of Millennials that we, as a generation, countenance this sort of unctuousness. Meanwhile, more than a few of us are mixed up in this beef with the Boomers for screwing us over, while the Boomers bug us for being milquetoasts and the Gen Xers fade back into the woodwork again because they don’t care for all the noise. This generational donnybrook allows the Social Security debate to double as another handy reason to be pissed off at mom and dad. If you’re angry at your parents and grandparents for spending all your Social Security money, maybe you’ll also be pissed at them for driving you around with “Baby on Board” stickers and handing out participation trophies like door prizes. Yeah, these things were stupid and obnoxious, but they’re really the reason why you’re such a mewling loser? The fuck? What about the part about not growing a pair, setting some boundaries, and making your own goddamn decisions instead of deferring to some marketeering hive mind? That doesn’t have anything to do with your sorry-ass way of relating to the world?

This sleazy clickbait writer at Buzzfeed wrote an article about the desultory socioeconomic maturation of young people using nothing but daft generational tropes. You won’t believe what happened next.

Hey, this shit gets published because people read it. It may explain some things about our politics.

We forget, perhaps, that the Boomers will pass. They’re special, and far be it from them to let the rest of us forget this, but they, too, are dust in the wind. This means that the particulars of their demographics, i.e., being an exceptionally large birth cohort with exceptionally few children of their own, will be worked out over the next few decades as they inexorably kick the bucket. I don’t look forward to dealing with them in the nursing homes, what with their not being ones to go gentle into that good night, but that’s why I haven’t gone to nursing school. Also, chemistry prerequisites. Just because the Boomers didn’t do their own part towards having one child born in this world to carry on doesn’t mean that the rising generations will follow their suit.

Birth rates are neither static nor stuck on inexorable trends. To a huge extent they’re self-correcting, a truth that pisses off moralists, technocratic progressives, and the like to no end. The conception and rearing of children is written into the source code. Just because the Boomers were too self-absorbed or whatever to make babies doesn’t change this in the slightest. The ramifications of this barrenness can be shitty, but they’re transitory, and they’re easily remedied every time some fool like Levi Johnston rawdogs his girlfriend and she decides that she’s ready for motherhood. There’s a cottage industry devoted to bitterly complaining about single motherhood and the trashy conventions of maintaining “baby mommas” and “baby daddies,” but these scolds are spitting into the wind. Homegirl and her stud have figured out coparenting without their help, and they’ve also figured out that it’s wise to avoid the sort of scorched-earth divorces that result from losing sight of the baby thing because, like, yo, we have a kid and shit. This is why their references to the parents of their children feature “baby.” The family values you ordered are not necessarily the family values you get, but do you want a culture of life or don’t you? Love it or leave it, mofo.

Neither is the severe inequality of present-day American society static. I’m still looking in vain for the inflection points that will mark the pendulum swing away from incipient feudalism, but they’re probably coming before long. Maybe some of them are already here.  A society based on raw aggression towards the vulnerable, the decent, the honest, and the productive is metastable at best. As things stand now, there isn’t a hell of a lot of popular legitimacy for the present regime of dog-eat-dog inequality, especially as it pertains to public policy. Much of what’s holding it together is Boomer political inertia and political resignation on the part of the disaffected young. The current socioeconomic regime may fall apart a lot faster and more completely than most people expect. As Yogi Berra said, predictions are hard, especially when they concern the future. (The “fork in the road” line is a legitimate step in directions to his house in fancy-pants North Jersey.)

What this means for Social Security is that payroll deductions will jump if wages rise and jobs are brought back out of the black and gray markets. The underground economy has doubled in size to about two trillion dollars per year since the start of the current depression. This is serious money. The number of people of working age per person of retirement age is inelastic, but the contribution per working-age adult to a pension fund is much more elastic than the Chicken Littles suggest. Contribution caps and deduction percentages can be raised, workers can be brought back into the formal economy, wages can be increased: the Social Security current account fund is not in hale health, but neither is it on its deathbed. Managed prudently and combined with other social policies that aren’t insane (like treating housing as a utility instead of a speculative pump-and-dump investment scam), it should be more than enough to at least keep the indigent elderly in some state of baseline material security until long after I’ve gone on to my reward. That is, as long as our societal values include not forcing people to spend their dotage eating dog food in tarpaper shacks.

Paradoxically, Medicare is in even better structural shape than Social Security precisely because it has been infested by so many self-dealers. The sheer amount of waste, fraud, and featherbedding surrounding Medicare give it an immense capacity for cutting expenditures without sacrificing patient care. Just imagine how far Medicare expenditures could go if they were diverted from today’s extortionate private hospitals to government hospitals whose administrators and clinicians were on fixed pay grades comparable to those in the military or the civil service, the principle being that the government will give them stable employment at lucrative salaries with no need to be their own salesmen in exchange for their doing honest work when needed and refraining from price-gouging and boiler room scams.

Will something like this ever happen in the United States? Maybe. But only if we come across the brains and the balls to tell the likes of Barack Obama that we knew Tommy Douglas, and Mr. President, you’re no Tommy Douglas.

Y’all up north might want to use similar language with Harper.


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