Bush's Social Security Reform Language is Misleading
By Kenneth Nivison
January 26, 2005
President Bush has used a handful of powerful words to frame his dialogue on Social Security: Crisis. Problem. Bankrupt. Bust. Broken. The problem, it seems, is that citizens do not have enough ''control.''
To hear the president tell the tale, the nation needs to act immediately, or else there will be no Social Security down the road. This is a false and misleading argument, as Social Security will never go bankrupt so long as people continue to pay into it. His argument has selectively focused on the economics of Social Security buttressed by conservative ideology, which holds that the market, not government, can be better trusted to do right by individuals. However, historical perspective is absent in this discussion. As with our dealings in foreign affairs, we can ill afford to talk about the future of the New Deal's signature program without first understanding its origin, development, and meaning for all Americans.
The promise of Social Security, from its inception in 1935 through its expansion in the decades that followed, was that American citizens would create, maintain, and be able to rely on a financial safety net against what Franklin Roosevelt called ''the great disturbing factors in life,'' namely, unemployment, disability and old-age insolvency.
It was clearly a product of its time. In the 1930s, western democracy was in trouble because its economic bedfellow, market capitalism, had created economic ruin more widespread than the prosperity it had forged in the previous decade. More than one-quarter of all Americans workers were unemployed. As increasing numbers of Europeans goose-stepped their way through this depression, FDR and the American people chose a different option: collective security through collective risk.
With Social Security, no American would be left behind in time of personal economic crisis. This promise of a safety net quickly became a defining characteristic of American citizenship in the 20th century. It was, and is, a moral covenant among Americans, not just an economic relationship between the people and its government. Through Social Security, Americans have bound each other to each other, giving new meaning to the phrase ''United We Stand.'' It is, quite simply, the best manifestation of our civic best.
Yet, nowhere in the current dialogue do we hear anything about a moral covenant. Nowhere do we hear about the basic principles of fairness and decency that inspired the original Social Security Act. And nowhere, certainly, do we hear an honest discussion about what triggered the need for Social Security in the first place: the capriciousness of market capitalism.
Americans and their president often treat democracy and capitalism as though they are one and the same. Indeed, it would seem that the role of democratic government is solely to further the interests of market capitalism. Yet, the 1920s and 1930s provide a cautionary tale about using a democracy in this fashion. Those who crafted Social Security recognized the folly in making the government subservient to the economic system. Social Security acknowledged that a commitment to the market must always come second to the basic needs of all citizens, that capitalism could not be trusted to secure democracy. Capitalism needed to serve democracy, not the other way around, as had been the case for several decades leading up to the Great Depression.
As the history of Social Security illustrates, adjustment to the program is necessary over time. Yet, privatization in any form would recast Social Security as social insecurity, making the program in part, or perhaps even in whole, subject to the same whims of market capitalism that have been responsible for the widespread job loss, the crisis in health care, the rise in gasoline prices, the embarrassingly large trade deficit, and the under-publicized income and wealth gap, which is as great now as it has ever been.
Americans would do well to remember one of the many lessons their parents and grandparents learned during the Great Depression: The market is designed to leave people behind. So long as President Bush ignores this painful lesson, the debate over how best to ensure Social Security's future will be built on false premises. Policy derived from such a process can only serve to place the health of our democracy in further jeopardy.
Kenneth Nivison is assistant professor of history at DeSales University in Center Valley.
Press Release: Bush's Social Security Reform Language is Misleading by Kenneth Nivison | Posted on: 1/26/2005
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