The myth of Social Security insolvency

The right wing in the United States has been executing a surprisingly successful public relations campaign to convince individuals that the Social Security system is somehow in dire straits. Paul Ryan — who for some reason continues to be taken seriously — has narrowly focused on Social Security along with Medicare and Medicaid as the chief culprits dragging down federal fiscal policy. Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has made his mark just a few days into his official campaign calling Social Security and the other major entitlements Ponzi schemes, implying that they are inherently unsustainable and destined to collapse.

Every single thing the right wing has been floating out about Social Security is demonstrably false. The tired efforts that have been made to lump Social Security into the deficit mix are the most dishonest of the false claims. As Senator Bernie Sanders points out, Social Security has never contributed a single penny to any deficit in the 76 years it has been around. Social Security is sustained by a dedicated payroll tax that fully funds the program separate from annual discretionary budgets.

Additionally, Social Security is not an inherently flawed pyramid scheme either. Although I cannot believe it is necessary to point this out, the difference between Social Security and actual pyramid schemes is that Social Security never runs out of new enrollees to sustain the system: people continue to have children. While adjustments to outlays or revenue might be needed depending on population dynamics, the system itself is as inherently sound as the propagation of new generations is.

The actual issues with the solvency of Social Security are extremely minor. The massive Social Security trust fund will allow the program to pay out benefits at the current level until 2038. At that point — absent modifications to the program — revenues will only be able to pay out 81 percent of promised benefits. That is to say, if the federal government did absolutely nothing over the next 27 years to shore up Social Security, a one time cut of 19 percent in 2038 would make the program solvent into the infinite horizon. This would be a sub-optimal way forward, but it underscores how solid Social Security is: even at 1.9 workers per retiree, the program could pay out at 81 percent of the current, inflation-adjusted rate without increasing revenue at all.

Contrary to the doomsday naysaying of the right wing, any number of small modifications could be made to completely close the forthcoming Social Security shortfall without dramatic one-time benefit cuts. According to the Congressional Budget Office, increasing the FICA payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 7.8 percent right now would completely close the coming gap. So a revenue-only solution which kept the current regressive payroll tax structure in place would only require levying a 1.6 percent tax. Ending the payroll tax cap which exempts every dollar made over $106,800 from payroll taxes would, by itself, close the shortfall.

In addition to these revenue-focused solutions, modifications to benefits could also be considered. One plan brought up in the debt-ceiling theatre was to change the way the Social Security cost of living adjustments are made. By using a different index for inflation, the program could slow down the rate of benefit increases indefinitely, causing outlays to be 9% lower in 30 years than they would be under current law. This plan has attracted some legitimate criticism, but it demonstrates how trivial the trumped up warnings about Social Security insolvency are.

Dozens of mixtures of these different policy approaches would make the program solvent into the infinite horizon. Despite the ease with which the shortfall could be solved, I am doubtful the right-wing would ever do anything to make it happen. Right-wingers like Perry, Ryan, and Bachmann would much rather neglect the easy solutions in order to run the program out of money so that they can justify the GOP’s 50-year effort to finally kill the most successful social program in US history. That they want to kill the program and other entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid is clear enough. Their reasoning for doing so however — that the programs are irretrievably doomed to bankruptcy — is completely baseless.

The American Dream and other attacks on deliberative democracy

The trope of the American Dream, or at least the phrase itself, has been making a comeback within the organizations that represent the American left. Most notably, Van Jones has dubbed his new project The American Dream Movement, and has established as its goal to “rebuild the dream.” What is the dream that we are rebuilding? Van Jones explains:

It’s the dream of a country where, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can live with dignity, provide for your family, and give your kids a better life. A country where we strive for greatness–and take care of each other when times get hard.

The American Dream Movement — assuming we can call a letterhead coalition built around a cult of personality a movement — is certainly not the only group that has summoned the American Dream trope in its messaging. Earlier this year, put out two calls to action in response to the Wisconsin labor battles, one titled “Defend the American Dream” and the other titled “Rally to Save the American Dream.” Even less prominent groups are getting in on the game: the Caring Across Generations campaign recently put out an emergency call to action to “Protect the American Dream” in response to the now-resolved debt-ceiling theatre.

The first thing that strikes me about this messaging is that it is amusingly inconsistent. What are we supposed to be doing with the American Dream exactly? On some sides it appears that we are protecting, saving, and defending it — this implying that it presently exists, but is under attack. On other sides, specifically Jones’ organization, it appears that the American Dream has already been destroyed, and that we are trying to revive it. The communications professionals shaping this messaging need to come together to figure out which line they want to use.

On a more substantive note, using this trope in a way that implies it actually describes the reality of any time in the past or present is marginalizing and simply historically false. The American Dream has always been a myth for all but a select few in the population. Those who call upon the trope typically have in mind the post-WWII era as the period in which the Dream reigned. For groups that are supposed to be leftist in orientation, you would think that romanticizing the 1950s would be something obviously problematic. Suggesting that the time period was one where hard work paid coincidentally ignores the plight of women, people of color, and the poor white underclass, the very constituencies that these organizations attempt to represent.

Of course, dissecting the follies involved in relying on the rhetoric of The American Dream is a fruitless enterprise. It assumes wrongly that the public relations messaging, soundbites, and talking points put out by organizations actually attempt to make substantive points. We have reached a point — or maybe it has always been the case — where all of the communications coming from any prominent group, politician, or company are smothered in sugary manipulation that specifically intends to mislead.

Sadly, we have an entire profession — the public relations profession — whose sole purpose is to pollute public dialogue with slogans and phrases that score well with focus groups while simultaneously being completely devoid of content. Public figures are drilled to stick to limited talking points, and never genuinely engage with ideas or others. You can see this phenomenon in play in any speech, press release, or other communication coming from almost any organization or politician. You can also see it in the presidential debates, a quadrennial spectacle so awful that it can only properly be described as a mind-numbing show of talking point call and response.

What is most troubling about these practices is how functionally anti-democratic they are. Contemporary political philosophers have converged upon a definition of democracy as being “government by discussion.” This understanding of democracy — sometimes referred to as deliberative or discursive democracy — places public deliberation and reasoning at the center of an actually democratic state. The achievement of this state requires certain discourse norms or ethics, a point most prominently brought out by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

One does not need to delve too deeply into the idea of discourse ethics to realize that the present state of dialogue in American politics is antithetical to what would be required for a government by discussion — that is, a democracy. What kind of discussion is it when the most prominent and loudest voices are rattling off slogans and platitudes with the specific intent to avoid substantive ideas and positions? It is not a discussion at all. These “discussions” do not mimic discourse or reasoning; instead, they mimic corporate branding and advertisement.

If we hope to pursue an actual deliberative democracy — one that involves more than filling out ballots — this whole approach to communication needs to be done away with. When an organization uses messaging and communication that is only barely related to its own internal discussions and ideas, that is misleading and anti-democratic. It makes public reasoning and discourse impossible. All sides are guilty of this kind of discourse pollution, but the resurgence of the American Dream trope on the left is unfortunately the most recent instance of it.