Sunday, March 13, 2005

'Protect the vulnerable' vs. 'Own your own fate'

There's an in interesting WaPo analysis of the 'anachronisms' of the current Social Security system and how they are contributing to the current fight. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Social Security is riddled with other anachronisms and oddities. The biggest is that the early retirement age has been set at 62 ever since 1961, without any adjustment for rising life expectancy. As a result, ever-larger shares of total benefits go to people who have probably another 10 or 20 years to live. If people today were to live in retirement for the same number of years as they did when Social Security was young, they wouldn't start receiving benefits until their early seventies, not 63, which is the average retirement age today. Thus, Social Security has morphed into a middle-age retirement system even though the very old have greater healthcare needs, can work less, and are more likely to have no spouses to help out.

That's why those Bush foes who insist on protecting the Social Security program exactly as it is are misguided. By the same token, Bush has not made the original Social Security mission -- protecting the vulnerable -- his primary one. The president has focused instead on giving Americans "ownership" over their retirement benefits by creating private accounts, which simply give back the most to those who pay in the most.

There are some interesting points here. The first is that the biggest 'problem' with Social Security, the one that none but the bravest politicians wants to address, is the retirement age. Yet it is one of those solutions that makes sense based on the original intent of the program.

But the second paragraph is even more interesting. It correctly points out that Bush has not made 'protecting the vulnerable' his primary mission. But the reason he hasn't is because Bush fundamentally does not believe that the government should be involved in 'protecting the vulnerable'. For him to adopt that as his mission would be inconceivable. 'Protecting the vulnerable' is a frame that would play to Democratic strengths.

Finally, the analysis is off the mark when it suggests that defenders are 'misguided' by not allowing for changes to the program. I don't know of anyone who says that Social Security is perfect. But the battle as it is joined right now is an assault on the fundamental nature of the program and, as such, this requires its defenders to be resolute in their defense. Once the programs future is secured from the attack of those who want to destroy it, then we can begin talking about correcting some of its real problems. Maybe we could even begin to discuss the troublesome issue of the retirement age.


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