Who Broke the 'Promise' of Social Security?

In the Social Security debate, the one thing that every politician and media analyst seems to agree upon is that however Social Security is eventually saved, benefits for each retiree must not be reduced. To do so is unthinkable, because it would break the ??¢â???¬?????promise??¢â???¬  of Social Security. People have done their part, it is argued. They??¢â???¬â???¢ve paid their odious payroll taxes for decades and done so with the confidence that it was for a reason — that in the end they would be provided for, at some humble level, in the twilight of their lives.

But what, exactly, was the ??¢â???¬?????promise??¢â???¬  that is now the most sacred cow in all of politics? It??¢â???¬â???¢s a very strange promise indeed that would seem to require us to eventually consume unthinkable portions of the economy just to keep it. And why have we been able to keep the promise for 70 years now, only to have it seem so untenable today? Did the promise change?

Let??¢â???¬â???¢s examine the promise as it was originally made to America by the New Dealers in the depths of the Great Depression. Social Security promised people who had not been able to provide for their individual retirements with their individual funds that — were they to simply pool their resources — they would be able to provide for their common retirements with their common funds. Essentially it promised that what was insufficient for one, when multiplied by ten, would somehow then be sufficient for ten — or perhaps even eleven. Lacking the power to recapitulate the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the government pulled this trick off by adding an extra ingredient: theft.

The theft took several forms; one was income redistribution (shortchanging those who paid most to give to those who paid least). Another was a form of involuntary insurance in which everyone would be required to pay into the system, but anyone who died before retirement would get little back out, thus leaving more money for those who could still vote, i.e. the living. But the most important theft was intergenerational theft. The original recipients had paid little, if anything, into the system, yet received benefits. This was possible through the innovation known to prosecutors as a ??¢â???¬?????Pyramid Scheme??¢â???¬ . While people like to think they are paying for their own future retirement with their Social Security taxes, they are in fact paying for the current retirees. The money is taken from the young and given to the old, who ??¢â???¬?????deserve??¢â???¬  it because they paid for the old back when they were young — all except for the original benefit recipients, who deserved their money for having voted for Roosevelt. The scheme worked, despite the fact that the average retiree received more in benefits than he paid in taxes, because there were always more young than old.

This was especially true at the outset of the program, when the retirement age was suspiciously near the average lifespan of the day. Thus, about half of all people would die before ever receiving a penny, and most of the rest could be counted on to die within a few years of retirement. Additionally, the system was created at a time when sex had a surprisingly direct correlation with pregnancy — the birth control pill having not yet been invented, but sex having been known for some time. So the promise of Social Security, as originally offered, was something along the lines of ??¢â???¬?????Have lots of kids and die young, and we??¢â???¬â???¢ll pay for your brief golden years by stealing from your kids, who??¢â???¬â???¢ll all think it??¢â???¬â???¢s ok, ??¢â???¬????cause later we??¢â???¬â???¢ll steal from their kids too.??¢â???¬ 

Looked at this way, it??¢â???¬â???¢s easy to see why the Social Security system is regarded as the greatest accomplishment of the Democratic party, and why it is the most hallowed of our government programs. That??¢â???¬â???¢s why the people that broke the promise should be so ashamed. These people include anyone who had fewer than five children or lived past 65. The prolific and dead are the bedrock upon which the system is built and deserve a round of applause. The rest of you, however, should stop whining about any proposed cut or alteration in benefits, because you have already failed to live up to your part of the promise, as originally agreed upon. Having unilaterally altered the contract in your favor, you should not be surprised when the whole system then needs recalibrating to take into account your selfish ways. You should be ashamed. But special blame must be heaped upon the drug industry, which as usual, is costing society billions. Were it not for Sulfa drugs, Penicillin, artificial estrogen and the like, the Social Security system would still be solvent as far as the eye can see. It??¢â???¬â???¢s easy to see why Michael Moore has singled the industry out as the target of his next Crockumentary.

But what is the poor government to do now that you have broken the promise? Obviously, it will have no choice but to raise the retirement age since you insist on living so long. (You can still retire whenever you want, you just can??¢â???¬â???¢t expect Social Security to subsidize your prolonged inactivity.) Additionally, it will need to decrease the rate at which benefits are slated to grow. Other common sense measures would include private accounts, as the President has proposed, not paying benefits to amnestied illegal immigrants, and as Phillip Longman has suggested, making it more affordable for people to have children, which are the only investment upon which future prosperity is really based. It is the poverty of children that will actually bankrupt the system, after all.

The only alternatives to such measures are to allow the system to continue to consume a greater and greater portion of our national productivity every generation — or go back to dying early.