Acton Institute Powerblog

Treading Water on Social Security

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

According to Census Bureau estimates, the population of the United States will hit 300,000,000 sometime in the next couple weeks.

Discussion of the significance of this demographic milestone, such as the latest issue of US News & World Report brings to mind a related topic: social security. Having harped on social security reform for some time, I gave it a rest for a while. But the issue hasn’t gone away. All the dire projections of a shortfall in social security—and other entitlements tied to the aging of America’s population, such as Medicare—have simply become clearer and more certain over the course of the last couple years.

President Bush’s talk of reform gave hope to some, but the reality has been little more than treading water (conceding that there have been other pressing concerns with which the administration has had to deal). As the analyses at the Institute for Policy Innovation (see “Entitlement Reform”) show, the problem can’t be ignored forever.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • A. Scott Crawford

    Here’s a link to a collection of papers on Social Security (reform) out of CATO to add to readers bookmarks on this well trod issue:

    Social Security reform is a subject that is not going to go away, and based on conversations I’ve had with young “up and coming” Congressmen from both Parties, the general consensus is that the younger members on both sides of the aisle know they’re being asked to shoulder the political burden. For example: well before President Bush tried to take on the issue, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-TN) and his staff actually drafted a SS reform bill and put in on the floor with a GOP member as bi-partisan. Sadly, the leadership of Rep. Ford’s Party seems to have pressured him into backing out (notice no younger “Blue Dog” Democrats participated in the Soc. Sec. reform debate with much vim).

    Full disclosure: However much I personally agree that Soc. Sec. reform should be pursued NOW… the partisan and “slash and burn” strategy undertaken by the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate make sincere pursuit of bi-partisan reforms impossible no matter how much younger “Blue Dog” Democrats and Repubicans (and Libertarians) know reform’s necessary. President Bush and the GOP Senate majority hasn’t been secure enough to engage in a bitter reform fight with the oppositions current leadership (and against a hostile press corps). This being the case, the Administration tested the Soc. Sec. reform waters just enough to know it’d have been burned had it dived into a boiling pot, and at least set the stage for a continuation of the debate in 2009. The President, in my opinion, made a tough decision to back off Soc. Sec. reform at his adivsors behest because it was a fight he wasn’t and isn’t in a position to win. Let’s at least give the man credit for trying and starting a debate that’ll be mean and National for years to come when the easy course would have been to remain silent.

    The interesting contribution of the Bush Administration to refrom has been the zero-sum position the Democratic leadership locked itself into in their anti-Bush mania. Ironically, because the older Democrats have scotched ALL and ANY reforms to Social Security, the Bush Admin has done a great service to younger reformers from across the spectrum who’ll take up the issue in the future.

    By opposing ALL and ANY changes to the existing Soc. Sec. system, the older Democrats left no room for compromise, even on those aspects of SS that are boldly discriminatory and irrational. For example: do any of us really believe that a 65 year old earning $1,000,000 a year from investments should be receiving ANY Social Security benefits? Social Security is supposed to be a “social safety net”… and it’s difficult to see why wealthy retirees have any ethical grounds for receiving benefits. Thus the public debate question should be: “What sense is there in taxing the young and poor to pay the old and rich?” and “What is a reasonable income LIMIT, beyond which ZERO Soc. Sec. benefits are deserved?”

    Another example is the question of civil rights. According to the US census, the average black American male has an average life expectency of 65! Why should so many black American men pay between 5-12% of their wages their entire working lives for a promised retirement income they never live to collect? The death benefits to a black American males family via Soc. Sec. are not a tenth of what his widow and children would receive had his Soc. Sec. payments been allowed to pay for a life insurance policy. By denying ANY alternative savings or safety net to such a large segment of the US electorate, it’s difficult to see the Democrats refusal to negotiate any reform as other than betrayal of their Parties loyalist base!

    The bottom line is that the baby boom generation leaders have offered two alternate courses for Soc. Sec. reform. The Democrats offer: Nothing… even knowing that to do so is unjust and irresponsible. The GOP offers: a timid and tepid something that’s at least open to debate. The fact is that for thirty years Washington has collected BILLION’s of surplus Soc. Sec. payments that BOTH Parties have squandered and stolen. Two generations of American political leaders have “loaned” themselves their childrens and grandchildrens nest eggs interest free without any expectation of being held accountable. Having spoken to so many of the younger generations leaders on both sides, there WILL be an accounting.

    This issue… the misappropriation of generations of Soc. Sec. surplus payments and etc., will become the great generational schism the post war generation has thus far managed to dodge. What redeems the Bush Administration is the attempt to do the ethical thing, however poorly. What condemns the Democrat leadership is their refusal to allow the younger generation of Democrats to even TRY.

  • Robert Peterson

    From my own experience, many of the opponents of Bush’s Social Security reform – investing retirement contributions in the stock and/or bond market – express a fear that the market will tank. That, in itself, is not an irrational fear (and I know people who have been seriously burned in the market.) Such opponents, however, seem to think that government payments, on the other hand, are “guaranteed.” They seem to ignore that these “guaranteed” payments must ultimately be generated by the American economy, and so are ultimately no more “guaranteed” than is the success of the economy. It’s my understanding that (unless the economy is already “over-invested” in) the greater investments that Bush’s plan would lead to would help the economy to be more successful.