Monday, April 11, 2011

Conservatives and the New Social Contract

Defying a clear popular mandate, the author of Contrendium has not made the Great Celestial Checkout. He has simply assumed a new role at his company and moved his family half-way across the country.

I originally wrote this entry in December, shortly after Obama’s deficit reduction commission published the questionably ironic “Moment of Truth” document.

Although the content is a couple months “out of vogue,” I think the general observations still hold true, and my perplexity remains.

I’ve been wondering about the Tea Party’s newfound love affair with social entitlement programs. I have to admit – I am befuddled. Perplexed. One might even say “benighted.” Not often, of course, but one could.

I thought I understood the Tea Party movement to be a popular uprising against the encroachment of the Servile State; a renaissance of the ideals of American liberty and self-determination. So when the White House deficit reduction commission in December recommended some minor adjustments to Social Security eligibility (in 2050 and 2075), the Tea Party was the last place I thought to look for a hostile reaction. If anything, I expected the Left to view this as another indication of Obama’s betrayal of liberal values.

At first, I thought the response was simply jaded political posturing. Allow the enemy no quarter, and all that. After speaking with Tea Party faithful about this, I am persuaded this isn’t the case. “I’ve paid Social Security taxes my whole life, and the American Government needs to keep its contract.” Complete sincerity.

I don’t get it. First of all, look at it from a perspective of personal consequence. Most of them would be dead before the 2050 date, and I will be dead before the 2075 date (possibly earlier if my wife decides the insurance payout is worth it). It doesn’t affect our benefits. The people it does affect are just beginning to pay income taxes, so they have a clear expectation of retirement conditions at the beginning of their career. Which leads to the second point . . . whether social entitlement benefits are an obligatory “contract.”

Perhaps there’s a generational context, here. Given the demographics of the tax base during the Golden Years of “the Greatest Generation,” my grandparents could be reasonably assured of the viability of Social Security and Medicare. Their children seem to have a similarly sanguine perspective, while I fully expect Baby Boomers to attempt everything in their power to vacate the labor-force for an orgy of self-actualization, and to lobby heavily to make opiates and naturopathy allowable medical expenses under Medicare Part D. The disturbing thing here is the real and proportionally shrinking labor base left with the responsibility of funding The Last Great Trip. In 1950, there were 16 people in the workforce for every Social Security beneficiary. In 1960, that number had decreased to 5. Presently, there are 3 wage earners for every beneficiary, and in 2025, that number will be 2.3. The only hope of retaining some portion of Baby Boomers in the workforce and prolonging the Day of Reckoning is their legendary self-indulgence. They are crappy savers. When they eventually moved back home from their training in Ayurvedic Bowel Control in India and started saving, they had the bright idea of making up for lost time by loading up on “high-return” funds (also known as “high volatility), which is fine, as long as you’re not lookin’ like David Crosby. So maybe that plan didn’t play out so well, and they might decide to slog it out with the rest of us drones for a while longer. Regardless, they still view their Social Security benefits as real, while those in my generation view them as “aspirational.” We might get them, we might get a part of them, and we might not.

So there’s the issue of personal consequence, the skewed generational expectations, and lastly the question of definition and history. When did people begin to look at these social entitlement programs as a “contract for future benefits?” There were always pay-forward programs, meaning the current labor force was funding current benefit payments. Furthermore, the expectation of those payouts, at the time these programs were created, assumed a lower average life expectancy. When Social Security was created, average life expectancy was 64, meaning you would only expect to collect benefits for a couple of years. It’s now 78, but the eligibility for normal retirement age has not kept pace with that increase in life expectancy. The proposal of the commission was relatively modest – increase the normal retirement age to 68 in 2050, and 69 in 2075. Either we decrease the payout amounts, increase the age threshold, or increase the contributions of the current labor force. I thought the Tea Party would be with me on this one, but apparently, they are so fixated on some abstract moral principle that they will fight to the death to protect the entitlement programs they love to hate.

They say that extremes meet at some point. Atheists take on an air of religious fanaticism. Fascism and Socialism blend together in some sort of Statist nightmare. I guess I now see an entire movement of Libertarians espousing the virtues of New Deal social programs. Maybe there’s a subtle distinction in there, but it eludes me at the moment. I’m waiting to hear Sarah Palin speak of Eleanor Roosevelt as a “mama grizzly,” and then I will know we have arrived.

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