Time to Touch the Third Rail

We create our own problems. Case in point: Social Security. The original intent was to ensure solvency for those who could no longer work because of age, disability, or loss of a husband. Worthy intention, to be sure. But I’m always reminded of a book I read once with the title Beyond Good Intentions. The thesis of the book was that good intentions do not necessarily lead to good policies. In fact, quite often the policies undermine the original intent. That’s what’s happening with Social Security.

FDR signed this into law back in 1935. It was one of a multitude of programs in the New Deal that had no basis in constitutional authority. That was mistake number one. It was built on the philosophy that the private sector could be milked to create a welfare state. Mistake number two. It didn’t take into account longer life spans in the future [knowing the future is usually rather difficult, don’t you think?] and the mushrooming number of individuals who would one day be claiming the benefit. Mistake number three.

What began as a program where one recipient was funded by approximately thirty people paying into the system inexorably degenerated into a bankrupt debacle. For the first time, this past year, more funds were going out of the system than were coming in. Needless to say, this can’t go on forever. But few are the politicians who wish to touch this “third rail” of American politics—they risk losing their political lives.

President Bush tried to make a minor modification to Social Security by proposing that individuals should be able to designate a small amount of their “contribution” [how’s that for a euphemism—forced to make a contribution—I thought contributions were voluntary] into some stock, if they chose to do so. The third rail struck again. Cries of “you’re taking away our Social Security” rent the air.

Let me be clear: since the government made the promise, no matter how unconstitutional it was, it has to fulfill the promise. We have poured our “contributions” into this monstrosity all our lives, so we should get some of it back. I learned, though, how the system worked when my dad died in 2004. While he was still alive, both he and my mom were receiving Social Security checks. After he died, she lost hers, since she was only allowed the larger of the two.

That would never happen if the money were truly yours. Don’t believe the lie that you have a trust fund set aside just for you.

Something has to change; we are at the breaking point. But instead of tackling the problem at its root, we settle for tinkering with the edges of it.

Now is the time for political courage. Who will show the way?