Friday, February 11, 2005

Social Security ignorance and inertia

A poll produced by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, shows a worrying level of ignorance among Americans on the issue of Social Security and its solvency. Decades of relative media inattention to Social Security and its key role in society, coupled with a steadily rising drumbeat of conservative commentary, has undoubtedly contributed to the confusion. The poll notes that a majority of Americans "supports the president's proposal to allow Americans to invest part of their Social Security contributions in stocks or bonds, although opinions on this and other aspects of the president's plan frequently are weakly held and easily moved." [My italics.] The article focuses on one 58-year-old man who thinks that private accounts (sorry - personal accounts) are appealing until he learns of the huge price tag involved (a price tag which, btw, will not actually solve the Social Security shortfall). On balance, this lack of conviction is probably good news for those who, like me, wish to preserve Social Security in its present form. The thing is, most Americans (and me too, I must admit) live in perpetual ignorance about the political issues that influence their lives in what is, let's face it, a horribly complex political system from top to bottom. This is allied to the news media's fundamental inability (or unwillingness) to explain that system and how it works. This results in a political system dominated by lobbyists, big money, and "inside baseball" - and the public just tunes out unless the topic is something they think they can grasp easily, like the "values" issues of abortion, gun control, gay marriage, and all that. I know I sound like a modern-day Walter Lippmann elitist when I say this, but I believe this really is the way it is. Besides, I don't blame the people; I blame the media! (Can't go too far wrong there.)

So the good news is that if Republicans fail to frame Social Security in the media as a simple, one-dimensional "crisis-that-must-be solved-now" issue, Congressional inertia will take over. Multiple plans will emerge, none of which make any sense to the public (or, for that matter, to most legislators), and before long the whole issue will collapse in on itself and the status quo will be left untouched. In case this game plan sounds familiar to you, this is essentially how Clinton's health care plan fell apart in the early 1990s. That time inertia destroyed a potentially good plan; this time the same forces will hopefully destroy a very bad plan. And then we'll just have to wait a few years for a sensible president to appoint blue ribbon commission - of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan variety - to move in and fix the solvency problem in a sensible way. Fingers crossed.


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