A Level Gaze

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Social Security Debate

Tanner's earring. Catches the light, huh?

Last night I saw the Paul Krugman-Michael Tanner-Josh Marshall Social Security debate at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and wanted to jot a few things down while they're fresh in my mind.

The title of the debate was "Social Security: Is it Really a Crisis?" It was very loosely structured as moderated by the rather unbecomingly partisan (our side, of course) Vered Mallon. Also, it wasn't very clear what Josh Marshall was doing there--nominally, he was there as some kind of political analyst, yet Krugman repeatedly apologized for going into "numbers" and "economics." Structurally, the whole thing on the left side of the issue seemed muddled, and the two-on-one (three, if you count Mallon) setup seemed gratuitous, given Krugman's mere presence.

There was nothing muddled about the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner's role, however. He was there to advocate privatization of Social Security, to pooh-pooh the idea that true add-ons have any merit, and to contradict himself as much as possible. Well, the last bit was my impression. It may not have been intentional.

The debate began with Tanner admitting up front that privatization had nothing to do with the solvency of Social Security. This was both smart and stupid: smart, because Krugman would have utterly embarassed him, and stupid, because he then didn't have any reason for being there. He kept alluding to the financing problems the system would have to deal with: when it was going to go broke, how much it was going to cost the government to deal with it, the number of retirees, etc., but always in the context of the need for privatization, so he had to stop short of making his point. Krugman never let the point slide, relentlessly characterizing privatization as an ideological preference, rather than a practical necessity.

The debate format allowed Krugman to get up to speed and really flesh out his arguments, as opposed to the over-the-top catch phrase-laden performances he sometimes gives on television. I overheard one of a trio of early 20-something guys behind me suggest to his friends that if they had a game where they drink every time Krugman bashes the Bush administration, everyone would be drunk in 10 minutes. By my count, they wouldn't have finished their first beer by the end of the debate.

He repeatedly hammered home the point that Social Security is an insurance plan that allows Americans to share the risks of death, injury, and poor lifetime earnings. If that's not the democrats' main talking point going forward, it should be.

I almost wanted to feel bad for Tanner. I mean, going toe-to-toe in a debate with a Nobel-worthy scholar in front of a hostile audience is the worst kind of gig. But he was a standard-issue drone, insensitive to having his glaring logical inconsistencies and outright contradictions pointed out to him, self-importantly cheesy, and visibly dishonest. He may have believed in in some greater purpose that was served by the things he said, but Krugman repeatedly pointed out instances where Tanner had said multiple mutually exclusive things, and it never fazed him. He just kept on beating the same old tired drum.

In his introduction, Tanner claimed that a poll released that day had indicated that 54% of Americans favored private plans. I could see Krugman ask Marshall whether such a poll existed (given that the most recent polls show about a 35% approval rating), and both of them shaking their heads and shrugging in turn.

Josh said he thought the privatization debate was (paraphrasing--hand cramps) about as close to dead as you can get. It was never a good idea, and the Republicans pushed it because they bought their own spin and thus were completely blinded to what the general public would think of it.

Curiously, Tanner didn't even reply to Josh's persuasive case that the ultimate aim of the privatizers was the complete dismantling of Social Security. He made some weak claim that disability benefits, as they exist now, were a part of every plan, but that was it. He didn't deny he wanted to get rid of the program. I don't know if he was saving himself for Krugman, or if he just couldn't make himself say the words.

There was an interesting back and forth between Tanner and Krugman on the subject of whether or not Social Security recipients were supplicants to the government. Somehow, with 4% of their income going into private accounts and 8% into traditional Social Security, according to Tanner, workers would be transformed from beggars into proud individualists. Krugman drily dismissed him.

Tanner made a lot of noise about the inheritability of private accounts, and, unfortunately, neither Paul nor Josh explicitly made the point that inheritability would really only mean something if you die before you're 65. Krugman did do a great job of explaining how Bush's plan works, he just didn't counter the inheritability argumant effectively.

The best moment of the night had to be when Krugman invoked the notion of moral equality, when one doesn't have to defer to others merely because of their wealth. The mere fact of knowing that you can support yourself gives you dignity and standing in society. Once that's gone, equality becomes impossible.