Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Social Security reform and the polls

Jerry Stratton, April 27, 2005

I think some of the talk about social security as an issue dropping in the polls may be missing the point. First, George Bush isn’t running for anything personally. If he believes social security reform is important for America, or for himself, or for wealthy hospital donors, he can afford to push it. Now, congress may not be able to afford to push it because congress doesn’t have term limits, but it depends a whole lot on how much people will remember votes on social security reform.

Because if congress takes a long-term view, social security reform may still win. As it currently stands, social security creates supporters of some form of it; everyone in the United States who has a normal job has a stake in social security. Everyone who is now receiving social security has a stake in making sure that everyone who is not receiving social security keeps paying in.

People talk about how social security is a “safety net”, but we pay enough in that it’s really a significant portion of our retirement. That poll after poll indicates younger workers believe they’re not going to get anything from it shows the potential for future political goodwill if some group can successfully reform it.

I don’t know what’s behind those poll answers for the rest of my generation, but I treat social security a lot like those rebates in electronics stores: I’ll send in the form, and if the rebate check comes back that’s great, but the rebate does not factor into my purchase decision. I understand the need for workers today to keep paying for the promises that previous generations made on our behalf; but I will also understand if the next generation decides to renege on the promises we made on their behalf.

We can’t call it retirement savings, because the money that people are paying in now is not their money. The money coming out doesn’t have to be tied to the money coming in, because the money coming in doesn’t have to be paid back until another generation.

This is how we can pretend that there is money in a “social security trust fund” when the “fund” is just a bunch of IOUs used to make current budget payments that have nothing to do with social security. Past attempts to segregate social security from the general budget have always failed, because people don’t care and politicians benefit more from spending the money now than they do from keeping it safe.

That’s part of what Bush’s social security reform is trying to change: Bush wants to partially link current payments to future benefits. This, theoretically, requires more fiscally sound policies, because those IOUs are now IOUs on actual money we as workers are saving up.

Because of this, once the change to personally-identifiable benefits takes place, current voters will be less likely to support taking that money away. They are more likely to support--with votes--keeping the government’s hands off “their savings”. And more likely to support keeping responsibility for their own benefits.

Part of the problem for Republicans is that people do think they “own” and “deserve” their social security benefits. The problem is that those benefits are not the taxes that they put in; what they claim to own and deserve are the taxes a later generation is putting in or will put in. This makes it more difficult to do Republican things such as reduce taxes, and it makes it easier to shuffle social security taxes into the general budget which makes it more difficult to do Republican things such as reduce the size of government. Each individual’s benefits aren’t coming from the taxes they put in, but rather from taxes that haven’t been paid yet.

Bush--and presumably the Republicans--are hoping that reform will mean a long-term shift towards supporting Republican values of limited government and lower taxes.

In other words, they want the next generation’s AARP to become knee-jerk Republican supporters, fighting Democrat attempts to take away seniors’ hard-earned personal accounts.

Because of this expected effect, polls don’t necessarily matter as much. Further, polls are often misleading because they generally don’t measure how votes will change. People may say that they oppose or support a particular issue, but unless they care enough about it to change their votes it doesn’t matter.

You can see the same thing with medical marijuana. Polls consistently show strong support for allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients that need it, but politicians don’t care. The only voters who care enough to vote based on the marijuana issue are either (a) so wedded to Democrats that neither Democrats nor Republicans need pay attention to them, (b) felons who can’t vote, or (c) about to die anyway.

If you read between the lines, you see the same thing possibly happening here.

“It doesn't look good,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a policy research organization in Washington. No recent poll shows Bush with an approval rating higher than 35 percent on Social Security, she said. “The issue is fading” she said. Voters “seem a little bored with it.”

The question is whether Bush can turn that apathy into getting the reform through, or whether supporters of social security in its current form can turn that apathy into blocking reform.

What Republicans--or at least, Bush and company--are probably hoping for is that social security benefits are currently so disconnected from social security payments that most voters, while they may say they oppose reform, don’t care enough about it to base their votes on it. It won’t change current benefits, after all. But it is the kind of change that encourages individual ownership of benefits in the future. The longer that personal accounts survive reform, the more likely that those Republican-claimed values are to resonate among job-holding voters.

And because it is social security, and because they believe in it again, voters will respond with votes.

If it works, it will be interesting to see if Republicans will actually continue to support lower taxes and smaller government. The outlook there isn’t so hot. But that itself may be part of why Bush and his ideological team are pushing for social security reform now: they want to get the voters on the Republican side before the Republican party leaves it.

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