Now that I'm done with my Tax Exam - hopefully spiritually
as well as academically - it's time for more discussion of social security.
I'm very excited to report that I've gotten some dissent, some very thoughtful
comments that is, on "my" social security proposal
. Consequently, instead of answering my hypothetical "discouraging savings" objection just yet (which no one has yet raised but me), I'm going to attempt an answer to our readers' objections. My hope is that this is turning into a part of an extended "conversation" on social security within the Christian community - which would be a great thing right now. At the very least, it looks like this "series" on Social Security and Christianity on our blog will continue for some time now. Hope no one is getting bored. (If so, let me know.) Here's one comment I got on my last social security post:
If you let them means test it they'll set the test way too low. Social Security should enable a decent retirement for all at well above the poverty level.We are already far from that. We will go further, still, if we give them this opportunity to trim it back. Meanwhile, plenty of money to conquer Islam to save the world, eh?
Several points in relation to this:
(1) As to the "test way too low" objection:
(a) This is my hypothetical bill, so I can set the means test high enough. Let's say, for example, that any retiree who does not either earn 100K per year or currently possess 500K in savings gets the benefits that year. That solves the objection because anyone with that much money is assured of even more than just a "decent" retirement.
(b) A stronger (more generous) reading of this objection is that it is a purely political one: that the terms of my proposal, once released, will not be fully under my control and will be subject to amendment or compromise by other lawmakers. This objection further assumes that the middle and upper class will side together against the poor and set the benefits too low -- so as not to spend too much on social security. But I think, politically, just the opposite would happen. The only way
we can change social security in the fundamental way that I've proposed is through a sort of "class warfare" that allies the poor and the middle class
against the wealthy. If anything, the means test will be set too high
(i.e., some still realatively wealthy people will get the benefits) because eliminating the benefits for all but the most wealthy would not be politically feasible. If I'm reading your thoughts right, I just think you've analyzed the politics incorrectly.
(2) Connection between means test and benefits. There is no necessary connection between a means test and the extent of benefits those who qualify for the program receive. I think your comment recognizes this, but I want to make sure I'm being clear. I would, indeed, support a means test combined with an increase in benefits for those who do still qualify.
(3) As to the "plenty of money to conquer Islam" objection. This amounts either to (a) a denial that there's really a budget crisis or (b) an objection to using social security specifically to address the budget crisis when we might save money in other ways, say by not spending so much on war.
(a) There is a real budget crisis. The United States is $7.6 trillion in debt. (Check out this interesting national debt counter
.) This amounts to almost $26,000 for each American citizen. Many Americans believe that this money is somehow "paper debt" or otherwise "unreal." This is emphatically not true. The fact that excessive debt makes our currency unstable and makes other countries (our predominant creditors) less likely to lend to us (or to lend to us at reasonable rates) is one reason this debt is real and problematic. More importantly, we have to pay interest
ever year on this debt. Does all this concern about the national debt make me a "fiscal conservative"? In short, no. "Fiscal conservatives," at least as traditionally defined, are concerned about the debt because the interest that we have to pay on the debt keeps taxes high. On the contrary, I'm concerned about the interest that we pay on the debt because this is money that we could be otherwise spending on helping "the least of these." We spend about $3.5 billion annually just paying interest on the national debt. Can you imagine the anti-poverty measures we could adopt with $3.5 billion per year? What if we didn't have this debt and could have given $3.5 billion in aid and development to the countries hit by the tsunami in Asia? How much suffering could this have relieved? How much would it have improved our national standing in the world? In sum, the national debt is very real, and my concern with it is a Social Gospel-derived concern.
(b) The second question, then is whether social security reform via means testing is a good way to address this debt crisis. I believe that it is for several reasons.
First, as a purely political matter, I see no reason why the government should be giving handouts to the wealthy. In the face of the debt crisis described above, dishing out payments to the wealthy who don't need it is profoundly irresponsible.
Secondly, eliminating social security payments for the wealthy would, by definition, not violate the Social Gospel's fundamental concern with the least of these. Everyone in need - all of the least of these - still get support. Hopefully increased support.
Thirdly, eliminating social security payments for the wealthy is not only not inconsistent
with a concern for the least of these, but affirmatively serves
the least of these. To the extent that
social security redistributes payroll taxes (which are paid disproportionately by the middle class and poor) to wealthy retirees, that portion
of social security is profoundly regressive. (Please, please do not misunderstand me as claiming that social security is regressive. I just mean that part
of the program is regressive.) By stopping this redistribution from
the poor to
the rich, we are affirmatively helping the least of these.
My favorite blog reader, DLW
, also made some very insightful points as regards my proposal. Unlike his comments sometimes are, these were not over my head. (It stinks when people who evaluate my thoughts are smarter than I am!) I do have some thoughts on DLW's comments, and I will post them in the next installment. But since his comments came later, and because this post is already long, that'll have to wait.