Monday, November 29, 2004

Abolishing social security: the cornerstone of Bush's political ambition

As usual, James Surowiecki’s most recent article provides a succinct and illuminating account of an important subject, in this case, what’s at stake with Bush’s proposed “reforms” to social security. Here's how Surowiecki summarizes Bush's agenda:

In place of unwieldy government programs run by busybody bureaucrats, Bush wants Americans to have more independence and more choices regarding their health care, their savings, and their retirement. Social Security would be partially privatized, with people allowed to put aside money in individual accounts. Private health-insurance plans would compete with Medicare…. Fair enough. All things being equal, letting people make decisions for themselves will produce smarter outcomes, collectively, than relying on government planners.
Surowiecki then goes on to explain how Social Security, as its name implies, is directly tied to a certain vision of risk mitigation. In essence, it's designed to help ensure individual security within an economic system (capitalism) which creates risks and uncertainties are beyond the control of individuals.

As such, the very existence of Social Security tacitly acknowledges the powerlessness of most individuals in the face of secular macroeconomic market forces and events -- and of course assumes that the government is the right institution to protect individuals from those forces and events:

The ownership society promises freedom, but at the price of a huge shift in risk, away from government and society and onto individual citizens. Social Security, Medicare, insurance—these are basically collective risk-sharing mechanisms. Rather than let each person run the risk of ending up destitute or sick, these programs pool the risk. Because the risk is shared, it can be managed, and people can be guaranteed a minimally acceptable outcome. In Bush’s brave new world, that guarantee will be eliminated.

Generally, we want people to reap the benefits of their own successes and pay a price for their failures. But Social Security and Medicare are designed to protect people from things they have little control over—risk of illness, risk of macroeconomic change, risk of industrial obsolescence. To manage that kind of risk, you have to do it collectively. What’s more, as the political scientist Jacob Hacker has pointed out, Americans’ everyday lives are considerably riskier than they used to be. Jobs are less secure. Health-care costs are increasingly difficult to plan for. And the pace of technological change—which can lay waste to entire industries almost overnight—is faster than ever. So now may not be the best time to undermine the few programs that provide people with some protection against bad decisions and bad luck....

Freedom of choice is a beautiful thing. But the Bush plan is asking you to swap an insurance policy for a lottery ticket.

In other words, under the system the Bush regime is proposing, you not only need to work hard all your life – which Social Security requires anyway – but you also need to be a shrewd investor, and as well as hope there is no massive stockmarket downturn as you're planning to retire. If you luck or skill fails in any of these areas, you’re going to be very poor when you’re old. (How you feel about that prospect has a lot to do, at very a profound level, with how you assess risk. How good Americans are at assessing risk is a subject we'll return to later.)

What I’d like to add to Surowiecki's insights is some historical context, to explain the political and social meaning of the government program known as Social Security, or rather more generally, the social and political meaning of the welfare state in the United States. What we'll see is that George Bush's effort to "reform" social security is really at the heart of Bush's effort to create a political coalition dedicated to transforming the United States in social terms.

The thing to understand about Social Security is that the program emerged in the 1930s not just because it provided a solution to a real public policy problem, namely the horror of poverty in old age after a lifetime of diligent work, but also because Franklin Roosevelt saw that it would create a vast new set of loyal constituents for the politician and the party who pushed it through. In a very real sense, Social Security was not just a social program, but also the cornerstone of the New Deal political coalition of blacks, urban working class whites, and social liberals.

Although academics have always lamented the limited nature of the American welfare state, in political terms social security was an enormous success – as Republicans have long acknowledged between gritted teeth. Indeed, the very aspects of the program that are now causing it to creak with age (its standard retirement age, its lack of means-testing, its pay-as-you-go funding) are precisely the things that made it so politically effective: that it was a program everyone could expect to benefit by has made it both very popular and very hard to reform.

The other crucial political dimension of Social Security, that must be acknowledged frankly, is that the political benefits of the program have accrued almost solely to the Democrats. For seventy-five years, the Democrats have painted the Republicans (as we will now see, presciently) as the party dedicated to representing rich people’s interests, biding its time to kill Social Security. Until Bush, Republicans have always whined unconvincing denials on this subject, and in any event not had the temerity to take on the dismantling of the program, despite their clear political ardor to do so.

(Why Bush will likely be successful in challenging this 75 year political ascendency is a question I'll address in a different post. Let me just suggest here that as long as the Democrats actually offered some sincere opposition to the depredations of unfettered capitalism, their championing of Social Security was an effective and fair way to attack the Republicans, and to appeal to populist voters. Once their view of capitalism became indistinguishable from the party of the capitalists, they basically lost their bearings....)

What’s even more interesting about Social Security, and less well understood, is its social significance. As Surowiecki points out, Social Security is mainly about shielding people from economic risks they can't control as individuals. But here's the rub: by creating a less individually risky economic environment, Social Security (and other social insurance programs) have allowed Americans to take more social risks. If you don’t have to worry about starving to death in your old age, it’s a lot easier to express social opinions that horrify your community, to be a religious non-comformist, to be openly gay, or what have you.

In short, when the state provides you with economic guarantees, it’s a lot easier to blow off your community's social constraints. Once the state, rather than the traditional community, becomes the safety net, individuals no longer need be nearly as attentive to the constraints that traditional communities impose. This is what Germans mean when they speak of "Gemeinschaft": not just a community in the general English sense of the term, but much more specifically a social order in which economic production and social connectedness are inseparable.

This brings me to the main sociological point I'd like to make here: Right-wingers are thus quite right to assert that there is, at some deep level, a unity between social license and the welfare state. And the Democrats need to think long and hard about what this insight means for them politically.

Americans on the left like to suggest that right-wingers have a heartless social vision of a world without any social services, where the only relationships between people are ones defined by the market. That’s partly because leftists tend to believe that Marx was right to claim that capitalism has “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”

But right-wingers take a significantly different view. They think what has sundered these idyllic relations was not the cash nexus or the market, but rather the coming of the welfare state. Sure, they’ll concede, capitalism has some responsibility for a minor increase in licentiousness, mainly because it increases the number of rich people, and the rich have always been able to get away with licentious (because they were less exposed to economic risk). Mitigating the tendential licentiousness of the rich, however, has been their innate desire for social respectability. Right-wing thought has generally leaned heavily on the hope that social ladder-climbing would effectively restrain the behavior of the rich.

The real issue, however, has always been what to do about the poor. The yearning for respectability never was going to be an effective restraint on their moral behavior. They were poor, and thus were never going to be socially respected. Rather, what would restrain them, the right hoped, was the same thing that restrained them in earlier times: traditional morality, embodied by the church. If the poor could only be driven back into the church, they'd be restrained, and oh yes, taken care of materially.

As contemporary American right-wingers see it, the welfare state has ruined this proposition: by shielding poor people from economic risk, it has made membership in local community institutions optional, thus lowering the barriers of social restraint. Without the fear of being without a home, without health benefits, without support in old age, there has been little to curb the poor's social deviance. With the arrival of the welfare state, even the poor could now behave however they liked, and they’d still have a warm place to sleep when they got old. This is why the welfare state, including its central pillar, Social Security, has to go.

In a nutshell, American right-wingers hope that abolishing the welfare state will set in motion the reconstruction of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx believed capitalism was permanently sundering. In Bush's political vision, social services will be delivered not by a state that demands no social conformity of its citizens, but rather by “faith-based institutions” that will without apology demand social and moral conformity to community standards as a condition of receiving social assistance. The poor and dusky will once again be “bound to their ‘natural superiors.’” Rolling back the welfare state and creating a more god-fearing society thus go hand-in-hand.

Even more crucially, the destruction of Social Security and the welfare state will force the poor back into churches, which are now largely Republican political machines. Thus destroying the welfare state not only further undermines the New Deal coalition, but directly reinforces the Bush coalition. This is the true political ambition of Bush's "the ownership society": to create a legal and institutional system that will ground Bush's political coalition in the same way that FDR's reforms around social insurance and collective bargaining grounded his coalition for a generation.

This account explains why George Bush and Karl Rove express admiration for FDR, even while dedicating themselves to abolishing his legacy. Bush and Rove understand how Social Security formed the cornerstone of a hugely successful political coalition based on an implicit but deeply rooted vision of what America stood for. But more than that, they understand how Social Security enacted that social vision, in other words, how Social Security helped create the society that it envisioned. In purely political terms, Bush cannot help but admire FDR’s audacity and entrepreneurship.

But if Bush appreciates FDR's political accomplishment, he hates the content of the social vision that Social Security embodies and instantiates, namely a society that socializes economic risk so that people can take more chances in their personal life, and cease to be dependent on the ball and chain of tradition. By abolishing Social Security and thus forcing the poor back into the arms of the church, the Republicans hope to emulate in reverse FDR’s success in building a political coalition by instantiating a social vision. Such an accomplishment would be the capstone of Bush's political career.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't buy this: "Right-wingers are thus quite right to assert that there is, at some deep level, a unity between social license and the welfare state." To clarify: Right-wingers may believe it; but, I don't think it's true.

Social Security surely doesn't provide the poor or middle class with the same "liberties" as the rich. In most cases, Social Security is barely enough to live a meager existence. Recipients of Social Security are doubtfully picking up their check, breathing a sigh of relief and then heading off to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered protest march.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question. I believe that a right-winger would argue that social welfare fosters social pathology such as divorce and crime. While this may be true, one should note that these social pathologies are not political in the strict sense of the term. That is, they are not expressions of collective action for the sake of acquiring or wielding political power.

To borrow from pop culture, just compare "The Simple Life" with "Trading Spouses," both, I might add, from FOX. In "The Simple Life," Paris and Nicole express utter contempt and disdain for the poor. They are mildly amoral, lecherous and amusing. In "Trading Spouses," it is typically the poor black mom who ends up in the white-owned McMansion. She is the moral anchor of the show as she tries to control the white kids and father who are spoiled and morally irreverent. Meanwhile, the white mom who ends up in the hood complains about her deprivation.

So, while it may be true that right-wingers think that they can restrain the poor by eliminating welfare, I don't think a life that will be increasingly nasty, brutish and short will deliver much. People will undoubtedly flock to churches. But, it was the 1960s, not the 1930s, that demonstrated the progressive power of organized churches.

To me, the question that we should be asking is this: Can the Republicans sustain a religious coalition that extends beyond Evangelical churches? The American fundamentalists have no where else to go if they want to have power at a national level. For everyone else, the Dems potentially offer an alternative.