Monday, July 16, 2018

Smith: Fixing Social Security starts with the voters

Writing for Market Watch, Brenton Smith argues that the responsibility for the failure to enact Social Security reform isn’t merely Congress’s fault; rather, it’s due to voters who don’t have a strong understanding of the program and the problems it faces:

Here’s a hard truth: Politicians are not problem solvers. They are consensus builders, distilling a range of ideas into actionable legislation. It is their job to shake hands and scratch backs until sufficient agreement emerges that a proposal is generally acceptable to voters.

In order for that process to thrive, there has to be some fabric of fact on which to build consensus. Today that foundation does not exist. Instead, the discussion of Social Security has devolved into a contentious shouting match in which hyperbole and myth frequently pass for truth. No sensible politician will attempt to build agreement in that forum of discussion.

I think Smith is partly true. Yes, voters don’t understand Social Security policy very well. Guess what? Members of Congress don’t understand it too well either.

But I think they both understand it well enough. The root of the problem, as I see it, is that – for all the talk of  helping our grandchildren – both voters and politicians selfish. Voters, or at least the median voter, would prefer to stick tomorrow’s generation with the tough decisions rather than having to bear those costs today. Politicians would rather acquiesce to that than lose re-election.

This, I think, is a major reason why educational campaigns on Social Security (or Medicare, or the debt) haven’t succeeded. The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, although that knowledge deficit surely exists. It’s human nature, a desire to favor yourself over other people, even if those other people are your grandchildren.

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