Glad to be a Miamian…

Just got back from a debate on campus. The topic was Social Security and, of course, whether or not said system ought to be reformed. As is usually the case, I had several things to say and did not make the miniscule effort which standing up to share would have required. The moderator – Dr. Voth, faculty advisor for the University debate team – made it clear that the event was centered on audience involvement. As a result, much of the hour was spent with him looking at us and us looking at him and all the cool kids talking to their friends instead of making any attempt to pay attention. It was the people who contributed who made me happier than usual that I go to Miami.

As far as college campuses go, Miami University is a very conservative place. Which means most of our liberals are either mainstream enough to make reasonable arguments, or outnumbered enough to sit quietly. No tirades about King Chimpy’s plans to fill the wallets of his fatcat friends, and surprisingly neutral references to the Iraq war. But that’s enough of an introduction…

The debate team speakers used stage names in addition to their own names, so I’ll use the stage names. “Tennille” argued in favor of Social Security reform, and “Captain” (charming, I know… one of several cheesy jokes lost on us this evening) argued against. Neither gave an overwhelming presentation or crushing counter-arguments, but the underlying themes were basically what you would expect from each side. Tennille provided facts and predictions indicating that Social Security would run out of money by midway through the century and should be overhauled; Captain countered with assertions that Social Security’s predicted lifespan was increasing all the time and should be left alone.

The problem with both sides of this argument – for me, at least – is that economists are one of few groups I trust less than politicians. Both politicians and economists are motivated by agendas which are at least partially hidden from the general public; economists deal in “facts” where a quarter-percentage error can amount to forecasts being off by hundreds of millions of dollars over the period in question. Assuming some of the economists on both sides have erred in one direction or the other, what could we hear behind and in addition to the numbers?

Tennille spoke first, adding some depth to the notes the President played in his most recent State of the Union address. Mainly he attempted to prove that the current Social Security system will eventually go bankrupt unless reformed. On this front he used the aforementioned approach of providing numbers and economist forecasts. The fact that individuals would have more control over a greater percentage of their income was a statement that he mentioned but did not trumpet as loudly as he could have – this would have gone a long way towards covering his lack of explanation as to how a reformed system would not go the way of the dinosaurs, too.

On pure delivery, Captain (a senior member of the debate team) was a bit more impressive. In terms of content, however, Captain warned us of outcomes including: 1) domestic stock market crash which would create disaster internationally, creating an environment similar to that which the Great Depression caused in Germany, leading to the rise of Hitler 2) weaking of the dollar which would lead to increased foreign investment in the Euro and other alternatives 3) decrease in benefits paid by Social Security.

This could be too much simplicity, but don’t (1) and (2) at least partly cancel each other out? If they invest in other countries based on the prediction that Social Security reform will put America dangerously deeper in debt, how could their markets be crushed by America’s predicted tumble? One argument or the other might be supported, but using both left Captain with a pair of hobbled warnings. Not to metion I was pretty sure Germany fell under the Nazi spell mostly due to getting her tail end handed to her in World War I. As to (3), a temporary decrease would probably be necessary during the transition period. Nothing this big is handed off without a little jostling.

The issue, as I see it, boils down to just that: how much jostling should we accept, and how long might we expect the transition to last? I have an understanding of government and economics that is limited at best, but I can see how giving Social Security-paying workers a variety of index funds to choose from would provide greater returns, thus limiting the amount of money we would expect from the traditional Social Security vault. Not to mention I’d like the government to have as little of my money as possible. Assuming the logic behind the impending funding crisis is sound, this is a switch that should be put into motion now and not later.

Tonight’s debate – and the one currently taking place across the country – makes it clear that many people do not share this assumption. However, none of the anti-reform arguments posed by Captain or audience members convinced me to change my mind. The vocalized anti-reform consensus was that Social Security would not go bankrupt for “a long time,” maintenance fees would eat up the benefits from the proposed reforms, and that the federal government needs all the 12% that it currently takes in order to stay afloat. Basically, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And if it’s in the process of breaking, leave it alone until it actually busts.

The only concession offered (by a guy who also said the problem was too far away for him to care about… a scary truth in a room full of college kids) was that we could fix the current system with very small adjustments – specifically, a slight increase in taxes. Forgive me for being less than excited when fellow students say that we should not worry about problems several decades away, and for being even LESS excited at the mention of tax increases to blow air into an old, stretched out system.

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