Monday, July 11, 2011

Social Security and the Deficit

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28

Early in the Genesis story, when God asks Cain where his brother is, he responds with what he thinks is a rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” According to the rabbis, the rest of the Bible is an answer to Cain’s question. And the biblical answer is that Cain is supposed to be “his brother’s keeper.” We are responsible for one another. Developing the meanings of that mutual responsibility is the work of prophets and teachers throughout the Bible. And for Christians, it culminates in the teachings of Jesus.

I am my brother’s keeper. And I am supposed to love my neighbor as much as I love myself.

Social Security holds a special place in American politics and policy in part because it is one of the most important ways in which we live out our mutual responsibility to one another. It grew out of the Social Gospel commitment to make public policy more in line with the teachings of Jesus.

I realize that for those who fear a theocracy above all else, this makes them very nervous. But I am one of the people who still believes that Jesus’ teachings are our best ethical guide, and I believe it is the duty of Christians to put those teachings into practice. In the public square, others can make the case from other perspectives and on other grounds. And in the public square, we don’t expect our argument to prevail because it is what Jesus taught. But that’s where we get our direction.

Recently, White House sources have suggested that President Obama would be willing to accept cuts in Social Security as part of a deal to reduce the deficit in order to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling.

(In our hyper-partisan political culture the debt ceiling debate has become dangerously overheated, but it has always been contentious. The party that does not control the White House is always against raising the debt ceiling, because they are not directly responsible for governing and can strike a pose against government spending. This time we have the normal partisanship on steroids. But it has always struck me as an odd thing to vote on. Congress first makes the laws on taxes and spending which cause the debt to increase, and then they vote on whether or not they will allow that increase. It’s like deciding to buy a new car and then deciding whether or not to pay for it.)

Cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit may sound like a reasonable idea, until you realize that Social Security is not part of the deficit. Right now Social Security is in the black. There is a surplus in the Social Security Trust Fund. Of course, it’s a “virtual” surplus, because they money isn’t kept in a separate vault. But right now we are borrowing against Social Security to pay for other government expenditures.

Eventually, we will have to do something about Social Security. According to the current actuarial tables, the fund will be paying out more than it takes in some time within the next decade. And around 2025 payments will have to be significantly reduced in order to avoid bankrupting the system. But it isn’t part of the deficit.

The Wall Street Journal suggested a year ago that the Social Security problem could be solved for the next quarter century by raising the ceiling on Social Security taxes to reflect the increased income among the richest Americans.

Social Security has been the most successful anti-poverty in American history. It is the principal source of income for two-thirds of older Americans, and it provides almost all of the income (90% or more) for a third of all seniors. Over half of all Social Security recipients live on total incomes of $22,000 or less.

Of course, we could just cut the benefits for wealthy Americans. But one of the things that makes Social Security so successful is that it represents shared benefits and shared responsibilities. It is not a welfare program; it’s a retirement program. It’s part of how brothers and sisters, and neighbors take care of each other.

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