The Social Security program, Rick Petty reiterated the other day, is “a Ponzi scheme for these young people.” The notion that Social Security pensions will be available for today’s younger workers when they retire, he said, is “a monstrous lie.” Many jumped on it—pundits and Democrats and the sort of correspondents whose emails ask for contributions for wonderful people running for obscure offices in places I’ve never heard of—and they all sounded sure that Perry had made a big mistake (an “unforced error,” to use this political year’s preferred sports cliché). But it’s they who are wrong, and if their tired and familiar response is any indication of the way Democrats are going to campaign next year, then they’re going to get creamed.
Perry’s statements on Social Security are supposed to be a “gaffe” because Americans across the political spectrum like the program and don’t want it threatened. Maybe so, but Americans across the political spectrum have come to focus, rightly or wrongly, on the notion that the Government can’t afford all the stuff it now pays for. That way of framing the issue makes a dead-ender “save X at any cost!” sound irresponsible.
More importantly, the talk of government debt, combined with awareness of the size of the Baby Boom generation that has begun to retire, has left most voters doubtful that Social Security can do what it says in the decades to come. A Gallup poll last year found that 60 percent of us working non-retirees believe Social Security will fail to come through on its promised pension when we retire (the margin of error was four percent). Among workers aged 18-34, fully 75 percent said they don’t expect to get a pension from the program.
When Perry makes Social Security out to be “a lie,” then, he’s not yammering out some crank viewpoint outside the mainstream. He’s saying what a majority of the citizenry believes to be a simple truth.
You could counter such claims by pointing out that it is we, the electorate, who will decide if Social Security will prove to be a lie. And by pointing out that Perry is virtually promising to make it one, by holding to a view of the Constitution that would make a modern national government impossible. (Doubting our ability to afford today’s Social Security is mainstream; thinking that the program is unconstitutional, though, is pretty wacky.) That might work.
Or you could counter Perry’s rhetoric with hoary, brain-dead scare tactics about how the mean man wants to take away something you should never have to give up, no matter what, and to hell with everything and everybody else. That’s the argument in my email box from the usual-suspect activist groups (“protect Medicare! protect Social Security!”). I don’t know which aspect of it is sorriest—the contempt it implies for people’s intelligence or its blindness to the psychology of politics this year.