Tonight the president of the United States will come before Congress and call for the repeal of the New Deal.
Not frontally, of course. Indeed, George W. Bush has taken to invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt as a fellow experimenter-in-arms. That's true as far as it goes, but the goal of Bush's experiment is to negate Roosevelt's.
The roots of Bush's speech tonight go back almost as far as the New Deal itself. Social Security was enacted in 1935, and in 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon questioned its solvency.
Since Landon (who carried two states against Roosevelt's 46), right-wing attacks on Social Security have proceeded along two lines: those that doubted its solvency and those that disparaged its ideology.
Bush tonight will probably not delve into matters ideological. The polls may show that the percentage of self-identified conservatives exceeds that of self-identified liberals by two-to-one, but that doesn't mean those conservatives are economic libertarians. (Indeed, many are conservatives out of their quarrel with cultural libertarians.) Besides, at any given moment the number of Americans who are pragmatists dwarfs that of any political tendency. The only way the American people are going to turn against a massive program that clearly works is if they can be convinced that at some point it won't.
And so we will hear tonight that Social Security may be doing fine today, but it will be a toothless geezer of a program by the time today's young people hit 65. There will be so many retirees living so long that only by redirecting young people's money out of the program and into the market will we preserve the solvency of the old.
All this is nonsense, of course. According to the system's actuaries, if we do nothing at all, the system will remain in the black, paying out full benefits, straight through 2042. Beyond then, its liabilities will amount to just a fraction of 1 percent of the national income. The program, like all programs, could use some modest fixes over time, and by such measures as raising revenue through a hike on the employer's payroll tax (by eliminating the cap on taxable employee income), it can be fixed.
But Bush is not seeking to strengthen a strong system; he's seeking to dismantle it. The private (or "personal," in poll-tested Bushese) accounts we'll hear so much about tonight provide the pretext for slashing benefits to future retirees by as much as 40 percent. As with that village in Vietnam, it's become necessary to destroy Social Security in order to save it.
And the plans to privatize Social Security, it's important to note, have been devised by people who are ideologically committed to its destruction. When Milton Friedman was calling for privatization a half-century ago, it wasn't because he feared the system would run out of money when the boomers retired. (The boomers were at that point just midway through being born.) It was because he was a committed advocate of laissez-faire capitalism.
Similarly, the advocates for privatizing Social Security have for the past quarter-century been housed at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute -- the nation's leading institutions of economic libertarianism. But since 1983 -- when a commission appointed to augment Social Security's solvency declined to consider privatization, though it was appointed in part by Ronald Reagan and headed by Ayn Rand-acolyte Alan Greenspan -- they have understood that the only way to realize their libertarian hearts' desire was to convince the American people that the system was teetering on bankruptcy.
To that end, Heritage Foundation analysts Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis authored a what-do-we-do-now article in the Cato Journal in 1983. The piece, "Achieving a Leninist Strategy," called for mobilizing support among financial institutions that would profit from privatization. As well, "an economic education campaign," they wrote, "must be undertaken to demonstrate the weaknesses of the current system." (All praise to Los Angeles Times reporter Janet Hook, who recently uncovered this article.) The critical point here is that all these doomsday predictions come from the people who yearn to be the system's executioners. I do not know of a single economist who's not already a committed opponent of the government's involvement in the nation's social welfare who adheres to such a dire scenario for Social Security's future or who recommends so deadly a prescription. Economists have been known to switch sides on public policy questions when the numbers compel them to -- Paul Samuelson's recent declaration of skepticism as to the merits of free trade is a classic case in point. But I can't find one who's come around to Bush's position on Social Security simply because the actuarial tables compelled a conversion.
Tonight, we'll hear that a great system is in trouble. It is, but only because the people who run the government wish it ill.