Sunday, January 23
Smarter than Your Average Bear
Jonathan Rauch is one of my favorite journalists. His pieces are clear without being simple, and express opinion without being polemical. I also happen to agree with him more often than not. (You can see a good sample of his work here, but for real brilliance, you can see what I regard as the most interesting article to ever appear in the most interesting magazine in the world.) His most recent article, though, strikes me as being accurate without being right. He argues today in the Washington Post (and more completely in a longer National Journal piece) that Social Security is about values, not about economics:
what Bush and the Republicans are focused on is not the economy, stupid. It is conservative social engineering on the grandest possible scale.The focus, he says, in not on saving social security per se, but on helping to create an "ownership" society.
I think that's right, as far as it goes, and that may be all that many of the people pushing reform think. But I rather think it's not. The vision of an ownership society can be justified on economic as well as moral grounds: when people own their stuff they make better decisions about how to use it; resources are distributed more efficiently; we create more stuff; and we can all benefit. That's certainly where I am - if someone convinced me that the government could better invest my retirement savings, I'd be strongly against personal social security accounts. But I don't believe that for a second, so support them.
The reason the economic perspective on the ownership society ought to be included in his piece, I think, is that without it, it looks like he's revealing supporters of personal accounts as ideologues ignoring practical issues, rather than as people trying to improve our society - both morally and economically - by making an important government program more efficient and effective. Perhaps all he's trying to communicate is that we ought to discuss this issue on those grounds, rather than on the more dubious grounds of "crisis." Maybe, but for those who support an ownership society for either moral or economic reasons, or both, this may be the only chance we have. In that sense, at least, it is a crisis.