Friday, November 16, 2007

In Search of Ideologues

In today's NY Times Paul Krugman berates Barack Obama for worrying about the future of Social Security. He thinks Obama has been misled by "decades of scare-mongering about Social Security’s future from conservative ideologues."

Paul's interpretation seems to be based on either a faulty memory or an especially inclusive definition of what constitutes a conservative ideologue. Here is President Bill Clinton in 1998:

This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation. We now know that the Social Security trust fund is fine for another few decades. But if it gets in trouble and we don't deal with it, then it not only affects the generation of the baby boomers and whether they'll have enough to live on when they retire, it raises the question of whether they will have enough to live on by unfairly burdening their children and, therefore, unfairly burdening their children's ability to raise their grandchildren.... And if nothing is done by 2029, there will be a deficit in the Social Security trust fund, which will either require -- if you just wait until then -- a huge tax increase in the payroll tax, or just about a 25 percent cut in Social Security benefits.
One might say that President Clinton, like Obama, was misled. So let's look at who he was getting advice from. Clinton's Advisory Council on Social Security told him:

While the Council has not found any short-term financing problems with the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability (OASDI) program, there are serious problems in the long run. Because of the time required for workers to prepare for their retirement, and the greater fairness of gradual changes, even long-run problems require attention in the near term.
(Source.) The Advisory Council was chaired by well-known economist Edward Gramlich, who was surely no conservative ideologue. Indeed, on other matters, Paul has praised him for being particularly prescient.

The bottom line: Concern about social security's future comes not from decades of scare-mongering by conservative ideologues but from decades of dispassionate analysis by some of the best policy economists.