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Some common sense on social insecurity.

FEW FOLKS COULD HAVE BEEN MORE PLEASED by the nation's escape from deficit-spending land than America's scandal-weary president. It was the kind of news that allowed him to divert some attention from the Lewinsky-zone (a spatial and temporal disturbance that swallows all thoughtful commentary on public policy) and act really presidential.

Noting this year's surplus of $76 billion during his State of the Union address, President Clinton proposes that 62 percent of the $4.5 trillion surplus projected over the next 15 years should be applied exclusively to shoring up the Social Security system and that 15 percent of the trust fund be consigned to the tender mercies of Wall Street in a $650 billion mother-of-all mutual funds. Although the media and the Washington political establishment have reservations about specific aspects of the president's plan, few essentially argue with this huge commitment of the nation's resources to one social program.

Yet it is a commitment worthy of further reflection.

Arguably, the cash already belongs to Social Security; its surpluses for years have been used to obscure the depth of the federal budget deficit. But using Social Security surpluses to pay for other more pressing purposes has been a political prerogative of long standing and is not necessarily fiscally imprudent as long as such expenditures represent judicious investments in the country's future.

Such investments are at risk now in the debate swirling around Social Security and the surplus. Despite the fear-mongering of privatization-happy politicos, the system is in no imminent peril of failure. Even the projected "collapse" of the system in 2032--collapse in this case equaling funding capacity declining to 75 percent of outstanding commitments--could be postponed indefinitely with relatively minor adjustments to Social Security contributions and benefit levels.

This point bears repeating: There is no Social Security emergency as such; there is no need now to rush into commitments that will restrain or obliterate investments the nation needs to make today in its human capital--investments in health care, nutrition, and education. After all, these are precisely the kinds of investments that will have a profound impact on the productivity of the American worker of the future and the nation's long-term capacity to care for its aging population. But there is a political rush now to take advantage of this unforeseen surplus and the general go-go-giddiness of the bull market to push through a privatization of Social Security that may be unwarranted and unwise. Certainly the ramifications of these proposals--the reintroduction of market risk into a program initiated precisely because of history's greatest market failure--are poorly understood by the public.

The fact that such proposals already enjoy a substantial level of bipartisan support in Washington during this period of rampant campaign-finance shenanigans should be a matter of concern to folks who don't happen to maintain a Georgetown address. Moving Social Security onto Wall Street through Clinton's mammoth mutual fund or through independent contributions to thousands of retirement accounts represents a vast payday for the nation's financial sector and a grave social burden that it has frankly demonstrated little capacity to bear responsibly.

The idea of the "common good" has been one of the foundation stones of Catholic social teaching. How seriously an abstraction like the common good is appreciated in political discourse is one measure of a truly just society. In a pluralistic and democratic nation, the overriding aim of a common good makes an eminently fair and reasonable place for public-policy debate to begin. Often, unfortunately, our pluralistic complexity betrays us, and, a shared vision proving difficult to achieve, we succumb to parochial short-sightedness.

In the current debate encircling the problem of Social Security and how best to employ the national surplus, there is little evidence that many of the participants are keeping the challenge of the common good at the forefront of the discussion. Don't misunderstand. On all sides, there are undoubtedly decent people pursuing the goals they believe best for their specific constituencies, just as there are cynical manipulators of the varied specific weaknesses of our particular democratic order. But this surplus presents the nation with a powerful opportunity that is slipping away, an opportunity to outline a national vision of the common good, an opportunity for an honest and critical appraisal of how the nation's scarce resources might be best invested so that all benefit--not just specific clamoring constituencies.

It is possible, even likely, that this opportunity will be squandered in partisan fights over tax cuts and congressional pork or in resource competition which pits the needs of the young against the anxieties of the old (or those simply fearful of becoming old in a system that reserves the greatest political rewards for those who generate the most political heat). In this debate, there don't seem to be many people attempting to balance the needs and hopes of the many and the few, the vulnerable and the powerful, the vocal and the silent, pursuing the delicate calculus that delivers us to the common good.
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Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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