Introduction to RooseveltCare: How Social Security Is Sabotaging the Land of Self-Reliance
This is the introduction to my new book, which we’ll be releasing in early June. Stay tuned to this blog to learn how you can get your hands on it and help us promote it. (Footnotes omitted.)
Just over a year ago, as I was beginning to write this book, my wife and I had our first child. Olivia was born into the world with two loving parents, four doting grandparents — and a share of government debt amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks mainly to our ravenous entitlement state.
Today we are at a crossroads. America’s entitlement state is threatening to bankrupt us, and new schemes such as ObamaCare are hastening the collapse. The numbers are terrifying. Owing primarily to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the U.S. government’s true debt amounts to more than $200 trillion dollars according to some economists.
The government has made promises in our name that we have no way to keep, and any attempt to try to keep them will mean robbing my generation and my daughter’s generation of many of our hopes and dreams. The best estimates suggest that Olivia will have to pay roughly $400,000 more in taxes than she will ever receive in handouts — in order to provide her grandparents’ generation with handouts that are $300,000 greater than they paid in taxes.
To make up this $200 trillion shortfall, all federal taxes would have to rise by 54.8 percent immediately and forever. If tax rates aren’t raised for twenty years, that number skyrockets to 65.3 percent. And all of these projections assume that interest rates remain low. But as our debt rises, so does the likelihood that interest rates will balloon. If that happens, it’s game over.
I call this Welfaregate. It is the scandal of our time, and if we don’t change course, then at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to face a day of reckoning. But what should we do? While Washington evades the whole issue, a growing number of commentators have started sounding the alarm. While they deserve our gratitude for shining a light on this problem, their proposed solutions are usually built on the assumption that the entitlement state is a moral institution that we must save.
But what if it’s not?
My interest in the entitlement state started when, at the age of seventeen, I was told that my generation would never see a dime of Social Security. Having recently landed my first job as an usher at the local movie theater, I knew just how many dimes were being taken out of my paycheck to pay for Social Security. Why, I wondered, was I being forced to pay for a program that wouldn’t be around when it was my turn to retire? Where was my money going? And why in the world couldn’t I opt out of the program and plan for my future the way I wanted? After all, it was my money, right?
I quickly learned that my skepticism was unusual. Social Security is one of the government’s most popular programs: Eight out of ten Americans believe “Social Security has been good for the country,” according to a 2011 CNN/ORC International poll. How could it not have been? We have been taught that, in those dark days before Social Security, elderly Americans lived in terror of losing their jobs, knowing that it would mean the poorhouse if not outright starvation. Social Security changed that. It made America a more humane, more secure, more prosperous nation. So the story went.
Even as a kid, I did not think that settled the issue. Sure, I thought, America may have been a rough place to live before Social Security, but we had come a long way since 1935. We now lived in a nation where even most poor people owned cars, TVs, and have plenty to eat. Why would we structure our political and economic system around a fear that properly belonged to the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first?
When I revisited this issue as an adult, however, I discovered something that left me truly astonished. When I looked into the history of America before Social Security and the circumstances that led to the creation of the entitlement state, what I found was the exact opposite of everything I had ever been taught. In many ways, America was a better place to live before the creation of Social Security — and Social Security played a key role in making America worse.
I had known America was much freer before the entitlement state. Americans took the Declaration of Independence seriously. The government played the important role of protecting us from criminals and foreign threats, but otherwise left us pretty much alone. Each individual could pursue his own happiness, using his property to build for himself the kind of life he chose. What I didn’t know was how well most Americans fared in that setting. Even at a time when capitalism had only started to lift people out of poverty, the vast, vast majority of men and women in this country were able to cope with life’s challenges, supporting themselves and their families through productive work, and carving out an existence that was richer and more fulfilling than anywhere else on the globe.
Even more striking, though, was the moral stature of those Americans. This was a land of giants: men and women who displayed a scale of self-esteem and unbounded benevolence that is hard to imagine in our cynical times. There was a deep well of enthusiasm for life that sprang from a conviction that they were creating a better, brighter world. It was a world where all could prosper — and prosperity came not at the expense of other people but through one’s own hard work and creative effort. In a word, it was a magnificent culture of self-reliance.
By the passage of Social Security in 1935, that culture was at the beginning of its end. Although American self-reliance has not completely vanished in the decades since FDR created the entitlement state, it is ebbing. Here’s one small but telling example. An earlier America had held up the self-made man as an ideal to strive for — the Andrew Carnegie type who pulls himself up “by his own bootstraps” and rises “from rags to riches.”
Today, in our allegedly more sophisticated age, we have been taught that economic mobility is a myth, Horatio Alger stories are a delusion, and the ideal we should aim for is not the life of Andrew Carnegie but the “Life of Julia,” a fictional character cooked up by the Obama administration in early 2012 to illustrate how success is made possible only by the beneficent hand of a government entitlement system that coddles us from cradle to grave.
As we prepare to decide the fate of entitlements, we need to revisit the story of the entitlement state, and above all the story of Social Security. Social Security is not just another government spending program. Historically, the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 marked the birth of the American entitlement state. Economically, it is the most expensive program in the government’s budget. Legally, most of our federal entitlement programs are included under the Social Security Act and its amendments. These include:
- Survivors Insurance
- Disability Insurance
- Unemployment benefits
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“welfare”)
- Health Insurance for Aged and Disabled (Medicare)
- Grants to States for Medical Assistance Programs (Medicaid)
- State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”)
We’ve been taught that the program has played a profoundly positive role in fulfilling the promise of America, correcting disturbing shortcomings in our capitalist system. It’s time this myth be put to rest and replaced with the truth: Social Security is an un-American program that is helping to transform us from a self-reliant society into an entitlement society, and causing us to lose much of what was great about this country:
- The self-reliant society celebrated the fact that you could better yourself by creating wealth. The entitlement society is based on the notion that you are basically helpless unless society provides you with wealth and opportunity wrestled from others.
- The self-reliant society had a profound respect for the individual and his property. The entitlement society regards individuals and their property as means to society’s ends.
- The self-reliant society was based on the conviction that there is a harmony of interests among men, who therefore can live together voluntarily. The entitlement society regards conflicts of interest as inherent in human relationships, thereby unleashing a dog-eat-dog war of all against all.
- The self-reliant society protected and encouraged the independent individual, who rationally planned and governed his own life. The entitlement society caters to the chronically passive slacker who would rather not be burdened with such a profound responsibility.
- The self-reliant society gave us Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and Ben Franklin. The entitlement society gave us Julia, Octomom, and Barack Obama.
This is not another book for policy wonks about the financial trouble Social Security is in. You will find no graphs or complicated accounting concepts in the pages ahead. This is the story of the role that Social Security and the entitlement state have played in eroding the eagerness, energy, and optimism that once defined this country.
It is also a guide for fighting back. A solution to today’s crisis is possible, but it will not come from our political leaders willing to do no more than tinker with benefit formulas. It will have to come from individual Americans who are willing to say: I am not my grandfather’s keeper.
To create just such a movement I launched a campaign to end the debt draft — that is, to abolish the entitlement programs that have conscripted young Americans into serving the needs of the elderly rather than pursuing their own happiness. I have included our manifesto as an appendix. To learn more about this campaign, you can visit our website at www.endthedebtdraft.com.