Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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James Wadsworth on Social Security

I was just doing some reading this morning, and came across something interesting from 1935, during the congressional debate over the original Social Security Act. New York Republican James W. Wadsworth, after acknowledging that there was nothing that he could say or do to prevent the passage of the wildly popular legislation, offered this dire prediction:

I know the appeal this bill has to every human being, that it appeals to the humane instincts of men and women everywhere. We will not deny, however, that it constitutes an immense, immense departure from the traditional functions of the Federal Government for it to be projected into the field of pensioning the individual citizens of the several States. It launches the Federal Government into an immense undertaking which in the aggregate will reach dimensions none of us can really visualize and which in the last analysis, you will admit, affects millions and millions of individuals. Remember, once we pay pensions and supervise annuities, we cannot withdraw from the undertaking no matter how demoralizing and subversive it may become. Pensions and annuities are never abandoned; nor are they ever reduced. The recipients ever clamor for more. To gain their ends they organize politically. They may not constitute a majority of the electorate, but their power will be immense. On more than one occasion we have witnessed the political achievements of organized minorities. This bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and so pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.

Hmmm, I wonder if I can write in James Wadsworth on the ballot in the Republican primary....

Discussions - 19 Comments

Or you could just vote for Ron Paul.

Red, I've already purchased my Ron Paul t-shirt and bumper sticker. The problem is he probably won't still be in the race when the Ohio primary rolls around.

So you believe that Social Security as such threaten[s] the integrity of our institutions? Well, good luck.

Is there any part of Wadsworth's prediction that has not come to pass? He explained precisely why Social Security will never be "fixed"--there are too many people with a stake in the status quo, even if the system bankrupts the country.

John Moser - I don't think "the system" is bankrupting the country. Fixing the financial health of Social Security (and Medicare) is not, I think, beyond the wit of republican man. Or is your point that Social Security itself creates political deadlock over its fixing? But that hasn't been true in the past.

Besides, I doubt that your main objection (and Wadsworth's) is financial.

If he felt that way about Social Security, I'd like to hear James Wadsworth's comments concerning the impending national health care system.

"So you believe that Social Security as such threaten[s] the integrity of our institutions?"



A strong case can actually be made that the decline in birth rates among middle and upper class families is at least partially related to SS because you no longer have to rely on your kids to take care of you in old age. It at the least dilutes that aspect of the family relationship/bond. Parents care for kids when they are young and kids inturn care for their parents when they are old.



"Fixing the financial health of Social Security (and Medicare) is not, I think, beyond the wit of republican man."



It is if there are only two workers for everyone retired.

Steve Thomas, something about Social Security creates political deadlock over its repair. Euthanasia for the elderly is going to look mighty good to the coming generations. Do Social Security and Medicare have to bankrupt the country to be onerous? The looming retirement of the baby boomers is the best argument for open immigration. Wadsworth was quite right. I am all for his resurrection, or at least for the resurrection of his principles.

I'm waiting with bated breath for John Moser's next post about another ancient Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, warning us all about the dangers of the military industrial complex(be sure to trot out the usual tortuous excuses; and don't forget FDR!).

(How did the party of Eisenhower degenerate into the current freak show it is today anyway?)

At any rate, the current republican party has z-e-r-o credibility talking about any thing even remotely connected to fiscal responsibility.

Tom, I've already posted elsewhere regarding my doubts about our current foreign policy. I don't speak for the Republican Party, which I'm fully aware has a lousy record on spending.

As for what happened to the party of Eisenhower (frankly I prefer the party of Coolidge, but I'd take Eisenhower any day over the lot we have now), might it not be that the GOP got sick of losing elections to demagogues like FDR and LBJ, who promised all sorts of benefits at taxpayer expense? I don't like it, but the Republicans are merely playing by rules set by Democrats long ago.

I do not see how Republicans can blame the Democrats for their own inability to stick to professed principles. At least people can be pretty sure to know what they are going to get with Democrats. Americans seem to like certainty, even if it is mediocre or worse, which I relate to the appeal of fast-food chains. The food is terrible, but at least it is a sure thing, a qualitatively known terrible; so are the Democrats. Republicans promise American home-cooking, but you never know what you are going to be faced with and, unfortunately, they too often offer the same fare on the menu in an effort to "compete". However, to be forever blaming Wilson, FDR and LBJ for changing the American political palate is coming to look like a very poor excuse and makes for a bleak and frightening political future.

John Moser - "Demagogues like FDR and LBJ"?? It seems you define demagogue so as to embrace a great many American presidents, though conveniently excluding your hero Calvin Coolidge whose New England, democratic rhetoric was built around an eloquent "Yup".

The insight that national policy falls unequally on different constituencies and therefore generates its own distinctive politics is of course true and of course old: for example, it underlay John C. Calhoun's objections to the exercise of national power.

Social Security is complicated. (Now there's an insight!) Its current demographics makes the fix hard, as Red Phillips says. And it is wrong to think of Social Security as mainly an annuity. It is mainly an intergenerational transfer.

Rep. Wadsworth was a prophet. Would that there were more like him today. Presidential candidates, and most senators and Senate candidates, can't be this frank. But many in the House can afford to be. If only they'd do it.

Thank you, Kate. You sound like a person of honesty and integrity. I tip my hat to you for that.

Once again, I'm not about to start defending the Republicans, who have a terrible record when it comes to discretionary spending. But while I think that we're spending too much on, say, the Iraq War, that's not what's bankrupting the country. It's Social Security that will keep the budget from being balanced in our lifetimes (don't kid yourself about any "budget surplus" in the 1990s--that was only the result of shady accounting practices that keep Social Security liabilities off the books. I give the president some credit for offering a semi-solution to the problem, but the fact that it was dead on arrival in Congress would suggest that any available option is politically suicidal. This was part of a deliberate plan by FDR, who said in 1935 that "with those [payroll] taxes in place, no damn politician will ever scrap my Social Security program."

Excuse me for butting in. I am the generation that is presently receiving SS "benefits". Now, while I realize that present generation workers contribute to the SS fund, this does NOT represent an intergenerational transfer of wealth from the present (working) generation to the (retired) generation. The socalled SS Trust Fund is overflowing with Government IOUs covering the Trillion$+ raided by the feds on this trust fund's SURPLUSSES to cover the budget deficits over the past decades! The coming bankrupcy of the SS fund can neither be blamed on the WWII generation nor on the present workers contributing to it. Blame it on the intergenerational politicians who continue to hoodwink us poor foot soldiers.....

I don't think so. . . I'll look around for evidence to make the point. Those of us collecting social security benefits very quickly exhaust the benefits we derive from our annuitized contributions.

I am told by a reliable source that it takes about two years to use up what you have put into SS. Blame whomever or whatever you want, even the inflation of the 1970s and 80s. After those two years or so, the retirees receive a direct subsidy from the rest of us.

And do they say "Thank you"?


What Joe the senior says about government IOUs is also true, but the demography of the baby-boomers is what will kill the deal. There are too many of us and we aim to live too long. My husband sweetly predicts that our grandchildren will issue us t-shirts with targets on the back when we get too expensive.

Is there an accountant in the house?

We have two things going on here: (1) the way current Social Security benefits are financed, and (2) the way the Trust Fund has been used over the years to understate annual federal deficits. Is there a relationship between (2) and (1), as Mr. Knippenberg suggests? I have thought not. The mixed nature of benefit financing has been there from the beginning of the program (or so I have thought) -- made more problematic by demography (age structure of the population as a whole plus increased life expectancy for those collecting SS pensions).

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