Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Charity

Halloween is a good time to discuss Social Security, because Halloween is the best metaphor for Social Security. I hear Republicans promise privatization and I hear Al Gore talk about a lockbox, and it drives me nuts because both are misrepresenting the system's purpose. You're not supposed to collect your money.

Halloween is cyclical charity. When I was a kid, I rang your doorbell on Halloween and you gave me candy. Tonight, your kids will ring my doorbell and I'll give them candy. In 10 years, my kids will ring somebody else's doorbell. And so it goes.

People grumble about Social Security "running out." That's not how it works. Your money doesn't go into an account somewhere, to be kept safe until you turn 65. That's what an IRA or a 401(k) or a plain old savings account is for. Social Security is just that — social. It means that, for society's good, your contribution will be distributed amongst society's members. And one day, somebody else's money will be distributed to you.

You'll probably pay longer than you'll collect — just as you'll stop trick-or-treating when you turn 14, but you'll keep handing out candy forever. Maybe that's unfair, but it's not supposed to be fair: It's supposed to favor a specific portion of our population whom society has deemed worthy of special attention. Our goal isn't to be fair. Our goal is to be kind and to be just.

I wish Republicans would stop talking about privatization. No discussion of Social Security should include the phrase, "my money." Let's stop pretending that it isn't charity. The worst part of that charade is that it presumes there's something wrong with charity, or that charity shouldn't be a part of responsible government. Both are foolish — and complaining about what Social Security does with "my money" is every bit as small-minded as complaining about the inconvenience of buying candy for Halloween.


At November 01, 2006 6:56 AM, Blogger Bill Woessner said...

I like your analogy, but you've left out a couple of really key points.

First, the demographics are changing dramatically. In a few years, there are going to be a LOT of kids trick-or-treating and very few houses for them to go to. That puts an undue burden on those of us buying the candy.

Second, if Social Security were simply charity, the wealthy wouldn't collect it. That's like saying that all children go trick-or-treating on Halloween because they NEED the candy. Sure, some of them do, but most of them just feel they're owed the candy.

Finally, privitization would help alleviate the need for Social Security as a charity. Instead of giving away our Halloween candy, if we saved, say, 1/3 of it, there would be plenty of candy to supply our kids.

The real problem with Social Security is not that it's unsustainable; the problem is that it's incredible wasteful. What happens to most of your Halloween candy? Sure, a few bites go to providing a few kids with a much-needed sugar rush. But in the end, we've all bought more candy than we needed, and that money could have gone to much better use.


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