Chicken Little and Social Security

Last week I polled my mostly-undergraduate policy design class at Berkeley as follows:

A. Social Security is in very serious financial trouble and probably won’t be there for my parents

B. Social Security is in financial  trouble and probably won’t be there for me

C. Social Security is basically OK and just needs some minor adjustments.

The results were 66% B, 16% each A and C.  This is a level of misinformation in an educated population that puts the capacity of democratic governance in doubt, and raises serious questions about whether mainline media are playing straight with us.  Articles like the Washington Post piece dissected and hung out to dry by Dean Baker demand we resurrect language like “kept press” from back in the thirties.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

19 thoughts on “Chicken Little and Social Security”

  1. Michael: There are many ways to understand the B answer, it may be an order effect. Since it was preceded by the A cue (what my parents get) it may be the B answers are not people saying they will get nothing, but that relative to their parents, their pay-in to pay-out ratio will be worse. This is a reasonable assumption because payroll taxes were once lower during their parents’ working lives, but the college kids will have had the current rate for all their working lives (or perhaps even more if payroll taxes are further raised in the future).

  2. Keith, try it with your students and see what happens. Do you think college students on the whole correctly understand the financial state of social security?

    1. Michael: No, I don’t think college students in general have much understanding of Social Security. They do though have a global sense that opportunities are shrinking for them relative to prior generations, both in terms of private sector opportunities and public sector benefits. And in that, they have a good understanding of what is going on.

  3. Even though SS is mostly solvent, answer B is most likely the correct answer because of political trends. The GOP sees SS as immoral and is determined to kill SS regardless of its fiscal viability. Sooner or later, the GOP will win and remove SS for everyone not old enough to be firmly within the Republican core voting bloc. For the past thirty years, the GOP has won every economic battle it has started. It’s only a matter of time until they win this one as well.

    Morally, SS cuts would be very appropriate for existing recipients–to starve out the Teabagger core of the GOP base–but the political reality is that the GOP will eventually reform away SS benefits for people not over 65 just as they have slashed every other benefit for people not old enough to be broken glass Republicans.

  4. It’s not just the students. My 30-something academic colleagues are just as ignorant about Social Security, what it is, what it does, and what should be done to “fix” in in perpetuity, e.g., raise the ceiling. My 60-something colleagues (I’m 50-something), who will not be affected affect not to give a sh*t. I don’t know which is worse, but I lean toward the older examples.

  5. Since the truth is C, in a way it doesn’t matter that the false alternatives A and B don’t exhaust the universe. The actual line being peddled by the conservative disinformation machine is not that Social Security should be abolished, but that it should be gutted, Thatcher-style.

    Perhaps a 10-point scale, from 0 = “Social Security is fine and needs no changes in the near term” to 10 = “Social Security is in crisis and will have to be abolished in its current form within the next few years”. The right answers are 0 (leave it alone and see in five or ten years what’s happened to growth) and 1 (make a few tweaks now to restore long-term actuarial balance on current projections).

  6. I am not sure if “kept media” is the correct phrase. Although that is true in many instances. “Over-coiffed”, “over-cocktail partied”, “under-read”, and “under prepared” help round out the descriptive field. One wonders how many hours Gregory puts into having his hair properly mussed, as distinguished from doing the historical reading for an interview. I’m sure his make-up takes a ton of time too. Also our glam reporters don’t push too aggressively these days lest they miss out on certain DC cocktail parties funded by lobbyists and hosted by party bigwigs.

    So what do we have here?
    Do you really want a full bald accounting?

    All the three branches of the government and most of the 4th Estate at the service of the oligarchy.

    The other day Charles Blow wrote this in the NYT. Although he doesn’t point blame at the 4th Estate like I do, it is still nice to see someone writing the hard (Frank Rich) truths about why the sky is falling:

    We sold ourselves a pipe dream that everyone could get rich and no one would get hurt — a pipe dream that exploded like a pipe bomb when the already-rich grabbed for all the gold; when they used their fortunes to influence government and gain favors and protection; when everyone else was left to scrounge around their ankles in hopes that a few coins would fall. We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. We have watched as millions of our fellow countrymen have fallen into poverty. And we have done a poor job of educating our children and now threaten to leave them a country that is a shell of its former self. We should be ashamed. Poor policies and poor choices have led to exceedingly poor outcomes. Our societal chickens have come home to roost.

    Side note to Charles Blow: Someone had to do the “selling” of those ideas. Guess who?

  7. Interesting that the education “reformers” are all right wingy too, for the most part. They are going to slam that last little door of hope shut too if they can.

    We voters get what we deserve, I think. My friend from Bolivia was always telling me how stupid Americans are. The “peasants” in her country are dirt poor and have little schooling, but they somehow manage to figure out who’s ripping them off and what to do about it. I love it when they block roads!!!

  8. It doesn’t surprise me that Berkeley students don’t know how Social Security works or what might be the state of its finances. I’ve had several occasions to teach UC students, including recent graduates, over the last several years, and many of them do not know California has an Assembly and state Senate, can’t name either U.S. senator from California (even though Boxer and Feinstein have only been their senators for almost their entire lives (!), and can’t explain what Prop 13 is (although they know they should be in favor or against it.) The lack of civic education goes very deep, both in the schools and in families.

    I won’t excuse the press — having worked there much of my career I can only say that the ignorance among those who work in media is far deeper than you dare imagine — but I found it instructive when an editor friend told me about an acquaintance who’d told her she would like to read the newspaper more but doesn’t feel like she knows enough to understand it. In this respect, the media and university share a common dilemma: How much of their increasingly scarce resources can they afford to dedicate to the remedial education of their customers.

  9. For all that it’s convenient to split them in discussions if you want to argue that SS is fine, I don’t think most people make a huge difference between SS and the rest of FICA (Social Security and Medicare part A and B) and the retirement system generally.

    I would be extremely surprised if when I retire, the Social Security and Medicare and pension system is as generous as it is now.

    1. It seems a bit much to impugn peoples’ motives for splitting SS from Medicare and other pensions. People split them not because they want to argue SS is fine, but because SS is a different thing than the other two.

      If your claim is that the belief that SS is in trouble stems from a more general inability to distinguish SS from the rest of the pension system, then that inability itself reflects a disturbing lack of knowledge. The more so because the attacks on Social Security that rely on this ignorance are specifically attacks on Social Security rather than attempts to reform the rest of the pension system. (As it’s important to distinguish Social Security from Medicare; when people talk about how “Social Security and Medicare” are on an unsustainable path, it’s important to note that the problem is almost entirely caused by increased health spending in Medicare, and so the schemes that people are proposing for Social Security are irrelevant to the problem.)

  10. I’m with curmudgeon. These students see 30 years of rightward political motion, more or less continual attacks on social security during their lifetimes, and extrapolate another 40 years.

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