Sunday, January 16, 2005

Political and Apolitical

Veteran financial journalist, biographer of Warren Buffett, and board member of the Sequoia Fund, Roger Lowenstein finds no crisis in Social Security in today's NYTimes Magazine. Lowenstein's piece is unique in how both political and apolitical it is. It is political because it is an attack on Bush's proposal to remake the system and also on at least half a century of GOP attacks on the system, devoting extended space to descriptions of Ronald Reagan's arguments against it dating from the 1950s. (Lowenstein even reminds us that Reagan voted for Social Security's architect, FDR -- as if any wonk or nerd plowing through an extended piece like this on Sunday morning wouldn't know that.) It is apolitical or unpolitical beause it never addresses the classic GOP argument, which is that the government shouldn't be responsible for people's lives so much, that it enervates people and puts liberty at risk when government takes on the responsibility of bankrolling people's retirement.

At a crucial moment near the end of the piece, Lowenstein remarks that "Social Security could invest directly in the stock market, which would be far more efficient, in economic terms, than separating the money into 150 million disparate accounts." Well, of course he's right about that, but our veteran journalist of matters economic forgets that this isn't simply an economic argument about efficiency. It's about the purpose of government and the proper relationship between individuals and government.

Similarly, Lowenstein relates a discussion that he had with Peter Ferrara, a former Reagan staffer who has been arguing against Social Security since the 1970s. Ferrara told Lowenstein that "economics 'was not my primary motivation. It was ideological. We don't want the government controlling that much investment.'" Lowenstein relates this remark without evaluating or discussing it, however. He leaves it there as if it speaks for itself in some way or somehow serves as an indictment of the entire effort to re-make Social Security. Either Lowenstein is ill-equipped to deal with political reality, which is different from (and arguably more fundamental than) economic reality, or he thinks the arguments of the GOP are so weak that they merely have to be stated to prove their weakness. What's wrong with Ferrara's argument? Lowenstein never tells us.

Lowenstein alternately attacks the GOP (for crisis-mongering, for example) and falls back on purely economic arguments, avoiding or ignoring political reality and the classic GOP arguments against Social Security as it exists now, when it suits him. Consequently, this piece is not a good guide to what the political alternatives are; it is a journalistic hack job, written by a biased observer. There's nothing wrong with partisanship and advocacy; but one must contend more energetically, thoroughly, and honestly with the opposition's arguments.


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