Protecting Social Security From Hobgoblins

The author says that neither political party has a viable plan to help Social Security.

H.L. Mencken once observed the purpose of politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

He was right, and there is little in the spectrum of politics that demonstrates his wisdom like Social Security. At this point, the discussion of Social Security is an exchange of hyperbolic fear mongering. Either the GOP is gutting the program, or the Democrats are going to destroy it.

It is politics as usual, and that is sad because politicians of both parties are more than happy to watch the program collapse in the future if they can collect a few more votes today. The program that the rest of us depend upon is simply a means to shift voters at the margins from party to party on election day.

This framework of debate presents a problem for most voters because the passage of time is the Achilles Heel of Social Security. Last year, the program generated $700B in promises that no one expects it to keep simply because Congress did nothing about the program’s financial direction. The cost of doing nothing will be higher in 2022, and even more the next. In total, Congressional inaction accounts for about two-thirds of the problem we have today. 

As long as voters blame the opposition, politicians have an incentive to maintain the status quo.

The latest round of drama started a couple weeks back when Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) reportedly said that Social Security should be evaluated annually as discretionary spending so that Congress can fix problems with the program. The Senator argues the change would add accountability to the equation. He specifically blames the program’s bleak outlook on a lack of oversight and neglect. 

Frankly I do not see how this change might help the program retrace a $20 trillion shortfall. Congress has oversight now, and chooses not to use it. Year after year, decade after decade, Congress has allowed the program to drift on a well documented path to crisis.

He wants Congress to do the job it already has. Mind you it is a job that no one in Congress wants. To me, the Senator’s idea is not much different than a parent saying if I make my kids go to dinner in coat and tie they will stop throwing food at each other.

Pensions can last a very long time. Our nation has only recently finished paying off the last of the pensions issued from the Civil War. In the case of Social Security, the average beneficiary lives around 20 years in retirement. Thus, the objective of Social Security reform should be a system which works for long periods of time without Congressional intervention. 

Senator Johnson would take reform in the opposite direction. If he had his way, the program would work for one year. If you are 45 years old, the last thing you want to see is Congress wielding legislative duct tape and bailing wire over the program every year.

If you are 45 years old, the last thing you want to see is Congress wielding legislative duct tape and bailing wire over the program every year.

Voters need to quit worrying about what the GOP is going to do to Social Security, and start paying attention to the nothing that they have been doing. While Trump was in the Oval Office, the program generated roughly $7 trillion in unfunded obligations. The size of the deficit grew by nearly half.

As far as I can tell, the GOP hasn’t produced a single idea for Social Security in nearly a decade. The last major proposal was introduced in 2016, within weeks of the final recess of the 114th Congress, when a retiring Congressman introduced the “Saving Boomer’s Social Security At The Expense Of Everyone Else Act”. 

Just kidding about the name, but it is difficult not to notice that the proposal would have preserved benefits of those born in 1960 and before while reducing the benefits for the rest of us by more than 25 percent on average.

While the Republican Study Committee has reproduced this plan in its annual budget, no one knows whether that plan would make the program solvent, or how much benefits might be reduced because no one has bothered to check on the efficacy with the Social Security Administration.

Here is the GOP’s plan for Social Security: tell voters that the party will protect benefits, and hope that no one asks how they hope to keep that promise. So far that strategy is working very well – because no one will ask the impolite question.

Here is the Democrat’s plan for Social Security: pretend that the GOP is a hobgoblin, and take up righteous indignation with anyone who questions the absurdity of the idea.

About the Author

Brenton Smith (A.K.A. Joe The Economist) writes nationally on the issue of Social Security reform with work appearing in Forbes,, MarketWatch,, and regional media like The Denver Post.