It’s pretty clear by now that elite media, in their news columns and opinion pages, have had a big hand in shaping the debate over Social Security and Medicare. Ask any man or woman on the street, and many will say that something must be done about these programs, though they’re not sure what. The press, the politicians, and Washington’s think tank powers have narrowly defined that something as benefit cuts, which the president has embraced in his proposed budget. Whether the public has is another matter.
In the past week, two prominent columnists have added another layer to this meme. It’s a brave new world out there. Americans must help themselves and we’d better get used to it. What this means in social insurance terms is that Social Security may no longer be for everyone, that we can no longer afford such a sturdy pillar, even for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. As for Medicare—the government may have to cut back paying medical bills for the elderly because it is too costly. We’re looking at a kind of new world, based on survival of the financially fittest.
“Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees,” wrote Thomas Friedman in his Tuesday New York Times column, “It’s a 401(k) World.” Using the metaphor of 401(k) plans—which have largely replaced good pension arrangements and left workers to chart the course for their retirement nest egg—Friedman argues that all the new exciting technology of the last several years has opened up limitless possibilities for self-help.
What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest, and crowd source—all online. But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.
Friedman connects all this with new technology and notes that this brave new world is one that “increasingly rewards individual aspiration and persistence and can measure who is contributing and who is not.” Furthermore, he says, the new paradigm is not going to disappear. “We better think how we help every citizen benefit from it.”
A few days before Friedman’s column appeared, Robert Samuelson made similar points in his Washington Post column, “The Twilight of Entitlement.” By entitlement, he says,
I do not mean primarily cuts in specific government benefits, most prominently Social Security, but the demise of a broader mind-set — attitudes and beliefs — that, in one form or another, has gripped Americans since the 1960s.America’s “expansive notion of entitlement rested on optimistic and, ultimately, unrealistic assumptions,” he argues. Among those assumptions: that economists knew how to moderate the business cycle to guarantee jobs; that big, old line corporations like GM and AT&T dominated the market and could provide secure jobs and generous benefits; that improvements in productivity would lift living standards; and that lifestyle choice would expand individual freedom without adverse social consequences. These are no longer true, he suggests, and the resulting contradictions in our system have caused entitlements to slowly crumble.
To some thinkers, this parade of horribles might call for more social safety nets and help, but instead Samuelson’s message is that
We’re not entitled to many things: not to a dynamic economy; not to secure jobs; not to homeownership; not to ever-more protective government; not to fixed tax burdens; not to a college education. Sooner or later, the programs called “entitlements,” including Social Security, will be trimmed because they’re expensive and some recipients are less deserving than others.
Like Friedman, he says we’d all better get used to the new world order. “People’s expectations may be more grounded. Facing limits is a contentious exercise in making choices.”
But a sustained debate over these kinds of “choices” is precisely what we have not had—at least not in the news outlets that reach millions of Americans.
Most people don’t read Dean Baker’s columns on the blog of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Or Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, who liked the 401(k) metaphor but pushed back against the vision: “Planet 401(k) is a pretty sucky planet,” he wrote. In a world in which the 401(k) is the backbone of the retirement system: