In the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Ben Stein plays a teacher who repeats the name “Bueller” multiple times during roll call in hopes of finding the missing student. Today, voters in Nevada might as well be Ben Stein.
“Social Security. Social Security. Social Security.”
In Nevada, the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Dean Heller and Democratic challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen demonstrates how far the program has drifted from the public conscience. At this point, it is entirely possible a victor will emerge from the contest without providing any vision on the future of the program or its problems. Voters don’t ask, and politicians don’t tell.
The financial challenges of the program deserve the attention of the electorate. It is the largest expense in the federal budget and provides a lifeline to millions of people. Yet the Social Security Administration believes that, even in good economic conditions, people turning 71 today will outlive the system’s ability to fulfill its promises outlined in current law. These seniors will be turning 87 and facing benefit cuts likely to be in excess of 20 percent. These are serious problems.
Yet neither candidate has offered a coherent message on the program’s long-term stability. On the GOP side, Sen. Heller has said nothing about the program’s future and does not list Social Security as an issue on his campaign website. Meanwhile, Rep. Rosen has promised to “fight back against efforts to privatize or weaken Social Security.” But she offers scant detail on what her commitment means to those who live in Nevada.
Fact is, the Social Security Administration has not scored a proposal to privatize Social Security in nearly a decade. One reason for the lack of interest in this option is the cost, which the SSA believes might be trillions, because every dollar that is diverted from the program has to be replaced by a dollar of a different tax in order for existing seniors to collect benefits.
One cannot be surprised by the candidates’ position on Social Security — or lack thereof. At this point, any proposal to stabilize the system will contain something ensured to alienate part of the voter base. Understandably, politicians go to great ends to avoid the subject entirely. Welcome to the politics of delay, which means that candidates will tell you everything they won’t do but nothing about what they will do. They attack the flaws, both real and imaginary, in the opponent’s plan while making a painstaking effort to avoid leaving any trace of a position of their own.
Politicians employ these tactics because they work. In 2016, each party nominated the person who spoke the least about the program. When the two met in the general election, voters elevated the one who promised to do nothing about the program. Since that time, Social Security has generated nearly $2 trillion in unfunded liabilities and nearly zero in way of hard questions in response.
Donald Trump put forward the economically implausible idea that economic growth would generate the revenue necessary to put the program back on track — all while not facing a single question about the details of his idea. After two years, the economy is booming with record jobs and record wages, according to the administration. Despite this, Congress could have reduced benefit levels to zero on the day Trump took office, and the system would still be worse today than it was when he arrived.
Given that record, it is completely understandable why politicians avoid the subject. It is less clear why the voters tolerate it.
Brenton Smith founded Fix Social Security Now and has written essays for Forbes, MarketWatch, TheHill.com and other media outlets. He can be reached at JoeTheEconomist@gmail.com.