Nearly a year ago, voters following the presidential race heard a stirring call for social reform: "The times in which we work and live are changing dramatically. The workers of our parents' generation typically had one job, one skill, one career. ... And most of those workers were men. Today, workers change jobs, even careers, many times during their lives, and ... two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home." As a result, "many of our most fundamental systems--the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training--were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow." These systems must now be transformed, the speaker concluded, so that "all citizens are equipped, prepared, and thus truly free" in the twenty-first century.
The orator was not John Kerry or John Edwards. It was George W. Bush, accepting the Republican nomination. And Bush was not calling for universal health insurance or expanded pension coverage--the seemingly obvious ways to repair "systems" built for the "world of yesterday." He was introducing his proposals for an "ownership society," the centerpiece of which, then and now, is overhauling Social Security to shift risks and costs onto the very workers most disadvantaged by the social and economic shifts of the last generation.
The contradiction is no accident. Bush and his allies recognize that the major domestic challenge of the twenty-first century is to give workers economic security in a transformed world. Just listen to conservative message guru Frank Luntz: "Every day, more Americans are concerned about their personal job security and their individual financial situation." Even as the president's drive to overhaul Social Security sinks into the political abyss, Bush has denounced critics of the effort for denying younger workers "the same sense of security that previous generations had when it came time for them to retire."
Yet, across the board, current Republican plans to tackle rising insecurity--from private accounts in Social Security to medical savings accounts to tax reform--promise one thing and do another. They promise to protect workers and their families against economic risk. What they will do is shift more risk onto Americans' already burdened shoulders. The conservative response to rising insecurity is equivalent to tossing a lead weight to a drowning man on the assumption that, now, he will really have an incentive to swim. It gets the problem right but the policies all wrong.
By contrast, Democrats are fighting the good fight on Social Security, successfully beating back the most vigorous assault the program has ever faced. Yet they find themselves completely unable to articulate a larger role for government that both justifies their opposition to the president's agenda and grounds a coherent alternative philosophy. Polls show that voters trust Democrats over Republicans on almost every domestic policy topic. But polls also show that most Americans don't think Democrats know what they stand for, while Republicans--even if their ideas aren't that popular--do.
The members of the party that brought us the nation's most popular and successful domestic program shouldn't be in this fix. The philosophy they need to respond to the new world of work and family lies just under their noses--in the now-almost-forgotten genesis of Social Security and the ideal of economic security that animated it.
As Peter Beinart has written in these pages ("A Fighting Faith," December 13, 2004), liberalism's "vital center" on foreign policy was forged in the crucible of the cold war. A similar--and just as intellectually important--story can be told with regard to liberalism on the domestic front. Yet the catalyst for this vital center was not the cold war. It was the Great Depression.
Although the Depression was a watershed in liberal thinking about the economy, there was nothing automatic about the reforms eventually embraced. Nor did the New Dealers simply dream up a coherent program once the scope of the disaster became clear. Instead, they drew on a wide range of often well-established ideas and precedents, guided by an abiding conviction: Capitalism needed to be "made good."
Making capitalism good implied many things: public employment, the taming of monopolies, relief for the destitute. Yet the most important ideal--and certainly the most enduring--was insurance. The word is familiar today, but, in the 1930s, it had a radical air. Insurance was an affirmation of free will over fate. If not an effort to stay the hand of God, it was an attempt to soften His blow. And it rested on modern actuarial science. The genius of insurance, especially when coupled with the power of the state to require participation, was that it could transform individual misfortunes into social costs distributed broadly across the citizenry. "Social insurance," as it came to be called, transformed the dislocations of modern capitalism into risks that could be managed and redistributed, rather than blows of fate that could only be feared and suffered.
Though radical in its assertion of human control, the insurance ideal was otherwise quite conservative. Insurance was about stabilizing capitalism, not stabbing it. It was about giving workers "a floor of protection," not a luxurious carpet of wealth. The executive director of Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security noted proudly that "only to a very minor degree does [the Social Security Act] modify the distribution of wealth, and it does not alter at all the fundamentals of our capitalistic and individualist economy."
The insurance ideal calls for neither tight economic regulation nor massive redistribution, and, in that sense, it is conservative. Yet it is also eminently progressive. Economic security, after all, is something the affluent take for granted. Social insurance extends such guarantees to those least capable of obtaining them on their own--namely, those with limited means or a high probability of needing assistance. FDR put it best in 1938: "We must face the fact that, in this country, we have a rich man's security and a poor man's security, and that the government owes equal obligations to both. National security is not a half-and-half matter: It is all or none."
As Roosevelt's words suggest, national security was always seen by New Dealers as having both a domestic and a foreign component. Indeed, foreign threats made security at home even more vital. War meant shared sacrifice and shared fate. There could be no "rich man's security" when poor and rich were fighting beside each other, no "rich man's security" when the fates of all citizens were so intertwined.
Today, the ideal of economic security seems dated to many. But the exact opposite is true. The big economic trends of the past 30 years--deregulation, deindustrialization, increased foreign competition, the decline of unions, the transformation of the family from single breadwinners into two-earners balancing work and kids--have all created powerful new forces pushing toward increased insecurity. Americans are richer than they were a generation ago. But they are also facing much more dramatic swings in their income, as I have argued before in these pages ("False Positive," August 16, 2004). Over the past decade, moreover, insecurity has moved up the economic ladder. Increasingly, educated middle-class Americans are riding the economic roller coaster once reserved for the working poor.
The signs of this transformation are hard to miss. Forty-five million Americans lack health insurance, up more than six million from 2000. One and a half million file for bankruptcy each year, roughly half of them because of medical crises. Traditional guaranteed pensions are all but gone. Now, workers lucky enough to get a pension rely on so-called defined-contribution plans that place the investment risk on them. And, while unemployment is low, the job market is more uncertain.
Government and corporate policies have mostly exacerbated, rather than countered, this great risk shift. Employment-based benefits have been in steep decline for more than two decades, particularly for low-wage workers. Meanwhile, public social programs leave growing gaps. Overwhelmingly focused on the aged, they leave out key protections for the long-term unemployed and medically uninsured, as well as those who suffer permanent income loss after their skills become obsolete. They are not always friendly to part-time and contingent workers or the selfemployed. And they do little to help families balance work and child-rearing. All of which means that the intensified risks of the post-'70s era have been borne mostly by working Americans and their families.
Against this backdrop, it's little wonder Americans remain so pessimistic about the economy. President Bush keeps saying the "economy is strong, and it's getting stronger." But Americans don't believe it. Unfortunately, Americans also don't believe that government can effectively address the problem of rising insecurity. In a recent series of focus groups, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that middle-class Americans "believe traditional relationships that formerly provided some security are disappearing." Yet they also believe that "government is corrupt and neither trustworthy nor a source of solutions." The middle-class response to rising insecurity, according to the EPI's focus groups, is blunt and resigned: "It's up to me."
All of which suggests that there may well be a method to the madness of Bush's calls for an "ownership society." The Republican agenda is to replace existing protections with highly individualized private accounts and then let the chips fall where they may. This strategy may help the affluent and fortunate, but it won't provide strong guarantees of economic security to most Americans. A recent analysis by Yale economist Robert Shiller drives this home, predicting that nearly 50 percent of Americans who opt into private Social Security accounts based on the formula recommended by Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security would fail to break even, while the tenth of account holders who are least fortunate would lose around $50,000 in net retirement wealth.
Yet, while the ownership society can't guarantee economic security, it fits perfectly with the idea that "it's up to me"--that Americans are on their own in the new world of work and family. And, the more Americans believe that, the more likely it is that they will support conservative politicians who want to shift even more risk onto their shoulders. Call it the vicious cycle of insecurity--if Americans feel no one can help them, they will back leaders who won't. In the '30s, Democrats saw economic security as the keystone of a broad coalition in support of their party. Today, Republicans appear to see economic insecurity in much the same way.
Economic security resonates with Americans for a simple reason: It matters to them, to their families, to their pocketbooks. Fairly or unfairly, liberalism came to be seen as a great campaign on behalf of the other: the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized minority. This was a sinister caricature grounded in a shining truth: Liberalism did stand up for the dispossessed in the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s. But, as a guide to liberalism's achievements in domestic policy, it was a smear--and an ironic one--because the ideal of economic security purposefully avoided the differences of race and culture that ultimately helped tar it.
Today, however, there is little need to choose between alternative frames. Economic security is something vital for all Americans. There is no core group that is comfortably secure, while a marginalized "other" peers in from the outside. To the contrary, the vast majority of Americans--black and white, poor and middle class--are now in the same turbulent sea of economic uncertainty. The sociologist Mark Rank has estimated that more than half of white Americans will spend at least a year below the poverty line by the time they are 75 (the results are not materially changed by excluding college students). For most, the time spent poor will be short, but it will be unpleasant, unwelcome, and often unavoidable--a result of one of the routine but wrenching events that commonly push people over the brink: ill health, divorce, a death in the family, loss of employment. The problem of insecurity is not the problem of persistent poverty. It is the problem of often devastating hardships that can strike almost all of us. When it comes to events like these, shared insurance isn't something we do for others; it is something we do for ourselves and our families that we cannot do alone.
This is one reason why social insurance gives more to those who contribute more (while still favoring those with low earnings and those who experience economic crises). Critics of social insurance deride payments to the nonpoor as a form of political bribery. But insurance is not relief. It is meant to protect standards of living, to keep families from approaching poverty's frightening gates. Bush's newly favored idea of "progressive indexation" within Social Security, in which the benefits of poor workers hold steady while those of middle-income workers are sharply cut, threatens the whole bargain. The message is that economic security isn't for families trying to get ahead; it's for those stuck at the bottom.
And that's exactly the wrong message. Economic security is a cornerstone of economic opportunity, and the common treatment of the two ends as antithetical could not be more mistaken. Like businesses, people invest in the future when they have basic protection against the downside risks of their choices. Excessive fear of loss thwarts, rather than promotes, advancement by encouraging people to take individually rational, but collectively suboptimal, steps to protect themselves. The worker who fears downsizing at any moment may work harder for a time. But, in the long run, insecure workers tend to underinvest in specialized training; they are more reluctant to change jobs; they try to minimize their sense of job commitment to protect themselves against psychological loss. And, of course, none of these costs include the huge emotional and economic losses that fall on workers and their families when they lose their prime source of income and self-worth and are left without a lifeline.
Americans seem to understand this. Students of public opinion have long marveled at Americans' seemingly inconsistent celebration of government insurance programs, on the one hand and the ethic of rugged individualism on the other. Americans are "operational liberals" and "philosophical conservatives," public opinion analysts Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril once argued. They want to have their welfare-state cake and eat their free-market capitalism, too. But why not? If Americans are to be encouraged to invest in new skills, strong families, new jobs, and everything else that makes upward mobility possible, we need a bigger umbrella of basic insurance, not a smaller and more tattered one. Back in 2003, Bush's Economic Report of the President said that it was the job of government to provide "the economic environment in which risk-takers and entrepreneurs create jobs." Apparently, Bush thinks the only folks taking economic risks are the well-off and corporations, not ordinary Americans.
Still, Bush was right when he suggested, in his 2004 convention speech, that the systems that provide security and opportunity were "created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow." Insecurity is still very much with us. But its nature and causes have changed dramatically--and in ways that are not always well-recognized. Even as working women became the norm, the special strains faced by two-earner families were largely neglected. So, too, were the distinctive unemployment patterns that became increasingly prevalent as industrial jobs gave way to service work and workers' skills required more frequent updating.
In the new world of work and family, the emphasis should be on portable insurance to help families deal with temporary interruptions to income and big blows to household wealth. And these insurance protections should be mostly separate from work for a particular employer, sponsored either by government or private communal associations. By the same token, we should not let massive social risks be borne by Band-Aid institutions that do not distribute those risks broadly or efficiently. Bankruptcy should not be a backdoor social insurance system; private charity care should not be our main medical safety net; early retirement and disability programs shouldn't be a way of simply shedding older workers--and not because these systems are prone to abuse, but because they were not designed to bear the burden they now carry, much less to carry it effectively or equitably.
The concrete ideas for achieving these goals will have to be thought through at length, of course. Yet the details should not be allowed to upstage the aspiration. There is no shortage of plans to expand insurance; I have tried to peddle a few myself. But, though plans abound, their advocates have largely failed to develop a compelling logic that unites them under a common umbrella and ties them to practical politics. The need for economic security in the new world of work and family is such a logic, and it is one that could unify a wide range of forces behind a new Democratic agenda.
In May, the Pew Research Center released its "political typology" survey for 2005. Perhaps the most telling finding was that two groups of Republican-leaning voters identified by Pew, each representing one-tenth of the electorate, depart sharply from the anti-government line of the party's affluent backers. These voters (which Pew labels "progovernment conservatives" and "disaffecteds") aren't hard-core social conservatives, though many are deeply religious; they're mostly middle-class white men and women with less than a college degree. And what's most striking about these voters is how strongly they support public guarantees of economic security. By two-to-one majorities, they endorse government-guaranteed health insurance. Virtually all want the minimum wage raised. Most want government to help the needy. Democrats have been spinning themselves in circles trying to lessen such voters' animosity on foreign policy. They might do better to give them what they want on economic policy.
"New ideas" are not enough. What is needed is a morally grounded call for a new social contract in which government helps Americans who "work hard and play by the rules"--in Bill Clinton's memorable phraseology--to deal with the pressing economic risks of the twenty-first century. The debate over Social Security is the place to begin the battle. Yet, even here, the Democrats have too often let the technical outshine the moral, and they may soon lack the plump target that the president's flawed Social Security reform plan has come to represent. If Democrats want to seize the high ground, they need their own clear vision of an "insurance and opportunity society"--a vision that challenges the massive shift of risk onto families and promises the security needed for true advancement.
Denouncing Republicans' ethical and procedural abuses is not enough either. Republicans certainly deserve the charges. But the conceit that it was complaints like these that paved the way for the Republican capture of Congress in 1994 misses the larger lesson of the GOP takeover. Newt Gingrich and his fellow insurgents weren't afraid to cry corruption or criticize abuses. Yet their cries were animated by a single big idea--that government had run amok, trampling commerce, freedom, and Americans' pocketbooks.
The Gingrich revolutionaries soon faltered, of course. But it's now clear that their efforts sowed the seeds for the GOP's aggressive exercise of power today. Those seeds were ideological and organizational; they consisted of ideas linked to institutions and were pushed to the top of the political agenda by an increasingly coordinated party. Democrats are not going to build a comparable movement overnight. But, if any political fight presents an opportunity to begin the difficult work of reforging a majority political coalition on favored Democratic terrain, it is the fight over economic security.
In 1938, when he called for national security for all, FDR described insecurity as the nation's last great frontier, setting the agenda for his party for the next three decades. Today, however, the frontier of insecurity is closing back in. As Bush's troubles on Social Security show, Americans are not yet ready to give up on the ideal of shared fate. Let us hope that Democrats are not either.
Copyright 2005, The New Republic