The problem with Nancy Altman’s book, The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble, is not, as the title suggests, that it is deeply partisan. Rather the problem is that it is partisanship of the worst kind: one fraught with theoretical contradictions that undermine the author’s argument.
Altman has three clear agendas in this book. The first is to survey the history and making of the Social Security system. The second is to attack President Bush. The third is to put forth a policy reform plan which Altman claims would be “pain-free” for almost all Americans. The irony is that the first agenda is inconsistent with the latter two making this book a vacuous contribution to Social Security scholarship.
In the first thirteen of seventeen chapters, Altman provides an account of the development and modifications of the Social Security system since the 1930s. The level of detail and care in exposition given to these chapters are impressive and serve as the sole strengths of the book. Rather than limiting discussion to the obvious critical historical junctures–the system’s inception and the major reforms of 1977 and 1983–Altman uses Social Security as a lens to look at the entire history of American elections and politics. Through her use of narrative and little known facts, she engages the reader through seventy years of what otherwise could have been a very dull historical report.
Readers must be cautioned, however, not to become blinded by their engagement with the pace and liveliness of the first part of the book. While there is a wealth of interesting information, its presentation is most definitely selective. She often subjectively depicts matters of the historical record that cause her to leave out critical information about Social Security. For example, she spends pages upon pages discussing the concerns of the Roosevelt administration about whether or not the Supreme Court would reject the constitutionality of the New Deal, as well as the Court’s reasons for ultimately not rejecting it. However, she never mentions the 1960 Supreme Court case, Fleming v. Nestor, in which the Court ruled that workers do not have property rights to their Social Security taxes or to future benefits. Because Fleming, too, shapes Social Security’s history and the rights encompassed by the system, it is hardly a detail worth leaving out in a book of this sort–but Altman does.
Not only is there a problem regarding what is left unsaid, but, given the density of some of the reports and narratives, a thorough reader would also begin to wonder about what is said. From the high degree of historical detail one gets the sense that Altman had been contemplating telling the story of the Social Security’s history for quite some time–perhaps she was simply waiting for the right moment. According to an interview Altman gave the AARP in November 2005, this instinct is not entirely misplaced: she stated that the impetus for her writing the book was President Bush’s “60 stops in 60 days” speaking tour during which time he announced his intention to reform Social Security. The extent to which this book becomes an attempt to capitalize on contemporary politics becomes even clearer as Altman takes a dramatic shift from discussing the development of a public policy to preaching her second agenda, attacking the President, from a political soapbox.
As the title of the book reveals, Altman is no friend to Bush’s reform proposals, but like or dislike of the sitting President is not relevant to evaluating Altman’s message. Her real mistake is that she attacks President Bush for displaying the very same qualities that she used to flatter FDR in the opening chapters of the book. For example, in chapter three, Altman states FDR had a vision of social security as insurance because he was “acutely conscious of the debilitating quality of fear, he wanted all workers to have the peace of mind and security that they would be insured against their dependency on wages” (p. 34). Perhaps she was hoping readers would forget this defense of a “visionary” as someone with a principled commitment to the public good 200 pages later. Altman critiques Bush for his wish to secure the future of individuals by creating a Social Security system that fosters ownership, and she labels Bush’s beliefs a gamble without providing any empirical evidence of any real risk involved in Bush’s plan. While Altman may not agree with the principles that shape Bush’s vision, he is no doubt a visionary in the same sense that Roosevelt was. Both men were motivated to create policy because of a commitment to personal beliefs about what would improve American lives. The fact that they have different visions hardly makes one man a visionary and the other a gambler.
An additional example of hypocrisy is evident in Altman’s discussion of presidential advisors. She reports about FDR’s Commission for Economic Security (CES), which was established to help create a social security system in a fashion consistent with FDR’s mission, and she speaks of it with high regard. Later, she takes Bush to task for his 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security, stating: “It was not a commission to consider what should be done; rather, it was a commission to advise the president how to do what he had already made up his mind to do” (p. 265). That may be true, but so was the CES for those readers keeping track.
Altman’s contradictions extend beyond politics and to her third agenda, a policy a reform plan, proposed in Chapter 16. The first prong of her plan would reinstitute the estate tax and make it a dedicated Social Security Tax. Numbers aside, she argues that “dedicating the residual estate tax to Social Security reduces a burden unfairly placed exclusively on workers” (p.300). This opinion is ironic given that she earlier describes the fact that it was critical to FDR and other policymakers that social security be an earned benefit related to income: no one wanted a blanket welfare system that would have the elderly living off the dole. While Altman may personally feel that it would be more fair if Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates supported future retirees, that sentiment finds no justification in the first half of her book–or in all of Social Security’s history for that matter.
Another incongruous prong of her plan is that she states that the Social Security Trust Fund should begin to be invested in stocks and bonds. Leaving aside the problem of government interference in capital markets, Altman, who earlier criticized Bush for his risk tolerance, becomes a bit of gambler herself and, consequently, undermines her argument with her book’s own title.
At its core, The Battle for Saving Social Security is replete with hypocritical mistakes made from the blind spot of partisan politics. It accomplishes little more than preaching some historical background to the choir of those who already favor the current system. Undecided or pro-privatization readers on the other hand will find themselves alienated by Altman’s selective portrayal of information and hopeless contradictions.
The Social Security debate is definitely in need of honest and thoroughgoing research to discover ways in which the system could be improved, but Nancy Altman’s book is not it.
Nicola Moore is the Education Director of Students for Saving Social Security. She has earned bachelor’s degrees from Boston University in Economics and Philosophy, cum laude, and a master’s degree from The London School of Economics in Philosophy, Policy, and Social Value, with Merit.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire