A spirited and historically panoramic defense of the U.S. Social Security program.
Social Security has been a lightning rod of contentious political debate since its enactment by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935; 80 years later, the vigor with which it’s debated has not diminished at all. Altman (co-author: Social Security Works!, 2015, etc.) essentially forwards three provocative claims: Social Security has been a marvelously effective and well-managed program; it’s grotesquely and often opportunistically misunderstood; and instead of being curtailed or eliminated, it should be expanded. The author’s argument aims to debunk the long-standing, and in her opinion either ignorant or disingenuous, arguments against the program. For example, it was never intended as either welfare or a retirement savings plan but as wage insurance. And it’s not bankrupt nor just a pile of unredeemed IOU’s or a drain on the federal budget. In fact, it is scrupulously managed, self-financing, and adds absolutely nothing to the deficit since it’s entirely separate from the federal government’s general fund. Altman’s approach is uniquely historical—she looks at the speeches and writings of those who originally designed the program, like Roosevelt, and those who subsequently defended it, like Eisenhower. She also discusses Social Security as a consummation of fundamental American ideals like individualism and self-sufficiency, situating her defense within an overarching political philosophy. Altman’s expertise is extraordinary. Her credentials are excellent (Altman was on the faculty of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and taught courses on the subject of Social Security at Harvard Law School), and this is almost certainly the most wide-ranging documentary history of Social Security available. Also, she ably draws attention to issues often neglected in debates over the program’s viability; for example, she highlights the ways it has been one of the most potent legislative antidotes to poverty ever devised. Unfortunately, the tone of the study is consistently peremptory—any and all criticisms of Social Security are dismissed as “zombie lies,” “propaganda,” and “straw man arguments,” and she likes to claim her very complex arguments are “painfully simple.”
An analytically challenging but breathlessly partisan political tract.