Moynihan’s Valedictory: Saving Social Security Is the Only Priority

“It is the goddamnest thing that nobody wants to talk about those things.”

Speaking was the man who will soon relinquish his title as New York’s senior U.S. senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. On a recent afternoon in Washington, D.C., the senator was talking about “those things” that he thinks need to be done to sustain the Social Security system. Yet again, he is talking about a great, slow, glaring, cracking glacier of American social policy, and he is talking about it in a way that few others can and fewer will.

“Here’s the problem,” said the most evoked, least emulated political figure of the year. “Democrats feel they have been winning on the issue of saying ‘we’ll protect your Social Security; those people want to take it away.’”

In a few months, when the Senate finally sees the famously hunched back of him, there will be a flood of reminiscence on Mr. Moynihan’s long career as an elected official and a policymaker, a man who, in the course of discussing the origins of Social Security, can recall personal conversations he had with New Deal Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. His staccato, professorial speaking style is like no other senator’s, as is his grasp of history. (Recalling his earliest service in government, the 73-year-old senator noted, adding a gale of enthusiasm to a seeming shard of obscurity, “I had a nominal oversight of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is an old institution, older than the Department of Labor, and among other things it calculates the Consumer Price Index, which was begun in 1919 to adjust the wages of the shipyard workers. “) He made room for the courtly, baseless assumption that his listener might have a remotely similar brain or background. (“Tell me if you know all this; do you know all this?”)

Without uttering an untoward syllable, Mr. Moynihan can draw a distinction that neither of his would-be successors seems, so far, to discern: the distinction between claiming his mantle and earning it.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has not talked about Social Security with Mr. Moynihan. “No,” said the senator, when asked whether his aspiring successor, who is always praising his quality of leadership on just such major matters, had consulted him on this one. “Nor anyone in the White House.” Representative Rick Lazio, following the lead of Texas Governor George W. Bush, has not talked about the tough parts.

Mr. Moynihan has spoken with Vice President Gore, but not, it turns out, to much avail. By contrast, Mr. Moynihan has never spoken to Mr. Bush on the subject. The two seem to have struck up an amazing intellectual kinship nonetheless: Mr. Bush invokes Mr. Moynihan by way of advocating the bipartisan virtues of allowing workers to invest 2 of the 12 percent Social Security tax. But the Republican presidential candidate stays away from the stick in Mr. Moynihan’s carrot-and-stick approach. “We call it part one, part two,” said the senator of his reform-and-reward formulation. “Governor Bush has not said anything about part one.

“I have had this little game I’ve played for the last couple of years,” said Mr. Moynihan. “I’ve sent up to the President’s chief of staff a big loose-leaf binder with a ream of paper and a cover that says, ‘Social Security Saved: Report of the Task Force of the President’s Commission on Social Security.’ Page one is four items. And the other 499 pages are blank.”

The four items consist of what the senator calls part one of his plan, and it is the hard, structural overhaul part. The plan would adjust the Consumer Price Index, to which Social Security benefits are tied, so that it accurately reflects the rate of inflation, as opposed to outstripping it. It would tax the Social Security retirement benefit. It would admit all newly hired state and local employees to the program. And it would average the benefit owed over a span of 38 years, rather than 35 years. “You don’t do those- all of them-you’re out of whack and you’re under water,” said the senator. “You start living off general revenue.”

But then there is part two, the part that allows workers to take 2 percent of their payroll tax, as federal employees already can, and invest it in stocks or securities of various degrees of risk. As a federal employee of long standing, Mr. Moynihan has firsthand experience with the second part of his two-part plan. “Well, being a child of the Depression, I took the government securities,” he said of his investment choice. “I haven’t done spectacularly, but you know, I’ve got $109,000.… And my dear Vicky, my secretary; she, of course, took the [riskier] fund. Now she’s sort of rich!”

Perhaps, on some level that is clear to those with Ph.D.’s in economics, this plan is seriously flawed. No matter. Even if some point made by Mr. Moynihan on this is wrong, the point about Mr. Moynihan is clear. He’s thinking about these issues, and proposing remedies, at a time when others prefer to avoid them.

The point goes to an even larger, more pervasive problem. It is, at its base, a language problem.

Word Games

“Semantic infiltration,” the senator called it. He was talking about how the 1996 welfare bill was dubbed a “welfare reform” measure when, in fact, the legislation repealed, not reformed, the federal welfare system. “That’s the one thing we can show for the 1990s: We repealed Title 4a of the Social Security Act.”

But the phrase-semantic infiltration-applies all over American politics, a politics wherein pre-polled terms are piped into American life like Muzak into a mall. Hence the current sort of general anesthesia that allows huge things to happen without the average person feeling a thing.

Whether or not Mr. Moynihan is right about this or that premise of his Social Security plan, he wants you to feel the changes at hand, and in this he is perhaps unique.

In the decision to fight, furiously, only over the notion of personal retirement accounts, both major presidential candidates have tacitly agreed to fight over the dessert of this debate, thus leaving the dinner alone.

“What we don’t want to face is the fact that unless you do the part one, the system will disappear on you,” said Mr. Moynihan.

This is why it makes one queasy to hear Mr. Moynihan’s fellow politicians say how much they enjoy hearing the senator’s obscure lessons on, say, the influence of the German labor movement on American social policy. Sure, Mr. Moynihan digresses at times. But very often, his obscurities serve to illuminate hidden verities.

Take the business about the Consumer Price Index and the 1919 shipyard workers. It sounds quaint. But it’s key. In the early 1960′s, Mr. Moynihan and the economists at the Labor Department “had a big think” about how to solve the problem of the Consumer Price Index and the rate of inflation, but decided that the problem was not, in the end, really worth solving. Why? At the time, the Consumer Price Index was used largely to negotiate labor contracts, which meant that the extra dough was coming out of the pocket of private industry, and therefore it was up to private industry, not the Labor Department, to adjust it or pay up. But then it slowly migrated to its present perch in the world of Social Security. By the mid-60′s, “we began to get a biannual auction in the Senate and the House on how much to increase benefits,” he said. “Well, the money was rolling in. There weren’t that many people retiring, [Congress] offered-what is it Bob Kennedy suggested?-[a] 25 percent [increase].… We did do 20 percent.” The executive branch had a fit. In 1972, four years before Mr. Moynihan arrived in Congress, the benefit was tied to the Consumer Price Index. Therefore, a figure that had small impact on government spending came to have an enormous impact on government spending. “The difference in numbers does not seem to be large,” said the senator, “but it has huge consequences.”

Reform by Destruction

Mr. Moynihan’s warnings about Social Security have a more-than-faint echo of his previous calls for meaningful welfare reform. The Democratic establishment treated him as a heretic, and treated welfare as a sacred cow. Then, around 1992, the Democratic establishment turned on the welfare crowd, and in 1994, the American public turned against the Democratic establishment. And the sacred cow got slaughtered.

“Up until 1990 you couldn’t write that sentence- repeal the provision for women and children,” he said. By 1996, it turned out, you could.

Very few others call the welfare bill a “repeal,” except, of course, you know who.

Then there are the semantics of “the center.” From now to November, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lazio, and almost all other Republicans running against Democrats will be engaged in rhetorical skirmishes over who is the true moderate, who is the true centrist, who is a true pragmatist. “The era of big government is over,” Hillary’s husband informed us a few years back. “I am a New Democrat,” she often declares. Fine. But just to be clear: The Democratic standard-bearer is now proposing a plan in which the largest government program remains in the hands of the government, requiring said government to run huge surpluses. And if those don’t materialize, the problem will be taken care of by … the federal government. “Pretty soon it ceases to be an insurance system and it’s conspicuously a wealth transfer from the working population to the senior population; not within the system but from outside the system,” Mr. Moynihan pointed out.

Then, last but never least, we come to the semantics of “the children.” Politicians love children. To follow any candidate is to hear all about the children: We must care for the children; protect the children; nurture the children. Curious, then, that the Democrats are so upset about Mr. Moynihan’s solution for Social Security: They are arguing against it on the grounds that it is not optimal for those who are now middle-aged and over.

It’s fine to be a big-government supporter. It is fine to make big changes. It is fine to enshrine the system as is. It is fine to advocate for people who are already well into their work lives. But to do those things in the midst of proclaiming oneself a moderate interested in reform for the sake of the future and its children seems a little cheeky.

As for Mrs. Clinton: “Let us see what she does,” he said. The senator won’t predict but he certainly could. “We have to wait and see who is going to talk about our four points,” he said, pushing the hard part again. “And the answer is: No one.”