By William B. Turner
Paul Ryan, the supposed policy wonk of the Republican Party (!), sees a looming problem with Social Security and Medicare. This problem has been obvious for at least twenty, if not thirty years, now, and in some ways, may be getting worse, but Ryan’s solution is just the sort of ideological stupidity one would expect from him.
It really is true that there was what we now call a “baby boom” right after World War II. This set off the stupid, pernicious impulse to try to designate every subsequent birth cohort according to “generation whatever,” which is why we have to wade through copious quantities of garbage about “millennials” these days, as if any generalization about millions of people would be worth the pixels it appears on your screen in.
But, in fact, millions of soldiers returning from service in World War II did result in a noteworthy upsurge in the birthrate after the decade of the Great Depression, when births briefly fell below population-sustaining levels for the first time in the history of the United States. That was 1945. People born in the first year of the baby boom will turn 73 next year. They started retiring in large numbers about eight years ago.
Social Security has amassed a trust fund that is invested in U.S. treasury bonds, the single safest financial investment on the planet – when Republicans aren’t playing politics with the debt ceiling – and cashes bonds in for funds from the general treasury as any other owner of U.S. treasury bonds may do when it needs the money. Even with tens of billions of dollars in it, the people who mind these things predict that it will run out of money in about another ten years or so at current rates. Having the trust fund run out of money would precipitate a significant reduction in benefits to retirees.
There are various ways to solve this problem. One obvious one is to raise or eliminate the salary cap on Social Security taxes. At the moment, once one’s income exceeds a certain amount, one stops paying Social Security taxes entirely. This is a policy choice that we can adjust any time we want, given the political will. The Republicans will not choose this option because they are opposed, in good reactionary fashion, to any tax increase of any sort. This is stupid, but again: they’re Republicans.
Indeed, all of the obvious, easy solutions are currently impossible politically because they contravene Republican dogma.
Ryan’s proposed solution is trebly stupid. He says people in the United States need to have more children.
There are already too many people on the planet. We are badly over taxing the ability of the planet to support us all, especially as more and more people aspire to the standard of living most people in the United States take for granted. The spread of air conditioning and refrigeration causes demand for electricity to increase dramatically. Already, in some parts of the world, significant numbers of persons have trouble surviving for lack of food and water. That is partly a function of wars, but wars will not become less common if we add yet more people.
Another potential solution in the United States is to encourage more immigration. One cannot sensibly claim that we need more children at home and also that we are running out of space for immigrants. Well, unless one is a Republican and cares not for logical consistency.
This demand for more children (from native born, white families) is not a new thing for Republicans. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt stated his concern for “race suicide.” Neither Roosevelt nor Ryan would put the point so baldly, but they mean white people. Roosevelt spoke during a huge spike in immigration to the United States, increasingly from southern and eastern Europe – people we would designate today as “white,” but who’s whiteness was not firmly established at the time, especially since a lot of them were Catholic, or Greek or Russian Orthodox. Not any of the good, Protestant flavors of Christianity that were the standard in the U.S. An even worse horror, some were Jews!
Immigrants do tend to have larger families than the native born in the United States, but their children tend to adapt quickly to the prevailing culture and have smaller families.
But, with the so-called president demonizing undocumented immigrants and Muslims, now is not the time for any Republican to advocate admitting more immigrants. Ideology and stupid Republican politics get in the way of sensible policy solutions.
Ryan likes his proposal because it allows him to assert that he’s done his part – he and his wife have three children. Yawn.
The timing of this proposal is off. If the Social Security trust fund is going to run out of money in about ten years, having children now will not help because they will not be old enough to work in time, barring some sort of godawful Republican child labor strategy.
Then, of course, there are all manner of policy options we could pursue that might help women be more willing to have more children, although the experience of various European countries raises doubts about this. Still, most of these options are good ideas in their own right that we should adopt.
Oddly (except that they’re Republicans), we never hear from the “family values” Party any support for programs that would provide various forms of support for expectant mothers and new babies, such as public support for prenatal healthcare or high-quality daycare. It is counterintuitive, but explicit support for contraceptives and abortion rights might help move the birth rate up because women will be more likely to have babies if they feel like their reproductive choices command the respect of the larger society. Again, ideology and stupid Republican politics get in the way of sensible policy solutions.
Ample family leave for both parents would also help.
Real support for adoption, without discrimination against lesbian and gay parents, would be a big step. Conservative Christians even oppose in vitro fertilization and other methods of making babies. Ryan needs to talk to them.
Or, even better, he needs to stop talking entirely. As usual, the supposed policy genius of the Republican Party has nothing useful to say on an important policy topic.