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Opening Arguments

Growing pains

Would Franklin Roosevelt approve of Social Security as it exists today? The question might seem absurd at first, writes Robert Samuelson, but consider that Roosevelt envisioned a contributory pension plan, because a "pay-as-you-go" plan would creater huge debts or much higher taxes as the number of retirees expanded. But that's exactly where he are today:

Millions of Americans believe (falsely) that their payroll taxes have been segregated to pay for their benefits and that, therefore, they “earned” these benefits. To reduce them would be to take something that is rightfully theirs. Indeed, Roosevelt — believing he had created a contributory program — said exactly that:

“We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions. . . . No damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”

What we have is a vast welfare program grafted onto the rhetoric and psychology of a contributory pension. The result is entitlement. Unsurprisingly, AARP’s advertising slogan is “You’ve earned a say” on Social Security. The trouble is that contributions weren’t saved. They went to past beneficiaries. The $2.6 trillion in the Social Security trust fund at year-end 2010 sounds like a lot but equals slightly more than three years of benefits.

Government programs never cost only what they are originally projected to cost, and they are never limited in scope to the parameters orginally describd. They always cost more and cover more. As scary as the cost and and overreach of Obamacare are, the truly frightening thing is how that program might will grow over the years.