Thursday, June 09, 2005

Social Security and the metaphysics of ownership

Like a good mischievous philosopher, I've been thinking of ways that we could give the "Ownership Society" people the metaphysical comforts that they want from Social Security while not actually changing anything. "Ownership Society" people are those who think something's gained when you change Social Security into a program where beneficiaries actually own the resources that fund their retirement, rather than having money dispensed to them by the government. Most people don't care about ownership versus entitlements -- they just care about being provided for in their retirement, and the distinction is immaterial to them. In fact, this entire post is probably worthless because "Ownership Society" people live only in the imagination of some Republican speechwriter. Anyway, the following is my plan to give Social Security beneficiaries ownership of actual assets (at least as much as the Bush plan does):

We issue all future Social Security beneficiaries a certificate entitling them to a chunk of money determined according to the formula for calculating Social Security benefits each month after they pass age 65. We don't have to actually give these certificates to people -- we can just keep them all in a vault somewhere in the names of their owners. The owners will be restricted from selling them to others and pocketing the money, to make sure everybody has the stuff they need for their retirement. Now rejoice, for they have ownership of the assets that provide for them in advanced age!

Keep in mind here that it's perfectly reasonable to call someone the owner of a thing she's never seen that just sits in a bank vault, which entitles her to a stream of funds from a third party, and which she can't trade to others for spendable money. If you use your private account under the Bush plan to buy shares in an income-oriented mutual fund, that's what you own. (Actually, I don't know if there's even a paper document that realizes the property of being a mutual fund share. For stocks there are stock certificates, but mutual fund ownership might just live in a computer somewhere.)

I'd hope to build ownership-person support for a system functionally identical to the status quo with this post, but since there are no ownership people, I just wasted a half hour.


Mary said...

Neil, you are my hero. This is my new life strategy..."give people the metaphysical comforts that they want...while not actually changing anything." Actually, that might be my old life strategy. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm pretty sure that's how it works right now. Do you remember Bush's publicity stunt where he went down to the office that held paper copies of the social security guarantee certificates, and faux-lamented that even in the 21st century all the Social Security guarantees amounted to were a bunch of pieces of paper in a filing cabinet?

- Baxil,

Neil Sinhababu said...

Basil, those were bonds owned by the Social Security Administration. They weren't property owned by individuals. Under the current system, I don't think any of us owns anything until the government mails us a check.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Oops sorry Baxil not Basil.

Baxil said...

Ah, thanks for the clarification.