This is a morality tale, springing from the old saying, “I lost it at the Astor.” For the benefit of the newborn (age 70 or younger), the Astor was a hotel with a famous bar popular with the young, at which seductions were frequently initiated, resulting in the loss of virginity. The Astor, reconceived in formal economic terms, usefully summons John Maynard Keynes as the great seducer–so that one can ruminate, with appropriate melancholy, on the theme of, “I lost it with Keynes.” What was lost was the innate sense of national husbandry, which taught us that deficit spending was wrong. Why? Because it was simply wrong–not right, not moral–to spend money you hadn’t set aside.
Keynes taught us, of course, that deficit spending is morally neutral. It is simply an instrument of economic policy, useful–indeed, invaluable–in correcting maladjustments. If there is great unemployment, and the impulse to spend is anaesthetized, you get things like national depressions. To avoid these you need to deploy hot cash into the economy, such as will revitalize consumption, induce production, and restore full employment. Say’s Law (Jean-Baptiste Say, 1767-1832) taught that there can’t really be overproduction, because the appetite of man is infinite. If therefore there is unemployment, that’s because something has got in the way of the impulse to satisfy the appetite. In Keynesian doctrine, what got in the way was an imbalance between production and consumption which is mitigated by federal spending.
Of course Keynes was absolutely right on that score, and for 60 years deficit spending has been approved even by people who thought themselves impregnable to the lures of misbehavior at the Astor.
But what crept into the act, with the acceptance of deficit spending as required for national economic policy, was an attitude of detachment toward the old principle that you should not spend what you do not have. And this detachment is degenerate, as witness popular political attitudes on the matter of Social Security.
President Bush didn’t attack the Social Security problem in moral terms. He’d have been laughed out of town if he had attempted this, but that doesn’t bar others from attempting it. What Mr. Bush said wasn’t that, pure and simple, Social Security payments on the present schedule were unearned. What he said was that beginning in the year 2017, there wouldn’t be enough money in the “bank” to pay them out as prescribed. The kind of money he was talking about could not simply be issued as a Keynesian infusion into the economy. The federal government can’t just write checks for $300 billion because money on that scale transcends Keynesian instrumentation, becoming simply huge ventures into national inflation.
What Mr. Bush might have said, summoning the moral authority of lost norms, was that Social Security payments correctly do two things. The first is to repay the American 65-year-old the money taken from him during his working life, plus interest. The second, to provide insurance against such emergencies as bring on destitution.
Before losing it at the Astor, an American listening to this explanation would have found it entirely reasonable. But in the effusive economic pattern of welfare-state thinking, he has come to accept Society Security as a kind of bonanza. Combining Social Security with longevity, we anticipate, with the present scheduling, welfare payments to millions and then tens of millions of Americans. And there is no movement by any organized body of American consumers that is prepared to say: Just give us back what you borrowed from us and we’ll call it quits.
You can’t, in these days, successfully appeal to Americans to reason in that way. If the accounting goes forward as it now threatens to do, Social Security will give the retired American who lives to age 80 twice or three times what he invested in the Social Security program.
Mr. Bush didn’t make an appeal based on these moral maxims. But he made a huge first step by saying simply that there wasn’t the money there to pursue the program as conceived and elaborated over the years. He took the extraordinary step of proposing reduced payments to middle and upper income beneficiaries. And most of them (as witness the pronouncements of the AARP) are ready to fight for their benefits/extortions to the death.
He may not win this through remedial legislation. He has the alternative of letting the impact of inflation make its own way, and if that happened, we’d have lost it all at the Astor, including any pride we take in responsible self-government.