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Security Is Opprtunity

Regular readers know that I've always seen the Bush Social Security plan as, more than anything else, an attempt to create a showdown between big concepts: Opportunity and Security. Let the Democrats be stuck with Security -- dull, backward-looking, wear-your-mittens, protect-the-losers government security programs. The Republicans, win or lose, become the party of Opportunity -- a little risk in return for progress, dynamism, information-age, "Dow 36,000," take-responsibility-for-yourself, find-the-winner-within-you shiny new Opportunity.

(I'll let the Lakoff fans graft their "nurturing mother"/"strict father" archetypes onto those alternatives. That's not my game.)

That this dichotomy has unraveled as thoroughly as the proposal itself is clear from a recent change in Bush's rhetoric and that of privatization supporters. Trying to salvage something not laughably inconsistent from their many turns of phrase in the last two months, they have taken to describing Social Security itself as "wobbly" and uncertain, while private accounts are secure and "safe" because the government can't take them away. Of course, this is all nonsense from a pre-New Deal netherworld in which the government must never provide any security because what the evil, alien government gives the evil, alien government can taketh away.

But rather than rebut that silliness in detail, let's just note that it is the death rattle of the entire ideological gambit. Because the whole point was supposed to be about risk: ownership and risk, opportunity and risk, personal responsibility and risk. Capitalism and risk. For ten years or more, Americans have been asked to choose between risk and security, and every time, risk has seemed to win. Now, in the ultimate battle between risk and security, the first one in which the choice was made explicit, security won without a shot being fired.

This is one major point (or perhaps my interpretation of it) of Greg Anrig's excellent article from last week: The President's Gift:
The Social Security privatization battle gives liberals more than just a good shot at a legislative victory. It gives them a chance to define themselves
, which I highly recommend reading in full. Anrig writes:

Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Warren Tyagi, and Jacob Hacker have demonstrated in recent books that American families across all but the highest rungs of the income ladder today confront a wide array of intensified financial pressures imposed by the market forces that conservatives extol. The list includes rising health-care costs, decreased job security, less stable family incomes, unprecedented levels of household debt combined with negligible personal savings, less reliable pensions, and escalating child-care expenses. Because economic globalization and other free-market dynamics are the very source of those strains, the conservative response -- let the market take care of it -- is worthy of ridicule.

A credible and appealing liberal response to those widespread anxieties should be explicitly connected to the public?s evident enthusiasm for Social Security. To protect families against significant and unexpected hardship due to the heightened risks of the marketplace, progressives want to build a broader system of insurance expanding from Social Security?s cornerstone.

I worry that Democrats, trapped once again in the blinders of "policy literalism," will not fully understand this broader message. The conclusion they will draw is that Social Security is popular, Democrats protect Social Security, Republicans tried to cut Social Security. They will run predictably alarmist ads next fall that are all about Social Security, not about security. And once again, as in 2002 and 2004, they will have no message at all for all the people "across all but the highest rungs of the income ladder [who] confront a wide a array of intensified financial pressures."

That's worry #1, easily solved if people like Anrig who get it and are in some position to influence public debate pound this point home aggressively.

Worry #2, though, is still the security/opportunity tradeoff. Security is not sufficient as a way "for liberals to define themselves." It's not enough, and in fact, it's not what liberalism is. There is something to the idea that there is a difference between the industrial economy and the information age economy, and the difference is that fewer workers feel they are passive pawns in a large company that will govern their life. They feel, or want to feel, that they can make their way in an economy that is changing and challenging, that demands skill and rewards initiative and risk. They want a government that does more than catch them when they fall, but that helps them move forward, and eventually capture some of the rewards that go to capital in this economy.

I think liberals, then, need to find a way to capture both sides of the security/opportunity tradeoff. And it is not hard to do. It involves making clear that security is the platform for opportunity. Security means giving people what they need to make their way with confidence, and to take chances, in a risky, dynamic, uncertain economy. So, for example:

** Social Security, by providing a guaranteed base income in old age, adequate to escape poverty if little more, allows everyone to take much greater risks and reap greater rewards with the rest of their retirement savings.

** Unemployment insurance -- if it worked properly -- would allow you to take a job at a startup company without worrying that the company might fail, or to take some time to learn a new skill after losing a job.

** FHA loans and mortgage insurance allow people to stretch their savings and become owners of real property. Such security programs were central to the creation of the largest middle class in the world's history in the postwar decades, the high tide of liberalism.

** Broadly available health insurance that's attached to the individual rather than the job allows you to quit a job that's going nowhere and take a chance on something new.

** Asset-building strategies such as those proposed by my colleagues (as opposed to the Bush tax preferences for the rich that masquerade under the same name) can eventually give people the most powerful piece of security that any family can have: $10,000 in the bank.

And I could go on but I need to keep this post from spiralling out of control. The point is that liberals and Democrats cannot pause for a minute to enjoy the victory on the program called Social Security. As Anrig says, we have to first convert the victory into a message of commitment to economic security more generally. And second, we need to show that such security is not an alternative to the opportunity society or the ownership society, but deeply intertwined with making the promise of ownership and opportunity broadly available.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 14, 2005 | Permalink


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"And I could go on but I need to keep this post from spiralling out of control. ... "

On the contrary: you should go on & on and turn this into a series of posts / columns or a book. I think this makes for a really powerful progressive story line, and not least because it picks up on exactly the themes that the Republicans think they're going to ride to a permanent majority. We won't have to fight to steer the debate to these topics, cuz that's where the right wants to go. So let's get there first & better & steer this country back to sanity!

Posted by: Tom | Mar 14, 2005 5:25:57 PM


The list of arguments you make--casting traditional Democratic programs as indispensable means of fostering, facilitating, and encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit--is brilliant. I hope someone takes them to the broader public.

The closest thing to this strategy that I have heard in the mouth of an elected official was one Dem. politician who said that SS insurance is *part* of the ownership society, just like home insurance goes with home ownership.

It was a good line--I forget who said it (Schumer?)--and yours are equally good. We just need to get them out and get them repeated!

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 14, 2005 5:30:01 PM

Speaking of risk, how about the Bankrupt bill? Most small businesses (an avenue to opportunity for a lot of Americans) start out with entrepreneurs maxing out their credit cards, the elimination of Chapter 7 will kill those entrepreneurs dead.

Posted by: tib | Mar 14, 2005 8:09:53 PM

Yes. Exactly. This needs to be said, loudly and frequently. The emerging bankrupcy regime makes this message all the more urgent, and potent.

Posted by: djw | Mar 14, 2005 8:53:41 PM

Here, here
your post is dead on
very good

a strong,secure foundation
a basis for confidence that much can be risked
and a fair start from which to persue opportunity
given by all the people for all the people

Posted by: macedc | Mar 14, 2005 10:04:05 PM

It is somewhat bizarre to me that I was having precisely this conversation at dinner with an old friend and came back to find my thoughts elegantly elaborated by Mr. Schmitt.

My question though is this: do the Dems get it? Especially in the context of the bankruptcy bill?

My old friend and I went to college together in Delaware and I was haranguing him about Biden and Carper voting for the bill. (He worked on Carper's campaign.) I told him that I understood the political expediency of voting for a bill supported by your biggest corporate backers (MBNA) -- but, do they just not get how this is a straight up attack on the middle class?

How can Biden want to run for Prez after voting yes on such a bill?

I agree fully with the sentiment in the post that Dems don't understand that security provides the basis from which individuals can take reasonble, yet dynamic risks in the marketplace.

Posted by: Dave | Mar 14, 2005 10:18:51 PM

Yes, I completely agree. You can't have your head in the clouds, pursuing your dreams, if your feet aren't on the ground. Financial security offers us the freedom to chose our path in life.

And not only does financial insecurity threaten our own opportunities, it threatens those of our children, since they may end up taking care of us during their own most productive years. Which would be true "trickle-down" economics. Each generation crippled by the burden of caring for the previous one.

Posted by: rrs | Mar 14, 2005 11:31:03 PM

Mark, when you're right you're right. I think you nailed it. But beware, if the Democratic Party were to actually frame their arguments in those terms, they may have to work with the great many conservatives that believe in a safety net in order to get it accomplished. How well would that sit their base?

Posted by: Lloyd | Mar 15, 2005 4:04:50 AM

Forward this to howard Dean!
This hits the nail on the head.

Posted by: Jim Brady | Mar 15, 2005 4:42:41 AM

Forward this to Howard Dean!

Posted by: Jim Brady | Mar 15, 2005 4:43:25 AM

Aye. Get off defense, go on offense. Get off sentiment, go on outcomes. Don't make Social Security the defining issue, make it the defining proof-of-concept in a larger framework.

If all we get out of this is "we've repelled the marauders ... until next time", damn us again.

How do we take the offense on retirement security, and everything else? This comment (and other jottings in progress) are already spiraling out of control.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Mar 15, 2005 10:17:31 AM

Lloyd, there was a time not too long ago when Democrats were far more willing to reach across the aisle. What stopped that....and only really with any consistency in the *last few months*....was getting burned repeatedly b y the general over the top deception and partisanship of the movement conservatives starting with the '94 ascendancy and reaching it's apotheosis in the current administration.

It wasn't always so. And for proof, you could look at bipartisanship prior to 1992 with Republican White Houses. There was far more of it, though not always productive (in terms of policies enacted, IMO, of course). How about the 1990 budget deal, for example? Or SS in 1982? etc. My personal memory doesn't stretch back into the '70s, but there are many more examples. And from '92 to '94, when Dems had all 3 branches, you still didn't have the steamrolling and nastiness we do today.

So your question I think needs to be rephrased and directed towards Republicans, most of whom are not of your stripe. (i.e. willing to cooperate and negotiate on policy and subsume ideology.) I'm interested in practical solutions, not ideology, and see enough middle ground. But given the current situation I have to endorse hard core partisanship as an antitdote to the administration.

Posted by: Buford P. Stinkleberry | Mar 15, 2005 12:23:59 PM

I agree with the previous commenters who agree with you.

Social Security is Exhibit No. 1 of what a liberal party stands for. It is there primarily to help those who can't help themselves. It is an insurance program, a cooperative method whereby we all pitch in for the good of all. In short, it is a cooperative program for the common good.

Opportunity is another big factor for a liberal party. I like to contrast an "opportunity society" with Bush's "ownership society." In the "ownership society" the owners are in charge and take care of other owners. In the "opportunity society" everyone, including all the little guys, have an opportunity to express themselves economically, socially, religiously and politically.

Opportunity to all and seeking the common good are terrific planks for the Democratic Party to run on.

Posted by: Paul Siegel | Mar 15, 2005 3:08:57 PM

Indeed, we should marshal the cavalry and chase them down as they run.

Who were those me-firsters cheerleading for the President's risky scheme to sabotage the retirement security our families rely on, and how can we ever trust them with our childrens' future? They're not on OUR side.

Remember well how the GOP turned the Clinton's health care reform proposal into the stillborn "Hillary's socialized medicine program" back when we could still have averted a national medical care crisis relatively cheaply.

Bush's spectacular third rail meltdown needs to be clearly called out for what it was: our country narrowly averting a wholesale attempt by the GOP to spend our families' retirement savings at the slot machines.

Posted by: melior | Mar 16, 2005 2:46:05 AM

After gallons of printer's ink spilled, what do we do about this?

71% say SS is headed for a crisis down the road.

67% say fixing SS will require major changes.


Posted by: Ellen1910 | Mar 16, 2005 3:55:33 AM

Ellen1910 (is that the vintage of your thinking?)
1. The truth is not an opinion poll
2. Yes it may be we need to do something (minor) to fix the problem but there are MUCH more pressing concerns (health insurance for instance)
3. We need some honesty here - the really big problem is the size of the general budget deficit which is being partially hidden by the SS surplus (yes surplus) that the GOP are trying to steal. This deficit is in the opinion of a growing number of commentators threatening to bring down the world financial system.

Posted by: Jim Brady | Mar 16, 2005 4:57:25 AM

I did find myself wanting to hear you or someone piping this tune go on and on, not pause. With all the talk about "tippng points" lately, maybe the GOP's overreach on this reveals to moderate people that the GOP has lost its collective mind. The recent vote in favor of large benefit cuts and big deficits may be a harbinger. Let's hope the pres keeps flogging this horse. Let's hope the democratic leadership can get Mark's idea out there daily.

Posted by: michael ryan | Mar 16, 2005 12:18:48 PM

Schmitt probably will not even get to this comment, but I had to write anyway. The piece above expressed so much articulately the same premise I posted on this morning while expanding on the broad political impact it could have for a Democratic party platform. How can Mark's message get to out there daily except to drive it home on the blogsphere and for campaigners to hopefully inculcate it into the spongy minds of voters.

Posted by: Michael Schreiber | Mar 16, 2005 6:45:07 PM

Many ardent Bush supporters are consumed by anxiety and insecurity, but they continue to vote Republican against their own self-interest. There’s nothing new about this observation, but with the thoughts expressed in this post, progressives may begin to do something about it. The first step is to get control of the language of the discussion. We are Progressives, and we can work with progressives in both parties.

When I engage Republicans in the discussion of deficits, the war in Iraq, Social Security, and other aspects of the Bush agenda, we tend to agree. If they sense criticism from the perspective of a Democrat, we no longer share common ground. Because we are so filled with revulsion, it is difficult to keep our contempt, even hatred, for Bush and his programs from bubbling to the surface in any discussion of politics or economics.

This is a mistake. There was an important discussion several months ago in Ezra Klein’s blog, including the following excerpt from an interview with Naomi Klein: “when George Bush's policies are attacked, rather than being dissuaded from being Republicans, Republicans feel attacked personally — because it's your politics. Republicanism has merged with their identity. That has happened because of the successful application of the principles of identity branding.”

Posted by: Pokey | Mar 16, 2005 10:24:07 PM

Wonderful piece. And I think that the underlying frame also addresses the difference between progressive and conservative attitudes towards taxes and government.

Taxes paid to the government must be used to build national assets like highways, streets,the postal system, the internet, high quality education, social security because these national assets are a platform that allow individual achievement.

In these highly competitive times our national assets should include educational programs and child care starting with younger children that will allow parents to work or get the training and education they need to find better jobs. Health insurance for each American is possible when we treat health as a national asset that we must build.

On the other side is this idea that people do not need shared assets to achieve. The role of government is not to provide a platform that allows people to strive. Apparently conservative don't use public streets and roadways, don't go online, and don't use the postal service to send out mass mailings. Otherwise how can you explain this attitude that they are entitled to use national assets and not obliged to repay or maintain them?
Instead, given the menu or policies being pushed forward, conservatives see the governments job as regulating what programs people view, who they choose to make lifelong loving commitments with, which god they do or do not believe in, and what rights women have over their own lives.
Government can enable us to be soveriegn and take control of our lives or government can ensure that we all stay in our place.

Inequality, discrimination, financial hardship for the middle and working class, and the ruthless self-serving expoitation of national assets are not values worth conserving.

My apologies if I seemed to ramble but I was inspired by the original post. Thanks Mark Schmitt. Now how to get this into a broad positioning strategy

Posted by: Kalil | Mar 20, 2005 11:28:29 AM

There's an article in the Washington Monthly, "Taking Liberty" by William A. Galston, that lays out a similar "security and opportunity" argument. For instance, Galston argues that universal health care does not merely protect us from hardship, it gives us greater economic freedom (to find a better job, start a new business, etc.). He argues that the conservatives' strength comes from their evocative conception of freedom, and that liberals can (and should) build their agenda around their own notion of freedom. Anyway, it's an interesting article, if you haven't seen it already.

Posted by: YK | Apr 24, 2005 4:04:41 AM