Profs debate Social Security policy
Trading statistics and one-liners, economics professor Andrew Samwick and government professor Jeff Smith faced off in an insightful and nonconfrontational debate over Social Security Monday evening in the Rockefeller Center. Smith represented the Democratic position, arguing that the Republican proposal to fix the Social Security program is irresponsible. Samwick, a national expert on Social Security reform, represented the Republicans.
Smith, who most recently ran for Congress in Missouri, asserted that the Republican Social Security plan gambles with future benefits, causes massive debt and will quickly lose public support.
"President Bush is trying to make this out to be some giant crisis," Smith said, adding that if Bush's tax cuts were repealed, social security would be solvent.
Samwick, the Rockefeller Center director and an economics professor, argued that while the Republican plan to make Social Security solvent is not perfect, at least it exists. No elected Democrats, he pointed out, have proposed any plan of their own.
Solutions, Samwick said, are not always easy, but certainly necessary. These include making people work more years, save more, make do with less, or live with a reduced security of promised income. Given these problems, Samwick argued, personal accounts become a necessity.
Samwick also claimed that applying the term "crisis" to the state of Social Security is no recent development and that the Clinton administration investigated the problem as well.
"This is not an issue where one recent politician has started talking about solvency as if it's a new thing," Samwick countered.
Unlike Congressional Democrats, Smith proposed a plan to fix Social Security. His two-point plan would gradually increase the retirement age and cap benefits for the top 10 percent of income earners.
Both debaters disagreed with how the Bush administration has marketed Social Security reform. Samwick called the marketing of the plan "a sales pitch that's dramatically out of tune" and Smith said the Republicans are "giving people candy rather than broccoli."
Both agreed that the Social Security debate is a politically charged one.
"Social Security is the third rail of American politics," Smith said. "If you touch it, you die."
Although the debate was sponsored by the College Republicans and the Young Democrats, neither Samwick nor Smith's opinions were exactly in line with the parties they represented. Samwick was disappointed with the Bush administration's use of race to market its plan and Smith distanced himself from Democrats who thought the Republicans' plan was a ploy to destroy the system.
While the debate was decidedly academic, the evening had its lighter moments. After Samwick had referred to a report he wrote, Smith then quoted a different report. "Incidentally, I did not write that report," he said.
Young Democrats president Elisabeth Smith '05 praised the youthful Democratic professor's performance.
"Professor Smith's real world politics and more grounded view on the issue resonated with students," she said.
College Republicans president Matthew Alexander '06 said the debate between a Democratic politician and a Republican economist made for an interesting discussion.