Friday, August 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, Social Security!

On August 14, 1935 President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. You can check out the vote tally here.

It’s worth remembering that when the debate over Social Security raged, groups like the National Assn. of Manufacturers, AMA, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce denounced the Social Security concept as “totalitarian.”

Now there’d be a revolution if anyone tried to touch it.


I just saw one of those TV ads from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asking us to tell Congress to “slow down” on healthcare reform, which is hilarious since we’ve been trying to get some kind of healthcare reform in this country for decades. National healthcare was included in the original Social Security Act, but President Roosevelt removed it in a concession to the American Medical Assn. Figures. We've been suffering without it ever since.

In 1985 on the 50th anniversary of Social Security, Wilbur Cohen, one of the architects of the Social Security Act, reflected:
In 5 short months in 1934 the basic framework of the Social Security Act was formulated. And in another 7 months in 1935 it was enacted into law! A monumental change in the relationships between individuals, the States, and the Federal Government had been instituted. Today, 50 years later, we can see the significance and magnitude of that historic legislation in protecting families, communities, and the Nation.

Yet it’s been eight months and we still don’t have a healthcare bill. But we do have members of Congress bragging about how they’ve slowed the process down. Interesting.

Meanwhile, over at the Social Security Administration’s archives, one can read Congressional testimony and other documents from the program’s founding.

Here is Elon H. Hooker, president of the Manufacturing Chemists Assn.:

My opposition to this bill rests, in the first place, on the ground that, to my knowledge, it has been prepared without an factual study and without the necessary consultation with persons who will be most directly affected by its provisions.

I am sorry Senator Harrison is not here, because he takes exception to that, as I listened to the previous speaker. This bill was prepared with 6 months of study by a committee. That may seem to you gentlemen a long time, but the provisions contained in this bill are to cover a period of time running on to our children’s children, and our grandchildren, and months of experience in this kind of a complicated thing, 6 months study is not nearly enough.

In other words: slow down! This is too important! Not much has changed, has it?

Here is John Corson, another Social Security architect, recalling political opposition to the program:

Despite widespread approval of this new law, the times were rough. The Republican candidate for president in 1936 promised, if elected, to repeal the law. At his suggestion many employers inserted materials in their employees' pay envelopes warning them that the payroll taxes to be deducted from their wages would be lost. And when it was proposed that Social Security numbers would be issued, this candidate branded them as "dog tags to be hung around the neck of every American worker."

Fearmongering and lies, can you imagine? No indeed, not much has changed at all!

The American Medical Assn. fought both including a healthcare provision in the Social Security Act and fought private insurance, calling both “socialist.” From

By the 1930s the AMA was a very powerful political organization that controlled medical schools and medical education and defined the nature of medical practice in the United States. It fought third-party-payment insurance schemes for decades because it saw most insurance schemes and other potential external controls as forms of governmental paternalism, or "creeping socialism." Dr. Morris Fishbein, the editor of the AMA's publications and its primary spokesman in the 1930s, warned that any form of group health insurance or governmental aid in medical care "breaks down that initiative and ambition which are the marks of a young country going ahead," and the young doctor who steps into such a job, "begins a mechanized routine type of service that is harmful not only to his patients but to his own character and advancement."

That’s fascinating to me. The AMA didn't want public OR private insurance? I wonder what would have happened if we had neither: no BlueCross/BlueShield or Medicare?

Finally, here’s John Harrington, general counsel for the Illinois Manufacturing Assn., making the argument that Social Security would sink already Depression-stressed small businesses, causing even greater unemployment:

We believe that this measure, if adopted, means at best an annuity of doubtful value for the aged of the future and unemployment benefit of doubtful value for the normally temporarily unemployed of the future--at the terrific cost of retarding the reemployment of those who are unemployed today.

It was interesting plowing through the archives because the arguments against creating Social Security are the very same points being voiced today by those who oppose healthcare reform--and from the same interests. I didn’t see anyone mention “death panels” but I did see lots of fearmongering about “socialism,” “totalitarianism,” higher costs, oppressing business, etc. etc. And yet here we are 74 years later, and Social Security is deemed the “third rail” of politics: mess with it and you’re toast.

We’ve been here before, people. Nothing has changed in America’s political discourse, save people have gotten sillier and more hysterical. But 74 years ago we were able to pass sweeping Social Security legislation in the face of opposition from Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, industry groups, and fearmongers worried about “socialism.” There is no reason to not reform our broken healthcare system now.

I leave you with a piece of pop culture, my favorite quote from “The West Wing,” as a reminder of who the players are in this fight:

"Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things. Every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, liberal, as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work, Senator. Because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor."

Amen to that.