Saturday was the 75th anniversary of the day Alexander Hamilton finally won his long-running battle with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. We have yet to really figure out the cost.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt posed with a dozen or so supporters in front of movie cameras on Aug. 14, 1935, and signed Social Security into law, it gave Hamilton, who believed in a broad interpretation of the federal government's constitutional powers to tax for the public welfare, an upper hand he has yet to relinquish. (Jefferson and Madison were champions of limited government spending.)
All these years later most of us consider Social Security to be a time-honored right. Roosevelt knew we would. That's why he funded it through payroll contributions, not general taxes. This, he said, would ensure that "no d--- politician can ever scrap" it. Even people who don't like Social Security want something for all that money they've paid.
If you think the current battles over health care reform, states' rights and the Constitution are loud, you haven't studied the struggle over Social Security.
Frank R. Kent, a columnist, expressed the opposition's position well. "It is not yet generally grasped how completely the last remnant of local self-government will have vanished if and when the present Roosevelt program is enacted," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal in February 1935. Add FDR's $5 billion public works proposal to the mix, he said, and "the freedom of the states to rule themselves will be exactly equal to the tolerance toward them of the federal government." He wasn't alone in that opinion.
I couldn't help thinking about this last week as representatives of AARP came by the paper to meet with the editorial board and tout the benefits of Social Security through the years. They brought a newly published opinion poll showing more than 90 percent of Americans today think Social Security is an important program. About 60 percent say their families would suffer if the program were cut. As of last year, 312,029 people in Utah were receiving Social Security benefits.
It's hard to argue with these figures or with the fact I want something at the end of my working life in return for all the money I've paid. But sooner or later Americans are going to have to realize that it does little practical good to stand around admiring the workmanship of the furniture in the staterooms of the Titanic.
A few weeks ago, the leaders of the president's bipartisan debt commission stared somberly into television cameras as they made the observation that three programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — today consume all federal revenues. Everything else the federal government does relies on borrowed money.
Add to that the fact that Social Security is now collecting less money than it pays out in benefits, and that this condition will become permanent by 2015 if nothing changes. Our AARP visitors say not to worry; there is no crisis. The Social Security trust fund has a surplus that won't be exhausted for many years. But that surplus already has been used to fund other government programs. From now on, the government will have to borrow even more to repay the fund.
Roosevelt is still there in the film that was shot that day, signing the bill, with smiles all around. It was, he said, a way to counter the unsettling changes that had occurred over the past 100 years. "Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age."
As The Associated Press reported this week, Democrats are standing firm against any cuts in benefits or increases in the retirement age. Republicans are firm against raising Social Security taxes.
Young people, meanwhile, have much more to fear about old age than just Social Security. They need to wonder whether their nation will be bankrupt.
Hamilton didn't think this through very well.