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More Snow Comments

I have a few follow-up remarks related to Snow's visit.

First, let's talk about the Secret Service. Yes, they wear sunglasses and earpieces and drive around in black SUVs. The black helicopters were kept out of visual/auditory range (or their new models are invisible and/or inaudible). Despite this being a gig with the Treasury department, there was no sign of a Friedmanesque money drop from the invisiblack helicopters.

Defying expectations, I saw only one trenchcoat, and it was brown instead of black. A little disappointing, but it didn't spoil the day.

The Secret Service is pretty good at security. A camera man left his coat under some equipment in the room, and they (eventually) noticed it and made the owner keep it with him. That unattended item would have lasted far longer at an airport.

The Secret Service agents were all men. This is sad. It would've been fun to be frisked by a hot Secret Service babe. ("Is that a weapon in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?") But with no babes, I'm glad there was no frisking.

More seriously and personally, for the past several months I've had the desire to raise the prominence of individual opt-out in the national debate about Social Security reform. Commenting on Bush's SOTU address, I said:

I intend to hold Bush to his statement that "I will listen to anyone who has a good idea to offer." I'm going to keep pushing for an individual opt-out. I don't know where I'll find my megaphone, but I'll keep trying. I've had exactly zero success asking other bloggers to trumpet the idea.

I think individual opt-out is a good idea, and I'm offering it. Secretary Snow wasn't receptive (he didn't respond on the merits at all), but he isn't President Bush. And I offer this gentle criticism to Bush: It's not enough to ask for ideas — you also need to tell people how to submit them for serious consideration.

On reflection, I don't think a megaphone is what I'm after. What I'd like to do is talk with members of the Administration in a better setting, where it would be possible to have a real conversation about ideas. Communication with the press is in sound bytes, where it's only possible to raise an issue in the form of an ambush. I'm pleased I was able to raise the issue, but I'm not happy with the ease with which he avoided the question. That's not a national dialogue, it's talking points and escape strategies.

He didn't respond to the failure of the 1983 reform. He didn't explain why I should trust the government to fix the system, when it has a track record of failure. He didn't talk about the effects opt-out would have in order to say why they were bad. He didn't address the angle of opt-out as a straightforward extension of the voluntarism that's part of personal accounts. He avoided every aspect of my question.

There is something the media could do to help. Conduct and publicize a poll of the thoughts of young people on Social Security reform. I don't mean a general poll that has an 18-35 demographic bucket — I mean a poll that's exclusively for the 18-35 group and has separate buckets for each age. Ask fundamental questions, instead of regurgitated sound bytes. The key question should be, "if the present Social Security system were voluntary, would you participate?" Other questions could ask about the perceived likelihood of means testing, peoples' expected return from the system, the level of support for various reform options (raising retirement age, raising tax rates, raising income cap, changing indexing…). Ask people if they would choose personal accounts — note that this different from asking people whether they support personal accounts being added to the system. Ask people what they would do with the money currently going to payroll taxes, if Social Security didn't exist. Pay off debt? Consume more? Save more?

A poll of the young would focus political attention on the young. Reform shouldn't just be about placating the elderly and having the young and middle-aged go along for the ride. Isn't it silly to "save the system for our children and grandchildren" without knowing what the young actually want? It's easy to say what I want: I want out.

If my goal is advocacy for individual opt-out, does my experience qualify as success? Partially. I never imagined I would be able to (briefly) speak my mind face-to-face with a member of the Administration. But I don't expect any positive follow-through from the government. In fact, my co-workers gave me a hard time and suggested I don't try to fly anywhere for a while.

This was an isolated event. I enjoyed it. But there's no momentum, no groundswell of support for individual opt-out — not yet. So, there's more work for me to do.

My consolation prize is that now, at parties, I can drop the line "Yeah, when I talked to the Treasury Secretary about it…" if the subject of Social Security comes up. That's normal party conversation, right?

Tiny Island