A Better Future?

Posted: Apr 19, 2014 12:01 AM
A Better Future?

There’s nothing more permanent than the illusion of permanence.

BlackBerry was revolutionary a decade ago. Now IT departments warn it may be gone within the year. Apple destroyed BlackBerry because it proved more adept at serving users. It won’t be long before somebody comes along and knocks Apple off as well. The only constant is change.

Except in politics, where things seem to remain the same election after election.

That’s where Kevin Williamson opens his book The End is Near and It’s Going to be Awesome. “I hope that this book is still being read a few years from now, because my admiration for Apple’s iPhone will by then seem faintly ridiculous,” he begins.

Over the course of his breezy, engaging book, he mentions several other things that 21st century Americans will also come to find ridiculous. Most of them involve governments, specifically the federal government and its outrageous promises.

For example, education: “Public schools are best characterized as a wealth-transfer program in which resources are taken from renters, landlords and homeowners,” he writes. “This money is then given to a group of largely female and white, upper-middle-class college graduates with professional credentials.”

He issues a long-overdue call for change. “The majority of what the federal government does can be taken over by cooperative enterprise -- right now. We have very good models and practices for providing people with health care, education, and retirement incomes.” Indeed, there are only a few areas where Americans aren’t getting better off. Education, general government services and health care are getting worse, because each is dominated by government and bureaucracy.

Yet the big hurdle will be retirement benefits.

“Social Security has already begun coming unraveled,” Williamson writes, noting that FICA taxes will never again pay for promised benefits. “As with the other major entitlement programs, the real question facing us is not ‘How do we go about paying these benefits?’ but ‘How do we go about not paying these benefits?’” In other words, how can the U.S. government navigate away from promises it won’t be able to afford to keep?

Williamson cites three potential prescriptions. None are appealing:

1) Explicitly default on creditors.

2) Print more money so the debt can be paid off with less-valuable currency.

3) Default on taxpayers.

The problem, he writes, is that the government is focused on consumption instead of production. That means it’s good at “giving” people things, but lousy at creating value. To turn that dynamic around -- and, while doing so, save Social Security -- Williamson sketches a way to turn the program into an investment plan instead of a redistribution scheme.

“A pension system in which workers spend 50 years investing in the real marketplace and earning real returns will radically transform everything from retirement planning to corporate governance -- and will shift trillions of dollars in capital away from politics and into investments in real goods,” he writes. “Solving the problem of poverty for the young begins with solving the problem of pensions for the old. We can do that for less than most Americans are paying in Social Security taxes today.”

Indeed we could. But getting to the new system involves eliminating the old, which millions of Americans have built their lives around. There’s no way for a 65-year-old to grow wealth (he doesn’t have enough years left) and anyway, he’s taken us at our word that he may retire at that age and collect regular monthly payments the rest of his life. The problem isn’t “can we” solve problems. It’s “will we” solve problems.

The disruptive power of technology may help.

For example, in Nevada, when armed federal agents clashed with protesters in a land dispute, camera phones were everywhere. The agents didn’t engage. Elsewhere, police in Albuquerque now wear cameras, and have faced public outrage at their alleged use of force. Technology is changing how government agents deal with people.

But when it comes to overall governance, little seems to be changing. Williamson blames “politics,” because they can’t seem to evolve. That may be a threat, or an opportunity. But it’s too soon to know whether our future will, indeed, be awesome.