Krugman Describes a Meta-Economic Problem in the Social Security “Debate”

In his “Conscience of a Liberal” blog on the New York Times website today, Paul Krugman calls attention to the inconsistency via which various “deficit hawks” account for the budget for the US Social Security system.  Krugman points out how leaders of the deficit commission appointed by President Obama alternate in an arbitrary way between two ways of accounting for Social Security and any shortfalls related to its finances:

  1. Sometimes it is referred to as a dedicated (payroll) tax which adds to a sequestered social security trust fund from which Social Security benefits are paid.  Complaints by deficit hawks that this will eventually run out of money in an unplanned way (soon) are used as one form of justification for cutting benefits by among other things, raising the retirement age.
  2. At different times, payroll tax revenue is viewed as part of the general federal budget.  The argument is made by deficit hawks that too much is borrowed from Social Security surpluses because of shortfalls in other programs, endangering Social Security.payments in the near term.

Krugman makes the point that you either say that Social Security has a current or near-term surplus or that you can say that it has a current or near-term deficit but you can’t say both.

Krugman during the course of the article appeals to a rule, that might be called either an epistemological or a logical rule:

“But here’s what you can’t legitimately do:  you can’t switch views in midstream..”

I agree with him, but to whom or what is he appealing?  There is no framework “around” economics or economic argumentation, a meta-economics, which would not make this simply an appeal to those who agree with him or to the skies above.

Thus, the notion of an ordered form of argumentation, perhaps even a “scientific” method, which made this inconsistency illegitimate, makes sense.  Economists and folk economists like those who head the deficit commission could at least be “cited” for their inconsistency or illogic.  On the other hand, Krugman and other economists would also be giving up some freedom to make up their own “creative” forms of argumentation, if they were to submit their own argumentation to such a framework.  Within such a framework, one could not continue to support distortions or poor argumentation just because you agree with the underlying sentiment.

Without a meta-economic or more rigid epistemological framework for social scientific argumentation and related political discourse, this type of accusation becomes an ad hominem political attack:  “my opponents are inconsistent (I’m not)”.   Krugman may intend this as well, and I too want to call into question the authority of those who wield power with poor arguments and little accountability.   But I believe such a form of argumentation is not as strong as presenting a clearer, more transparent means for everybody to make their arguments.

Of course, if one side adheres to such a framework and the other side does not, then you have imbalances in forms of argumentation very similar to the current situation.  Some are happy to reduce every issue to a contest of wills or ad hominem verbal blows but then something like the truth and the common good are left out of the picture.    Those who believe in frameworks that make human comity and increased human knowledge and self-knowledge possible, need to point out when such rules, if established, are broken.

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About Michael Hoexter
I'm a clean energy marketing and policy strategist and consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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