It's Not Just a Pension Plan (Dammit!)

You may have heard the one about Alf Landon's ill-fated tirade during the 1936 presidential campaign and how it blew up in his face like a prank cigar, leaving him wide-eyed and blinking. This was the attack on the year-old Social Security Act, which he denounced with every overreaching adjective it was his misfortune to muster. "It is a glaring example of the bungling and waste that have characterized this Administration's attempts to fulfill its benevolent purposes," Landon said with Magoo-like chagrin. He called the act "unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed," and "a fraud on the working man."

Bob Ball includes a hearty mention of Landon's little game of Republican roulette in his new book, Insuring the Essentials: Bob Ball on Social Security. Ball is not unbiased on this subject. He has spent a lifetime helping develop an American form of social insurance and defending it against people like Landon. Now 87, Ball began his work at the federal Social Security Administration in 1939, and he ran the program from 1952-73. He has served as a member of or adviser to nearly all of the many, many, many advisory councils on Social Security (the latest was appointed only last week). He has written, testified, consulted, argued, lectured, and exhorted so profusely that he probably deserves the nickname suggested by his Century Foundation editor—Mr. Social Security.

Ball went so far as to make a pro-Al Gore political advertisement last year, heaping scorn on George W. Bush's plans for retirement accounts (Ball considered the ad muted; Gore's people thought it was powerful). Ball counsels Democrats and openly praises labor unions, his allies in many Social Security battles. He expects no calls from the White House these days.

But even as a combatant, Ball engages, it must be said, graciously. In this book, he deftly—almost slyly—points out where the partisan fault lines are in the Social Security debate, and who takes which side. For some in the debate, this is good to know. In one essay, he mentions Landon and other early Republican opponents, and in a later one, hints that Eisenhower Republicans were self-destructively slow to warm to Social Security. In other chapters, he dispassionately discusses the proposals—mainly, though not always, Republican ones, through the decades—to downsize, privatize, outsource, and otherwise rip some of the system from its federal moorings—a goal Ball plainly considers undesirable.

Still, Ball knows what we're dealing with here, and so do we: the deep-rooted struggle over government's role in America. To his Republican, corporate, and conservative adversaries, Ball is saying, in a polite and sometimes roundabout way, "Let's rumble." Ball obviously believes government has a role in promoting such things as justice, fairness, and equality while respecting individuality.

In his preface, he quotes Abraham Lincoln on the government's job to "do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves." Ball includes his own 1986 address to a conference on older people, challenging the rugged Reaganism of that decade on the need for long-term care for the elderly. "This issue will be a good test." he says, "of whether Americans are really against the use of government for social purposes ... or whether they like President Reagan more than they like his philosophy."

In a commencement address delivered at the University of Maryland a year earlier, he lectures: "Greed is not enough if we are to address successfully the great challenges that face the world. If each of us pursues a life dedicated to getting the most we can for ourselves, it will not automatically follow that the community will be better off. There is a law of reciprocal obligation."

Now President Bush has created another Social Security advisory council. So this meandering collection of essays, articles, op-eds, and lectures written by Bob Ball over a stretch of nearly 60 years is nothing if not timely. It takes the reader on an interesting, if sometimes challenging, ride through the development of American social insurance.

It's not a completely smooth ride. Some of Ball's favorite pieces, such as a 1947 journal article, would be difficult reading for those unfamiliar with the jargon of the social science disciplines. Another, a 1942 guide on field interviews, seems to be on the margins of any point the book endeavors to make, and the same goes for a 1949 piece on contribution rates and funding sources. While these older chapters have been blessedly freshened with recent data, and do give a sense of agency culture through the decades, some seem of limited use today. Yet, I resisted the urge to jump straight to the chapters addressing current concerns, and I was glad to get the insights that were tucked away in many of the others: the guiding principles of Social Security; the ins and outs of 75-year forecasts; the ways private investment can play a role; the true nature of the challenges ahead.

Granted, Bob Ball has cast his lot in the partisan game. But he speaks loudly in the ongoing debate, and this book will serve as his megaphone-whether he needs one or not.