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by Nathan Newman
October 01, 2001
You are moving to Florida. We all are, slowly.
Or so we are told by the policymakers loudly proclaiming the "crisis" in Social Security. They tell us that, according to their demographic projections, we will soon be a nation of retirement homes. To prepare for this destiny, they call for cutting benefits and privatizing the Social Security system so we can salt away piles of cash in our collective mattresses (or 401K plans if you prefer). Then, as our nation slowly ages into collective senility, we can draw down those cash reserves to employ the remaining working age population to empty the bed pans of the baby boomers as they turn 90.
Now, I don't know about you, but no fiscal rearrangement of Social Security financing can make that vision of the future very attractive. The assumption here is that we are going to have so few people working that we won't be producing enough wealth to support the population, so we essentially have to ship wealth from the present to this projected dying, unsustainable future.
Luckily, this nightmare vision (which is taken oh-so seriously by talking heads on television each day) is based on demographic assumptions that are ludicrous. The reports that cite a "crisis" assume that the United States will happily become a nation of retirees consuming more than we produce, while we continue to block young workers begging to immigrate to the US to perform needed work and pay Social Security taxes. Unbelievably, the "crisis" projections by the Social Security trustees assume that immigration as a percentage of the population will actually decline steadily in coming decades.
At the moment, our government is busily at work deporting the long-term solution to Social Security, but over time expanded immigration will emerge as the obvious, sustainable solution not only to Social Security but a range of problems that would emerge if we really became one large national Florida. As the number of retirees expands, we will encourage more and more immigrant workers both as a source of working taxpayers and just to perform the services needed by this projected aging population.
The crisis that the doomsayers predict is that somewhere around 2039, the social security trust fund will run out of resources and general revenues may be needed to cover some social security benefits. Aside from the fact that relatively small increases in taxes, on hopefully a much more productive future economy, could cover any problem, it won't even come to that. The Trustees assume that in the next 40 years, the United States will add only 32 million new people of working age, but will add 40 million new retirees.
Given the far-ranging needs of retirees, from health care to building new homes, we can comfortably expect that those scarce new workers will have to spend all their time just servicing these basic needs of that retired population. No additional artists, no additional software programmers, no new achievements as a nation; just a massive labor shortage sucking workers into daily care of the aging.
In a world sea of willing immigrant workers, it would be fiscal and, frankly, national suicide to slowly convert our present economy into a national copy of Fort Lauderdale.
But it won't happen. Increasing immigration by only 200,000 to 300,000 people per year will not only make social security solvent for this century, it will assure that the country will remain a vital, productive nation. Add in the productive power of many retirees who will continue to contribute to the economy as their health is extended, any talk of crisis is ridiculous and merely a con game by Wall Street to grab control of social security asses.
Since we don't have a labor shortage now and need to aim to have new immigrants enter the workforce around 2015, immigrants with young children are the ideal for today. Some might argue for avoiding any increased immigration until we start breaking even on social security taxes and payments, but depending purely on mostly unskilled adult immigration in the future makes less sense than encouraging new immigrant children who can be educated and trained in US schools. For long-term sustainable growth in the economy, this kind of investment in educating immigrant youth for maximum productivity makes more sense than the frenzied mattress- stuffing of the Social Security "crisis" mongers.
Now, as the present reactions against immigration show, it will no doubt take some time to push for the broadened immigration needed for the future survival of our retirement system. Still, despite the anti-immigrant hysteria, studies such as those by Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passel show that annual taxes paid by immigrants to all levels of governments more than offset the costs of services they receive, generating a net annual surplus of $25 billion to $30 billion. Racism and nationalist chauvinism may be used to obscure this fact, but over time it can be overcome.
Zero population growth folks will object that adding additional millions of people will hurt the environment. First, since those immigrants to the US will be releasing environmental pressure in third world countries suffering much larger population pressures and worse environmental degradations of the land, it will end up as a net benefit for the world environment as a whole. However, even in the US, expanded population, if properly planned, could actually improve the environmental use of resources. In the post- World War II period, the US added 100 million people to the population largely in car-driven low-density suburban communities without mass transit. New population expansions, if channeled into hubs connected to mass transit, could remake those areas into sustainable communities using much fewer resources per person. And given the needs of the elderly, who are often unable to drive, creating broader access to mass transit is a necessity, a necessity that is probably possible to build economically only with increased population.
Ultimately, if the choice is between absorbing 40 million retirees in a frenzied savings and austerity program or through a gradual increase in the immigrant population that avoids a geriatric future for the nation, the logic of increased immigration will win out. Florida is just not a sustainable future.