Matt Miller - The Archives

The Washington Post, October 30, 2013

Voiceover: It's December 1, 1936—in the Crossfire tonight—Americans begin signing up for FDR's new "Social Security" program—but can the post office handle the volume? And is it essential protection for seniors—or the slippery slope to socialism? In the Crossfire—Frances Perkins, secretary of labor, who supports the program—and congressman Daniel Reed, Republican of New York, who opposes it.

Good evening, I'm Upton Sinclair, on the left.

Sinclair: After 18 months of planning, President Roosevelt's breakthrough Social Security program to ease poverty among senior citizens recently began its rollout, with application forms sent to post offices across the country—and with employers forced to register as well. Freddy, I think it's a milestone for a civilized nation. After all, two dozen countries already have systems of social insurance on the books. And the whole idea was invented by a conservative, Otto von Bismarck, back in the '80s as a shrewd way to assure social peace. Can't you concede that morality, not to mention the survival instincts of the ruling class, requires a decent society to offer something like Bismarckcare to protect against destitution in old age?

Hayek: Spoken like a communist out to weigh the economy down, Up. Don't you lefties see that your taxing and spending will put us on the road to serfdom?

Sinclair: Catchy phrase, Fred—might want to hold onto that for a book at some point. Let's bring in our guests. Congressman Reed, here's what you said about Social Security during the House debate over the legislation: "The lash of the dictator will be felt, and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test." One of your Senate colleagues said the new program would "end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European."

Not that there's anything wrong with the average European. But isn't this rhetoric a bit over the top?

Reed: Not at all, Upton. This is simply the reality. As another Republican in our caucus says, "Never in the history of the world has a measure been ... so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people."

Hayek: Secretary Perkins, you don't look convinced.

Perkins: It's always the same sob story from the party of wealth. The sky is falling, the lights of freedom are being extinguished, blah blah blah blah blah.

Reed: Plus, the darn thing doesn't cover enough people.

Perkins and Upton: What?

Reed: It's only slated to reach a couple hundred thousand Americans in 1940. And with very modest benefits.

Perkins: So your beef with a program you want to kill is that it doesn't do enough for enough people in need?

Reed: Well, that, plus it's very complicated and hard to sign up for. Have you seen the lines at the post office? People have no idea what to do. The wait can take hours.

Sinclair: You can't blast a program for existing and also for being inadequate.

Perkins: Sure you can, Upton, if you're a Republican. But my real problem with the GOP is different. More than 50 percent of our seniors live in poverty. You see them in the street every day. Charities are overwhelmed. These poor souls have nowhere to turn. They can't afford food or medicine. And Republicans say there's nothing the government of a great nation can do.

Hayek: Congressman, what say you?

Reed: Isn't this socialism, Frances?

Perkins: Absolutely not.

Reed: Come, Secretary Perkins. Isn't this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?

Perkins: It's a load of common sense and decency, is what it is.

Reed: It will discourage people from saving for their own retirement. And it creates incentives for employers to drop any pension coverage they offer now. They'll assume everyone can just be dumped into the government system.

Perkins: No, congressman, it'll save companies money by letting them tailor any pensions they offer to work atop the national minimum that Social Security provides. Some basic level of government-funded retirement security is good for business.

Reed: Then why does every thinking businessman in America oppose it?

Perkins: Don't throw oxymorons at me, Dan. Mark my words: Social Security will end up bigger than anyone today can imagine, even as America grows much, much richer—proving that social insurance and capitalism are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.

Hayek: Such poetry, Frances—such misguided but lovely-sounding poetry!

Upton: After the break—some Democrats are urging FDR to go big on basic health coverage for every American, too—but the president says we can come back and address that question in a few years. Who's right? Answers just ahead—when Crossfire returns ...