Savings are low, debt is mounting, the dollar is weak, and the economy is projected to grow more slowly in this century than the last. But that's not the half of it. What we really have to worry about, according to a chorus of prophets, is the prospect of Americans living too long. This failure to die in a timely fashion apparently means no end of trouble for younger citizens -- and even represents some kind of accounting swindle in which the long-lived threaten to take more out of the economy and Social Security than they ever put into it!
Since the Great Depression, there has been a strong national political consensus supporting policies that help middle-class families cope with the multiple risks in our market economy. These include the risks of illness, destitution in old age, hazards from defective products, polluted natural resources, industrial accidents, corporate frauds, high unemployment, and other assaults largely beyond the individual's control. Such policies are not, by and large, targeted redistributions to the poor but protections for the broad middle class. Many government activities reflect this concern, including social investments financed by a progressive tax code and a wide array of regulatory protections, almost all the result of necessary responses to past abuses by the market.
It's not your imagination: Americans are facing a lot more risk these days. Gone are the sense of national invulnerability and the notion that we are widely beloved because of our prosperity, our movies, our Bill of Rights, even our McDonald's. We find ourselves more alone than we have been, perhaps ever, with an unfamiliar sense of physical fear. We've also been hit over the head with forceful reminders that job markets and stock markets go down as well as up. And as if there weren't enough stress, we are beginning to realize that, when it comes to a secure retirement, most of us have neither earned enough nor saved enough to have the life we imagined for our last act.
Social Security is center stage in the presidential campaign, as it should be. The stakes are enormous. George W. Bush and some Democrats want to divert part of the program to individual retirement accounts. Al Gore would maintain the present system, but supplement it with government-subsidized personal accounts to help low- and middle-income families build financial wealth. Though it is rarely appreciated as such, the Social Security debate is substantially a debate about inequality.
Despite its strains, the marriage of democracy to capitalism is a durable one. These days, however, we display little trust in either our economic prospect or our system of governance. Yet neither markets nor elections will produce happy results if distrust and self-interest overwhelm common rules and compromise other necessary values. Trust, after all, is not a product of popular elections and booming markets; it is a prerequisite for both.