Up With Social Insurance

Max J. Skidmore's Social Security and Its Enemies: The Case for America's Most Efficient Insurance Program
12.02.99 | reviewed by Erik Cole

One of the most remarkable items unearthed by Max J. Skidmore in Social Security and Its Enemies: The Case for America's Most Efficient Insurance Program is a set of radio ads made for the American Medical Association in 1963. Known as Operation Coffee Cup, these anti-Medicare ads were recorded by actor Ronald R. Reagan, whose charismatic delivery evoked great fear of government intrusion into the relationship between doctor and patient. The ads drew heavily upon anticommunist rhetoric and little on fact. Does the approach sound familiar?

Skidmore's very readable history of Social Security is most interestingly a history of those who have opposed it—from the time of its inclusion in the Bull Moose Party platform through its passage in 1935 (and the ensuing fire storm in the '36 presidential election), from the anti-Medicare campaign to the more recent privatization movement. Indeed, the book's most important contribution may be its detailed accounting of how conservative political operatives and financiers—from Pete Peterson and the Concord Coalition to the Cato Institute's multimillion-dollar campaign to "reform" Social Security by scrapping it—have built up an anti-social Security agenda over the past 20 years.

Skidmore also indicts the news media for buying into this well- financed right-wing message and inflating the Social Security solvency problem. His rebuke, however, is spotty. He takes apart some key newspaper stories where journalists casually throw around phrases like "looming insolvency" and "saving Social Security," but he largely ignores many other egregious examples of poor journalism and the other media.

In language you don't have to be an economist to understand, Skidmore defends Social Security and dispels the misinformation propagated by the privatizers. But the real service of this book is the revealing view it provides of the murky world of those who would scrap Social Security.

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