Former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo and syndicated columnist Paul Craig Roberts began a month-long discussion of justice across generations with a debate entitled, “What Do We Owe the Young and Old, and How Should the Government be Involved?” The debate took place on Jan. 7 in a packed Chapin Hall.
President Harry Payne began the evening by announcing that this debate is the first in a series of discussions this month which are sponsored by the Class of 1971 Public Affairs Forum.
Determined to raise public issues at Williams, the Forum decided on the theme of Justice Across Generations, a theme focusing on how we define community over time. Payne noted that James Mahon, professor of political science originated the idea to expand such a discussion over Winter Study.
After Payne finished his speech, Jack Sands, of the Williams Class of 1971, discussed why his class decided to give this gift to the Williams community: namely, to raise the tenor and energy of discussion of public affairs on campus.
His class made two requests to the administration: that any issue brought forth would be of interest to the students, and both sides of the issue were given a voice.
Neil Conan of National Public Radio, who was taping the debate, noted when he next came to speak that the class’s second request was in a bit of jeopardy.
Roberts’s flight was canceled, and he would be a half an hour late. Conan went on to say that Governor Cuomo would be filling the time by answering questions from the audience.
Cuomo then began to speak, noting that he “would have to keep the crowd busy” until Roberts arrived. Although he did not answer questions from the audience as Conan said, he expressed his delight to be discussing this topic.
He said, “Politics makes something like this evening a very rare occasion. It is hard to talk about very difficult questions on a 28 second commercial.”
Cuomo pointed out the night’s questions were twofold.
The first is a basic social question, “What is our obligation to the youth and the elderly?”
The second is a political question, “What are the obligations of the government in dealing with that?”
In Cuomo’s words, “we have an obligation to help. Our hearts and minds tell us so. The world’s ancient religions tell us so. The government should help us synergize our talents.”
After Cuomo spoke for about a half hour, Roberts arrived.
Conan began the debate by announcing that Baby Boomers, “the group that Peter Townsend of The Who described as My Generation” threaten to bankrupt Social Security.
Conan then restated the night’s question and described the format of the debate. Each participant would talk for 20 minutes, then there would be a discussion amongst the participants and then the audience would get a chance to ask questions.
Roberts began by stating, “the obligation of each generation is to pass on the traditional liberty and rights that went along with being an Englishman, liberty and rights which prohibited the government from using law as a weapon.” He went on to say that in the twentieth century the view remains that “the government is a power for the good which should not be restrained. This idea goes against our traditional liberal ideas and fosters collectivism.”
Roberts explained that Social Security resulted from the Great Depression. “Because no one could explain why the Great Depression had happened, traditional liberals extended governmental power as a social safety net. This was a mixed system of socialized and individualized power.”
He then noted that many years later, scholars looked at the question and realized that the taxes necessary for Social Security reduced economic freedom and caused bank failures and a shortage of money. Roberts agreed with Milton Friedman, who said that the Federal Reserved prolonged the Depression.
Roberts then explicitly laid out a theme that he would return to: “We can not reduce personal responsibility for the sake of social welfare. It is more important to pass down to the next generation our morality and focus on individual responsibility than it is to pass down Social Security.”
At the beginning of Social Security, people were taxed one percent of their payrolls. Now that figure has jumped to 15.3 percent. Consequently there is a decreased savings rate and Social Security does not add to capital stock.
“The government takes out so many taxes that little is left for the rest of the family,” Roberts said, “Social Security is not a 100 percent social good.” Roberts also pointed out that with the onset of global capitalism, Social Security is hindering America as a competitor in the world markets.
As a possible solution, Roberts proposed a privatization of Social Security in the same way that the United Kingdom has.
Roberts ended his remarks by reinstating his belief that Americans need to make laws accountable, that way there is no chance for tyranny. “Because of the way that the government has delegated its law-making power, wealthy Americans are less secure than British coal miners in the 1930s.”
Cuomo spoke after Roberts, noting that Social Security has been around for 63 years and has been defended by both the Right and the Left as landmark legislation.
He also pointed out that by 2029 the system will be bankrupt. “We need to deal with the imbalance. The notion of ditching the whole thing won’t happen by the Democrats or the Republicans. In order to cure the problem we should raise the age of eligibility and change the way it benefits the taxed.”
He continued to say “the government is too collectivized. We should only have the government we need, but we should have all the government we need. We ought to help those who are too weak to help themselves. The government’s role is to supplement private efforts.”
Cuomo quoted Lincoln’s view on the role of government: “The government is the coming together of people to do what they wouldn’t do as well or at all privately.”
Cuomo then noted that it was Lincoln who created the income tax. He then described that Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt both legislated for the public welfare.
Then Cuomo asked what this country would be without the government’s role in social welfare.
He noted that the market system is not socially oriented, so the government must make sure that people are taken care of. “We need to manage our complicated interdependence.”
Cuomo noted that the gap between rich and poor is widening. “66 percent of welfare recipients are children. Our middle class has gone nowhere in 20 years. We need more high skilled workers and the government should be the one helping to finance their education.”
Conan then began the question period by asking Roberts how Social Security could be changed since it is such a popular program.
Roberts noted that the 18 to 34 age group does not think that it will receive Social Security. ”
We made decisions without knowing what happened in the 1930’s and why. We can’t raise the payroll tax forever; funding is a serious problem,” Roberts said.
Cuomo addressed the question by stating, “There are other plans offered that would stop a payroll tax increase. We could bring municipal and state workers into the system and increase the eligibility age. Right now the income bracket stops at $60,000, we should let it go to $100,000. There is a way to privatize some of the system.”
Then questions were taken from the audience. The first, concerning school vouchers elicited a response from Cuomo in which he said, “You can’t give eno
ugh vouchers to create competition . We should increase competition with magnet schools.”
The next question dealt with housing. Cuomo noted that “The government has to get involved in helping poor people find decent housing. Right now, America doesn’t give a damn about poor people.” Roberts countered, “Economically, we can’t look at just redistribution. People are rethinking how to help the poor. It is not that they don’t care about the poor, they are trying to think of a better way.”
Two other questions dealt with morality’s role in the political process and whether governmental money in the market create a conflict of interests.
The last question was from a student who asked about the government’s responsibility to children.
Roberts answered, “To ensure success in people, it requires investment. We are investing in human capital. The government must make sure that it is not impairing people’s incentive to invest in human capital.” Cuomo responded, “We need to insure two things. First, we have to make sure we don’t stifle the economy with stifling regulations. Second, we must provide the best health care and educational system for our children and make sure they have access to it.”