Our Fortunes Are Not Just Financial

Think of the many ways that a business might invest. Think of a machine shop, for example.

Think of the many ways that a business might invest. Think of a machine shop, for example. A shop with money to spend on its future might buy a machine, buy software, expand its site, reward employees, promote itself—the list goes on.

Now consider a flesh-and-blood citizen of the United States. Does the same broad definition of investment apply?

There is a debate right now about Social Security, and the question of whether all the program’s tax money should continue to go to government, or whether some should be available for individuals to direct toward stocks and bonds. I think one of those options is quite superior to the other. However, what is striking to me is where the two sides agree. Both leave an assumption unquestioned—the idea that citizens should continue to be restricted in how they prepare for their futures. How did we get to this point?

To see what I mean, consider the ways that an individual might choose to invest. That individual might choose to . . .

  • Get a better education. (Disallowed.)
  • Make improvements to house or land. (Disallowed.)
  • Support a larger family. (Seen as an investment in many cultures—but disallowed.)
  • Start a business instead of buying shares in someone else’s. (Also disallowed.)

All of these investments are unacceptable to both sides in the Social Security debate. True, anyone could still fund these pursuits using after-tax savings, but that option offers little consolation to the many citizens who pay much more to Social Security than they might be expected to save after all their taxes are taken away. For them, Social Security is what they spend on the future.

Each one of us has a variety of resources that may serve us in the future. This personal portfolio may include our skills, health, knowledge, property, relationships and financial wealth. By forcing us to direct so much income into the last item alone, both Social Security plans pigeonhole us into narrow views of what our futures might be like.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Both plans require us to purchase intangibles, and in this way they impose a sort of dependence. One plan might allow financial shares while the other insists on government obligations, but how big is the difference, really? Either way, the citizen is forced into a relationship with some huge institution (the government or an investment company) that is too big to be accountable to the individual. The citizen has to purchase paper promises and then—with fingers crossed—hope that the huge institution doesn’t find ways to compromise on those promises as many, many years go by.