Debating social security in New York

16 March 2005

It's easy to forget how unusual this whole idea of open debate is between people who fundamentally disagree with each other. Last night openDemocracy co-sponsored an event on Social Security Crisis (Or Not) in the United States with speakers Paul Krugman, Michael Tanner, and Joshua Micah Marshall (see biogs below).

Tanner was the evening's sole proponent of replacing a government scheme that delivers money to the poor and the pensioned (social security) with a system of private accounts that would give people "more control over their money" and "a better return on their investment" than with regular taxes.

The other speakers (in different ways) defended the current system and rejected Tanner's point of view entirely. But they all managed to come up with a few things they all agree on. Krugman suggested both him and Tanner actually aim for a society that doesn't allow extreme poverty, but simply disagree on how to get there.

All three seemed defensive when the debate began, and loosened up along the way, seemingly surprised at the others' willingness to listen and refrain from cheap shots. It was an interesting debate that among other things touched on both Chile and the UK's attempts to privatise similar programmes in the past. The audience was extremely attentive and curious, both young and old.

Of course, not everyone was as moved by the dialogue as I was. Perry Eidelbus on Eidelblog quotes Startrek: "We could talk all night and not convince each other." He found the debate unconstructive, and hungered to hear something new. And he hated the moderator.

On Ration Action blog, there's more flack for the moderator, but also an excellent overview of what the three speakers actually said. Krugman was the main attraction for this writer.

We'll have a transcript and webcast available at a later date for those who would like to see the whole thing. Thanks to everyone who showed up in person. See you next time!


PAUL KRUGMAN is professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. He writes a regular Op-Ed column that appears twice a week in The New York Times. Krugman is the author of 20 books and more than 200 professional journal articles. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. In a recent article, the Washington Monthly   called Krugman "the most important political columnist in America"  and Editor and Publisher named him columnist of the year for 2002. He has taught at Yale, MIT, and Stanford. At MIT he became the Ford International Professor of Economics.

MICHAEL TANNER directs research on new, market-based approaches to health, welfare, and other "entitlements" at the Cato Institute. Under Tanner's direction, Cato launched the Project on Social Security Choice-widely considered the leading impetus for transforming the current system into a private savings program. Tanner's writing has been published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles   Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He has appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, National Public Radio, PBS, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, and Voice of America.

JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, a columnist for The Hill and a blogger with his own Web site, Talkingpointsmemo.com. His articles on politics, culture and foreign affairs have also appeared in The American Prospect, the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Globe, the Financial Times, the New Yorker, the New York Post, the New York Times, and other publications. He has been a guest on various television shows on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and C-SPAN.   Marshall has a doctorate in American history from Brown University

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