Davis Merritt: A parable of Ralph, Rover and Social Security

05/07/2013 12:00 AM

05/06/2013 6:07 PM

Ralph, an inexpert dog owner at 2345 Sixth St., Everytown USA, teaches Rover to sit down and wait for a treat, using the key word “cookie.” One day the dog refuses to come in from the cold. “Rover!” his owner yells, holding open the door. “Get in here this minute or you’re not getting a cookie!”

The dog immediately sits down in the cold, bright-eyed and panting, because what the dog heard was, “ROVER! mmmfffffpd- gghtcgthggtmbmbmbmby COOKIE!”

That’s the syndrome at work for too many members of Congress when they hear “revenue increase” or “Social Security cuts.” Imprinted responses take over, and so we have continuing and unnecessary deadlock about how to solve one of the most fundamental problems we face.

The solution to political gridlock is well-known and the fixes to Social Security readily available. So why do we stubbornly grind along toward disaster?

Rover, being a dog, is not capable of understanding more than a few one-word concepts imprinted through repetition and subsequent reward. Most members of Congress – though not all, apparently – are capable, being humans, of understanding more complex concepts. But some willfully choose to emulate the earnest but ignorant Rover, nailed in place by one fixation.

Those focused on “Social Security cuts” tend to be Democrats of the more liberal bent. Their mantra is that any change in Social Security is bound to be disastrous immediately and in the future.

Those who key on “revenue increase” tend to be Republicans of the more conservative persuasion. Their fixation is absolute: Any increase in taxes, no matter how impending the fiscal doom or how relatively innocuous the impact, is unacceptable. It’s the idea, not the actual effect, of proposed increases that makes them reflexively plump down in the cold.

Never mind that leaving Social Security alone leads to certain disaster. If someone accurately says, for instance, “We need a balanced combination of revenue increases and entitlement reductions to keep Social Security viable,” here’s what happens:

The most dogged Democrats hear only, “We must have mmmfffffpd- gghtcgthggtmbmbmbmby entitlement reductions mmmfffffpd.”

The most dogged Republicans hear only, “We must have mmmfffffpd revenue increases ghtcgthggtmbmbmbmby.”

The Democrats surely know that the concept being suggested is not one-dimensional: The proposed changes in Social Security would not affect current recipients, would not fundamentally change its foundational ideas, and would secure its place in our system.

The Republicans surely know that revenue enhancements such as extending the income base on which payroll tax withholding is computed and means-testing for eligibility would not visit undue hardships upon people and the system would become self-supporting.

The standoff at 2345 Sixth St. isn’t solely Rover’s doing, though Ralph is disgusted enough, as he continually complains to his wife and friends, to consider “getting a better dog.”

The problem lies in Ralph’s overreliance on the one-dimensional cookie trick to make everything work out as he would like. He’s too busy to think through his simplistic instructions to Rover and doesn’t realize that Rover has actually reversed the power equation and is the one making Ralph dance to his tune.

So Ralph doesn’t change his approach and keeps sending Rover back into the yard, secure in the misperception that he, Ralph, is in control because he owns the cookies. And it keeps on not working.

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