One of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s standard ploys is to whip out a few historical allusions, a few policy wonk names from the thirties or forties, to wow reporters and other listeners into thinking he’s the master of some esoteric knowledge and not just another pol, and perhaps a pretty craven one at that.
Just now I was watching Moynihan and Bush Social Security Commission co-chairman Richard Parsons giving a little brief talk about their closed-door meeting today. In the course of that Parsons argued that the size of the non-Social Security surplus is really irrelevant to the reform effort since general revenue funds should not and will not be used for Social Security.
Then Moynihan chimed in with some hokum about some public policy worthies from the early days of Social Security, and Frances Perkins (FDR’s Labor Secretary), and how they’d done a good job and now it was time to continue their work by reforming Social Security, yada, yada, yada. The implication seemed to be that these worthies would agree with what Parsons had just said. In fact, at earlier points Moynihan has said precisely that, that Perkins et.al, the founders of Social Security, would find using non-payroll tax money (i.e., general revenue funds) for Social Security a terrible thing, anathema, and so on.
The only problem is that this is completely false. Perkins herself believed that general revenue funds would likely eventually be needed to supplement payroll tax dollars. And if my memory serves she believed that point would come late in the last century.
In itself this a relatively minor and fairly technical point, I grant you. But there’s an important lesson to glean from it: Moynihan’s professor shtick is pretty much all shtick and no substance. He makes it up as he goes along.