It just seems like a lot of people miss these, so I’ll try to state them as clearly as I can.

  1. Privatization and private accounts are two separate ideas. It would be entirely possible to invest social security funds in the stock market without private accounts, just as it would be entirely possible to have private accounts without changing how the money is invested.
  2. It doesn’t matter how the piper gets paid. If the benefits to current retirees remain the same (as Bush and others have explicitly said would be the case) and the worker-to-retiree ratio remains the same, each worker will pay the same amount. It doesn’t matter which line on your W-2 shows the amount, as long as the bottom line remains the same. The only reform that actually changes something besides the cost of administration is reform of expenditure, not revenue.

If the changes currently being proposed are so pointless, it would be natural to wonder why they’re being proposed. I think it comes down to basic psychology. Psychologists have known for decades that people feel better about something if they feel some measure of control. It doesn’t matter whether their feeling is correct; their choice might actually be meaningless, or even lead to a worse actual outcome than letting someone else choose, and people will still feel better. The people who want to change social security are applying this lesson. Meaningful reform isn’t their goal; the feeling of reform is. They want to make people feel good about reform, and thus about the reformers, even if the reform achieves nothing or even makes things worse. If they can give younger and middle-age voters that feeling, without alienating more canny elderly voters by actually doing anything substantial, it’s a win all around for them.

This is exactly the same approach the right has taken with other “wedge” issues such as gay marriage and abortion. The right-wing leadership doesn’t actually want to win on any of these issues; they want to keep fighting forever. They are defined by enmity. Without an enemy they’d be lost, and they’ve discovered that fighting strawmen or paper tigers gives them much more bang for the buck in elections than trying to deal with the truly pressing problems of our times in meaningful ways. There are real issues involving social security, but its position at the top of the agenda is more the result of political expediency than of genuine concern or rational prioritization.