Friday, March 4, 2011

The Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Social Security---Priceless.

Ever wonder how things get done in Washington?

Compromises are made; deals are cut and hopefully everyone gets an equal amount of satisfaction out of it.  (‘Shared pain’ is also a desirable outcome but no one really ‘likes it’, do they?)

There is a fascinating new documentary out on PBS now, (better watch it before PBS funding is zeroed out forever) called The Blue Ridge Parkway: The Long and Winding Road’ produced by Bruce Bowers.

Through much research and interviewing, Mr. Bowers discovered that Social Security would not have passed Congress unless the Blue Ridge Parkway was built to connect the North Carolina Great Smoky Mountain National Park with the Shenandoah National Park.

How in the world could that be? What possible reason here on earth could combine a parkway and a massive social safety net program of the United States government?

The Blue Ridge Parkway was a WPA project designed to help get America out of the last Great Depression.  (The one we are now in we prefer to refer to just as the ‘Great Recent Unpleasantness’) It was originally due to cut through the beautiful Shenandoahs of western Virginia and then veer off to the right and cut through the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains.

But there was a big problem.  North Carolina Congressman Robert Doughton was a conservative Southern Democrat who did not support or favor the massive expansion of government power and spending that FDR was selling.  You might want to take a picture of the next true conservative Southern Democrat you see because they are a swiftly dying species not unlike the carrier pigeon or dodo bird.

Congressman Doughton wasn’t powerful enough to oppose the onslaught of federal spending all by himself as a mere congressman.  He just happened to also be the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the most powerful and feared committee in the US Congress.

In fact, at the time, Chairman Doughton was the longest-running Chairman of  Ways and Means in the American Republic’s short history. He may have been perhaps the most 'powerful' North Carolinian ever to serve in Congress solely because of his ability to influence and direct legislation from that powerful perch.

FDR knew that he had to do something to garner Doughton’s support or else the key centerpiece of his New Deal legislation would never see the light of day in the House of Representatives.

And FDR did not become president or later lead America into war against Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo by being a shy, retiring wallflower or potted plant.

FDR figured out that to get Doughton's support, FDR had to somehow co-opt Doughton so he went to him and asked him what he wanted.

He said: 'The Blue Ridge Parkway to go through North Carolina, not Tennessee.'

Soon thereafter, Chairman Doughton changed his tune from criticizing the big government dreams and policies of FDR to highly praising Franklin Roosevelt for his leadership and did everything possible to insure that FDR’s treasured and crowning legislative achievement was passed in a matter of months.

The people of the US from 1935-on got a social safety net that was originally designed to help people feed themselves and families for the next 6 years as America finally got out of the Great Depression by going to war against Germany, Japan and Italy. It was a supplemental income program and was never intended to be a complete retirement program for every American not yet even born at the time.

We have no problems or quarrel with helping people who can not help themselves or who find themselves in an unfortunate economic system.

But the Social Security system is now technically and fundamentally ‘broke’ because the current inflow of payroll tax revenue falls short of the benefits paid out each month.  A huge cohort of Boomers are now entering retirement like an elephant being swallowed by a python with no real actual funded retirement system in place to pay for their retirement needs.

The last time we checked, the unfunded net present value liability for Social Security was close to $16 trillion.  That means that if our children and grandchildren paid $16 trillion more in taxes today, the program would be able to pay full benefits to all of their parents and grandparents ahead of them for the next 50 years or so.

$16 Trillion.  The entire economy of the US is ‘only’ $14 trillion.  And it is the largest in the world by a factor of 3.5 over China.

Oh, and yeah....Chairman Doughton also got a national park named after him in North Carolina just off the (what else?) ‘Blue Ridge Parkway’.

And North Carolina got an absolutely beautiful drive through the Great Smokies….you should take it sometime if you haven’t lately.

It is spectacular.

And at a $16 trillion net present value in terms of shortage of funds for Social Security, it is also ‘priceless’.

For more information on 'The Blue Ridge Parkway: The Long and Winding Road', A Bruce Bowers Film, for to http://www.blueridgedocumentary.com/

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