A watershed moment in the public realization that low population growth spells trouble for Social Security was the 1987 publication of Ben Wattenberg’s book The Birth Dearth. Wattenberg, who once worked for Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, was by the late 1980s a centrist Democrat, hawkish on defense and otherwise alternately allied with the right or left, depending on the issue. Although many rejected Wattenberg’s claim in The Birth Dearth that a crisis of population decline loomed, time has vindicated his warning.
In a U.S. News & World Report cover story excerpting The Birth Dearth, Wattenberg sums up his argument by saying: “In short, Social Security is a Ponzi game, a pyramid scheme, a chain letter.” In a December 1995 column, Wattenberg makes the point again, calling both Social Security and Medicare “chain letter games.” Implicitly echoing Samuelson, Wattenberg adds, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Ponzi game. Life itself is such a game.” The problem, Wattenberg continues, is that the success of the Ponzi game called life hinges on higher birth rates than we’ve been able to produce…
In January of 1996, just a few months after Shapiro’s article appeared, Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post columnist William Raspberry published a piece on Social Security titled, “Numbers That Won’t Go Away.” Although he’s no conservative, Raspberry argues that “[Social Security] is, in important ways, like a massive Ponzi scheme in which early participants are paid off with money put up by later ones.” Raspberry then asks if Social Security will collapse, “as Ponzi schemes inevitably do.” The piece makes it clear that Raspberry fears just such a collapse. He ends his column by asking: “Why aren’t the White House and congressional negotiators talking about these things?”
A bit later that year, in May of 1996, liberal columnist Jonathan Alter published a piece in Newsweek suggesting that former Democratic Colorado governor and erstwhile Clinton supporter Richard Lamm might run for president as the candidate of Ross Perot’s Reform party. Cynics might suspect that Alter’s glowing treatment of Lamm was motivated by an interest in damaging Republicans by puffing up a third-party bid. In any case, Alter lauds Lamm for his “straight talk” on Social Security. Lamm is praised as a “truthteller” by Alter for being willing to say, among other things, that Social Security is a “well-meaning Ponzi scheme.” Today, of course, the very liberal Alter is a sympathetic biographer of Obama and one of the president’s most supportive media cheerleaders.