Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More, or Less, Social Security

OK, the moral problem, or question, of privatizing Social Security, seems pretty obvious: Do we really want everyone to be on their own in old age, proudly bearing their latest statements from the “private investment accounts” they started back in 2005? Or do we, the living and the working, want to make sure that the elderly are not indigent, ever, and demand, accordingly, to pay taxes in the present to accomplish this redistributive purpose?

The economics of the issue are murkier. The privatizers cry wolf (“Crisis!”) because they know that’s the only way to detach the majority of Americans from the ancient Christian and the modern socialist criterion of need—that is, from the idea that what we get in the form of income, goods, or love, or God’s forgiveness, is not what we deserve, it is what we need.

The approach of the privatizers is simple and sensible and dishonest: “The people won’t go for this unless we can convince them they have no choice. Unless we tell them apocalypse is impending, they don’t budge.” Sound familiar? Mushroom clouds are gathering, only this time it’s over the Social Security Trust Fund.

Like the neo-cons at DOD after 9/11, like the folks at Club for Growth, and like their allies who follow Grover Norquist in his mad quest to “starve the beast”—to kill the welfare state—these guys were just waiting around for the evidence, such as it is, that they need to validate conclusions they’ve already reached.

But let’s have a look at some of it. Briefly, believe me. The Financial Times of 12/16/04 is pretty interesting here [see also Talking Points Memo of last three days: I wish I could do the link thing]. “It is impossible to argue that the US cannot afford to fund the Social Security gap,” the editorial writers state, “but can afford permanent tax cuts and last year’s Medicare benefit—both of which cost more in present value terms.”

Just so. There is no “crisis,” according to these extremely pro-capitalist writers, because the system as it stands takes in more than it pays out, and will continue to accumulate surpluses until about 2020, when the Fund begins to pay out big time. Still, “it will be 2042 before it runs out, and even then the present level of contributions will cover more than 70 percent of obligations.” Hmm.

So there’s no funding crisis for Social Security until, oh, about 2050. Meanwhile, what’s the matter? Well, meanwhile, nothing. In the long run, however, you need either greater returns on the Trust Fund’s investments or smaller benefits for the retired recipients if you want to keep the system intact, legitimate, and credible.

What is to be done? Privatization is a moral and economic disaster. It announces that our collective responsibility for the generation that precedes us, for those who made our lives possible, is quaint. Turn this around and ask yourself, would you disown the next generation, whether it’s composed of your own kids or those of your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, or, for Chrissakes, your enemies? Of course not.

And don’t tell me that the market can solve this moral problem because those who have diligently accumulated will have the appropriate apartments and appointments in their dodderhood.

I’ve seen this shit. My grandmother, a crazy Irish immigrant, ran a nursing home that was her own home, and it was as scary, as Hobbesian, a place as I’ve ever been. And I’ve been on a bus with members of the Ku Klux Klan, and I’ve been in fights with bikers, and I’ve heard tenured professors tell me that revolution is the only answer to the problems we face. I was terrified every time.

But nothing is as scary as guiding and touching and smelling old people, sick people, the ones who can’t take care of themselves—at close range, when you have to figure out what to do next, whether to hold them, or get the bucket and hope for the best, or maybe feed them. Or just go to sleep, once you’re done.

Yes, it’s the feel and the smell of death. It’s comforting, and it’s bracing, and it’s necessary. In its absence, all those old people are mere abstractions. Say goodbye.


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