The president has overreached.
Ever since he outlined his plans for reshaping the future of Social Security, he can’t buy good press. Every day at least a dozen articles hit the pages of newspapers across the country and on the internet, lambasting his misguided attempts to gut the most popular government program in the history of the country. Liberal pundits, op-ed columnists, reporters, commentators, even the publicly-expressed doubts of Republican senators and representatives, have all served to make this a difficult time for the Bush administration. Today, in fact, conservative legend Alan Greenspan cast doubt on the president’s Social Security plan in his regular testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Mr. Greenspan has a large amount of credibility in this country and abroad when it comes to money, and it is encouraging to see him, maybe, throw off the mantle of being a Bush yes-man and get back to the business of fiscal responsibility. But praising Alan Greenspan is not my reason for putting pen to paper today, as it were.
A person would have to be completely cut off from current events not to be aware of the flak that is punching holes in the president’s Social Security agenda. The reasons why it is such a bad idea have been repeated endlessly. Slowly they are having the desired effect. The Democrats have dug in, the Republican leadership is split, and the president has already lowered his own expectations, as was evident in his State of the Union Address. On top of this cacophony of objection, I now add, superfluously, my own voice.
Forget for once, even though the facts are overwhelming, that the president’s plan will not help Social Security’s fiscal problems, but will deepen, dramatically, both the national debt and the budget deficit. Forget the massive amount of borrowing that will be needed to finance the transition to private accounts. Forget the volubility of markets that are supposed to continually post returns of 6.5% or more, over decades, in order for the president’s plan to work, something the markets have never done before. Forget that the president has been publicly disparaging Treasury Bonds, the safest investment in the world, in order to push for his reforms, even while trying to convince other countries they should buy more bonds than they already do. Where the real crime lies in the president’s Social Security plan is where all conservative agendas lie: behind the curtain, in the ideology.
It is truly a grand pursuit to want to save Social Security from itself. The program is the product of a different time, no longer capable of providing the help that is needed, or at least it won’t be by 2042. Social Security must be saved, because it is going broke. That’s the basic, simplistic argument that the Bush administration is employing to bolster the wider range of proposals and feelers that have been spreading out from the White House the past few weeks. Yet the Republicans, most especially the conservatives, have been lax. They’ve let their guard down. Pay attention, and you notice that for the first time since conservatism began its march to change America, it has let its true intentions be known on a scale that is leading to massive resistance. I don’t know if this is the result of overconfidence, but even the White House has admitted recently that its plan for Social Security privatization will not improve the finances of Social Security one bit. In that admission one can find the true intentions of the Bush administration.
The aim of Social Security reform has nothing to do with saving Social Security. The aim of conservative ideology is to completely do away with all government entitlement programs, lest the holy grail of the welfare state, single payer healthcare, were to inexplicably become a part of the lexicon of inalienable human rights. Social Security has been described as the third rail of politics, but it has also been called the soft underbelly of the welfare state, and with good reasons for both. Social Security has been such a success that tampering with it even a little bit, applying necessary fixes, is to invite political disaster from the voters. But Social Security’s problems are exactly what make it vulnerable. It is a flawed system. Simple fixes are what is needed, but for the first time in seventy years, the conservatives have a force in the white House that they feel can begin to push Social Security down the road to its doom. President Bush has political capital, and he’s willing to spend it, he says. And spend it he shall, trying to accomplish one of the most vaunted goals of conservatism: killing Social Security.
He will do it with smoke and mirrors. This is merely the first round of the battle, and if the president is successful, Social Security won’t fall for many more, but the knockout punch, like a blow that begins a slow, fatal, internal bleed, will be delivered at the beginning. The president’s private accounts will not solve the problems of Social Security. They will, combined with a re-indexing of benefits to inflation rather than wages, inevitably lead to significantly lower benefits, but the private accounts won’t get the blame. The tottering corpse of Social Security, gutted by the loss of most of its incoming revenue by President Bush, will bear the brunt, and there it will end. Social Security reform as applied by the conservatives is a pretext for weakening the system to the point whereby it can be repealed completely within the next few decades, and the fortunes of the old will be held at the mercy of the stock market, a great amount of would-be benefits gobbled up by broker’s fees.
Conservative ideology holds the idea of laissez-faire capitalism in reverence. They believe the purest essence of capitalism, an Ayn Rand horror show of dog-eat-dog business and hands-off government, is also the purest form of freedom. No matter that unchecked capitalism creates class division — in fact an almost impossibly wide chasm between rich and poor, owner and worker — that is reminiscent of the worst aspects of serfdom that held Europe in its grip for so long. This is about freedom. The freedom to be as greedy as you want, and damn those who get left behind. If they worked hard enough, they’d be rich, too. They wouldn’t have to go begging to the government for handouts. And where does the government get the money for those handouts? Why, from real, hard-working rich Americans. How dare the government take money away from them and give it to people who have no business getting their filthy, unworthy, poor hands on it?
That is compassionate conservatism. Conservatism is so far away from true American ideals that their ideals have to be cloaked in deception in order to dupe half the country into throwing votes their way. American ideals such as all men being created equal have no place in their doctrine. If all men were created equal, how come poor people exist? American ideals such as living in poverty being an unacceptable state of being have no place in their doctrine. How could it, when conservatives embrace greed like the word from on high. Conservative ideology and policies they wish to enact in Congress and in state houses across the country serve to make life immeasurably better for a privileged few in this country, while making life devastatingly worse for tens of millions of Americans. This is a conscious effort to bleed the government dry of funds it needs to help provide for the continued well-being of its citizens. And when the money’s gone, when the serfs have to fight in the streets like dogs for scraps of meat, when the old find they can’t support themselves, when caste becomes the sole determiner of a person’s future, then the conservative coup will be complete. In many ways, John Edwards was right when he described his two Americas. We would have done well to listen to him. After all, he is a trial lawyer. He has spent his career dealing with people who have a different conception of law and responsibility than the rest of us. The rich have their own rules, and with conservatism, they have their own government.
The coming battle over Social Security has little to do with saving the beleaguered program. It has everything to do with allowing the conservatives to dismantle seven decades of American progress, returning this country to the days of the Robber Barons. It took quite a lot of time and effort to bring the American people out of that morass of hopelessness in the face of big moneyed interests, but now all those advances are threatened. All of a sudden this battle takes on a greater significance. After losing to the president on ill-advised tax cuts, prescription-drug reform, the coming loss over the Clear Skies Act and tort reform, Social Security cannot be allowed to fall victim to the devious reforms of conservatives with a far larger agenda.