Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Social Security Debate

For me, social security generally entails being at a party with two drinks in me and someone to talk to. Attention has focused recently on the other "Social Security," which President Bush has decided to be in a crisis necessitating radical changes that will inevitably enrich the investment industry far more than future retirees is crucial. I think this is an issue that is too important to be cynical about.

Here is the issue in a nutshell: old people aren't dying and there are more of them. With regard to some older people I appreciate this development, e.g., my parents. As a general matter, however, the growth of the population of older people does present a myriad of problems (slow driving, health care costs, rambling, pointless stories). We are a compassionate nation, however, and have not sought to punish our older citizens for their survivalism. Instead, we have rewarded and helped them by -- and let's be honest here -- paying them what is in effect a national pension.

Conservatives have a problem with this notion. To them, Social Security is a costly government entitlement that saps the public fisc and maintains a large federal government. The Bush administration proposes to shift from a government-based retirement entitlement to a system that mixes some government support with private accounts. We all, are thus, encouraged to join the ranks of the day traders of the 90s, who blew what little disposable income they had on short term gain and the information disequilibrium of the market place. Like all gambling, it will probably be damn fun.

The President sells this plan not as an effort to shrink and constrain the federal government, but, rather, based on the argument that the current Social Security system is headed for finalcial ruins. When it comes to projections generally, be it budgetary or weapons of mass production, Bush's record is certainly remarkable. His predictions have proven to be wrong every time. Yet, he is consistent in his failures, a trait that many in this country heartily embraced in this past election. There is some comfort in knowing that he will be definitely wrong, and we know what is in store. He rarely surprises us with success and soothes us with his smooth empty, rhetoric. In deeds, words and actions, he is basically the guy for whom my college sweetheart dumped me.

The Democrats beg to differ. Sounding like a bunch of poindexters, they use graphs and incomprehensible statistics to contend that Social Security is not in crisis. They present facts and figures showing the Social Security is basically solvent and can continue to be solvent for a long time with some minor adjustments. For some reasons, many liberals and moderates are still drunk on reality and facts, failing to appreciate the beauty of stone cold rhetoric.

And so therefore, they set themselves up to fail. They are characterized by Republicans as shrill liars who are running around the country trying to scare senior citizens. Republicans conjure up images of Democratic straw men screeching at elderly people about phantoms taking their social security checks. Look, maybe a few self-describe Democrats do want to run around scaring seniors for their very personal, pathological reasons, but that is beside the point. The point is that Repbulican spin is generally false alarmism that has been used more and more to advance the agenda of a radical minority (libertarian Repbulicans). These libertarian conservatives and cipherish, reactionary conservatives have a clear agenda respond to facts with rhetoric and ideology.

Yet, Bush was re-elected to maintain the status quo, not to enact a radical domestic agenda that has consistently eroded the fiscal and social fabric of this country. There is a story to be told of the few taking advantage of the power of the federal government to destroy it and, in the process, to make everyone's lives less...well, secure.

Rather than selling this particular reality, many on the left are spending most of their short-term efforts on shaming their own towards political solidarity. While this effort is well-meaning, it is a losing proposition that will never overtake the broader battle of the messages. If you build a coherent message based on facts, "they" will come. If you mute the factual advantage with shrillness, you advance a position that is not compelling and not terribly coherent. Rather than constructing their personal walls of shame, Democrats should be soberly painting a clear picture of what is and what will be.


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