Sunday, December 12, 2004

Social Security: changing the frame of discussion.

Progressives need to change how the discussion around "reform" or "privatization" of Social Security is being framed in order to win this fight. Attempting to defend the traditional conception of Social Security as a government funded "retirement plan" is a losing proposition, when faced with the Republican counter-meme that "privatized" retirement funds invested in the securities market under the direction of the individual taxpayer are a superior option and will generate greater long term returns.

What's the alternative framework for dicussion?

Simple: go back to basics.

Social Security is not a retirement plan. It is a floor, a commitment that says, if you've worked hard all your life, this is as far as we, as a society, will let you fall, and no further. The purpose of Social Security is to preserve the dignity of our citizenry in it's old age, to prevent people from being thrown out on the streets when they can no longer work. It is not intended, and it never was intended, to provide people with a comfortable retirement - that has been, and always will be, the resposibility of the individual themselves (thus there are pension plans, IRAs, 401(k)s, mutual funds, house payments, etc.).

That is the truth we need to speak.

We need to abandon the polite fiction of a "social security trust fund", and admit and acknowledge that Social Security is a "pay as you go" system - one that should be funded by the increasing tax base provided by economic growth.

On this basis, we need to challenge the notion that any part of Social Security needs to be "privatized" - by pointing out that there are already a wide array of "private" retirement fund options (many even subsidized by the government).

We especially need to challenge the absurd concept that the Federal government needs to borrow trillions of dollars to finance any "reform". This is insane - no responsible investment advisor would suggest mortgaging your home to invest in the stock market (even at today's low interest rates) - let alone taking a "second mortgage" to do it, and yet that is exactly what the Bush Administration is proposing to do: mortgage the country to finance private investment by individuals in the stock market.

That such a proposition has currency in today's political environment speaks volumes about how badly those defending Social Security are served by the current "retirement fund" meme.

It needs to be killed, dead, now. Those defending Social Security need to ban any language referencing that meme from their vocabulary, and instead replace it with terms like "dignity", "respect for our elders", "if you work hard all your life, no matter how bad your luck, there will be something there for you", "as past generations met their commitments to their elders, so to will this and future generations", "we will never allow people too old to work to be thrown out onto the streets due to lack of an income", "some folks have good luck, some folks have bad luck, some folks have no luck at all, and yet work hard all their life - Social Security is there for the woman who worked three jobs to put her kids through school and was never able to save a penny for herself; Social Security is there for the factory worker who got sick, lost his job, and saw the efforts of a lifetime consumed by medical and other bills; Social Security is there for the mid-level manager who trusted the leaders of his company and saw his retirement fund wiped out by accounting fraud", etc.

We need to quit fighting the right-wing on it's own turf, and change the terms of the debate, or we are going to lose this battle, and see one of the most fundamental success stories of our time, the vast reduction in poverty among the elderly, wiped out.

--Thomas Leavitt


Blogger Edward O'Neill said...

Liberals/lefties need to become better at talking about shared values--as you do here.

This involves making a discussion happen in which we talk about what we all value as a society--not what divides us against them and thus sharpens differences to propel politicians into office on waves of anger.

There are certain things "the market" just cannot handle.

It cannot provide reasonably-priced health care to all Americans.

It cannot provide good jobs with good wages.

And it cannot guarantee that as our citizens age they are not left to the mercy of a marketplace that has no use for them.

These are places where the Federal government needs to step in--as an expression of our shared values as a national community, not as an "enemy" who steals "our" tax dollars, but as the instrument of our collective will.

9:11 PM  

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