Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Off the fence?

Despite my obvious animus for President Bush and his evil crew, I have been making mostly agnostic or mixed rather than downright hostile remarks about his Social Security plans. This reflects that I have my own gripes about the current system, going not just to the fiscal gap, which I have already discussed a lot in previous posts, but to its haphazard and poorly understood redistributions, many of which are questionable or worse. For example, even if you like transferring big sums to older generations, on the ground that this is progressive redisttribution as our society's affluence rises, what about the transfers through Social Security (as well as Medicare and the income tax) from single individuals and two-earner couples to one-earner couples? And is obfuscating the redistributive patterns really as desirable, or indeed as progressive in its effects, as fans of current Social Security seem to think?
Hence my mixed tone about privatization, which led one reviewer of my Social Security book to insult me, without realizing he was doing so, with some palaver about how I am one of those "third way" Democrats. As if I would ever aspire to something so drab. (Bill Clinton wasn't drab, but that was him, not the "third way.")
Anyway, I am getting to the point where the White House's Social Security campaign is just too insulting to the intelligence of everyone who is supposed to listen to it for me to retain a tone of tolerance even though I am hoping they will stick to their guns on the benefit cuts (albeit perhaps through alternate means such as pegging retirement ages to life expectancy increases).
In some ways, the campaign the White House is rolling out makes one aesthetically nostalgic for the days when they were merely lying and cheating their way into the Iraq war. That time, at least you could half believe some of the stuff they said that has since proved false, such as about the WMD. (No one with a reading level past Dr. Seuss took too seriously their claims about the al Queda ties, even back then.)
Let's take a look at their Social Security campaign. Because Social Security has an infinite horizon fiscal gap of $10 trillion, it is a crisis we must do something about immediately. Never mind the other $63 trillion of the current fiscal gap, or the $12 trillion or so that they want to add by making the tax cuts permanent and fixing the AMT, or the fact that they added $16.6 trillion via Medicare prescription drugs in 2003, or that the Bush tax cuts are so much bigger than the Social Security problem.
No, this is a crisis and everything else isn't, and we must do something about it immediately. What must we do? We must immediately adopt a plan that, forty years from now, will still have increased the total US public debt by $40 trillion. The plan's basic feature, diverting taxes in exchange for (maybe) reducing benefits, is inherently just a breakeven under optimistic political assumptions. This really is, as Richard Clarke said about the Iraq war on 9/12, like responding to Pearl Harbor by bombing Mexico.
This is how the Bush Administration does business, and even strong Republicans, including people who would favor private accounts under the right circumstances, ought to stop tolerating it. The Bush crew continually takes real problems and pushes bogus "solutions" that they wanted to do on totally separate grounds, thus destroying any chance of reasonable discourse either about the problems or about their pet proposals. Case in point: blackout hits much of the eastern US in summer 2003, Administration ostensibly responds with "energy bill," estimated cost $31 billion over 5 (or 10?) years but possibly actually twice that. Bill includes $500 million (about 1% of the total, depending on the true overall cost) actually responding to the blackout problem by addressing the power grid. The rest is pork for Cheney's friends in the coal and oil industries. The bill becomes known as the "Hooters and Polluters" bill because it includes a tax credit for a Hooter's restaurant in Shreveport, LA. McCain calls it the "No Lobbyist Left Behind Bill." It finally fails at the end of 2003 but is still threatening like Dracula to return. The point here is less how abysmal this legislation was (just a drop in the bucket, after all) but rather how the Administration exploits real problems to pursue its preconceived agendas.
The complete hijacking of reasoned political discourse about problems and the range of possible solutions is not just insulting and nauseating, but inconsistent with the meaningful practice of democracy. So death to the Administration's Social Security proposals, I say, on salesmanship grounds alone, because this is not just a one-time thing but endemic of a serious breakdown in our political culture.

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