Social Security

by Stan Kahn

Now that I’m getting my Social Security I have to say that I’m fortunate to be born in the correct time slot because if you’re under 50 you can kiss your pension bye-bye. By the time you’re ripe it’ll be broke, kaput, useless and all the money you put in will be wasted; but you know as long as I get mine I don’t give a shit what happens to you or anyone else in the world, or the world itself for that matter because the only thing that means anything to me is what I can get for myself.

Almost had you fooled, huh? Actually, the above represents two conversations. In the first I’m talking to a warm, smiley, 50 year old, nice guy type who’s half owner of a used car lot in Detroit. He works the summer shift while his partner does warm weather things and in the winter they trade and he does six months of traveling. Broadly paraphrased.

Me... The world environment is going to shit. Detroit... Who cares? I won’t be around to see it crash. Me... What? You don’t care what happens to the world? What about the kids and grandkids? Detroit... Hah, you can’t get me there, I don’t have any kids. Me... So you don’t care what happens to the world or anybody in it? Detroit... My parents got theirs and now it’s my turn to get mine and what happens to anybody else now or in the future is no concern to me.

Quite devastating to a bleeding-heart progressive to hear such gross selfishness on the part of a likeable, internationalist type person. Took a few days to recover. That was a few months ago, more recently I’m talking to a pony-tailed Californian about the same age, not as personable as the first guy but seemingly a decent type.

Me... Going on about how happy I am to be getting Social Security and what a good deal it is. California... Blows up, hates SS, rip-off of his hard earned money, he could have done a lot better investing in the market.
Me... But the market doesn’t always go up. California... That’s ok, I’ll take the responsibility. Me... But what about the people who might lose everything in the market and would have nothing without the guarantee of SS?
California... Not my responsibility. Me... You mean you don’t care if anybody else in the world lives or dies? California... Why should I? Me... Because you’re a human being?

Needless to say the conversation ended there. Left a horrendous taste for days, couldn’t even look at the guy next time I saw him. What kind of society is the US creating that people, especially seemingly hip people, can so casually voice such dehumanizing worldviews?

Is that the new American ethos or am I just getting cynical? Probably both, huh? Seems to me America’s moral high ground has been served up to the craven and violent and to know-nothing conservatives whose capability to feel compassion is limited to the warmth they feel inside when they receive their latest tax cut check. That said, who could possibly be surprised at graphic displays of prisoner abuse by American soldiers?

If American cops love to bash the heads of and otherwise harass peaceful demonstrators – not long ago a man attending a peaceful protest in Portland with his two children in his arms, a ten month old and a three year old, was pepper sprayed point blank by an out-of-control cop – why should anybody be surprised at US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners? They were having such a great old time, they even took pictures.

While until the present even I held on to the remote possibility that the American occupation could turn out ok, the latest flapdoodle has fixed the final nail in the coffin. At this point, nothing the idiot Bush and his rabid, moronic cohorts can say or do can ever make things right in Iraq. The one possible good that can come of all this Bush-created mountain of snot and pus and excrement and green vaginal discharge is that it should thoroughly discredit the right wing for at least a generation... at least for those Americans still capable of rational thought.

Ah, but this essay was supposed to be about Social Security. Woe is you. Woe to you young’uns because SS is broke, wounded, limping......

Not. Not true. Not at all. No way.... SS is flush. The SS trust fund is sitting on a $1.7 trillion dollar – that’s $1,700,000,000,000 – nest egg and all things being equal (of course all things aren’t equal but that’s neither here nor there and another whole story) SS has the wherewithal to cover all projected expenses all the way to the year 2043. That’s with no increase in taxes, no decrease in benefits and no setting back of the retirement age.

So what gives? Why does everybody think SS’s broke? And why do both parties keep talking about ‘shoring up’ SS as if it’s on the brink of crumbling? A little background is in order.

SS was set up as a pay-as-you-go system, that is, the money coming in from working people pays for those on retirement. Very simple in the beginning since there were a lot of people working and few retirees. However, as people began living longer the dynamic changed and in the future there will be fewer workers relative to retirees. Moreover, the baby boomer generation also creates special problems because many people will retire at the same time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When the SS trust fund has a surplus – and it always has to run at least a small surplus – the fund buys US government bonds. Up until the Johnson presidency in the 1960’s the fund was kept separate from the general US budget, as it should be since that money is reserved for retirees and can’t be used for anything else. However, LBJ wanted to minimize the visual impact of the cost of the Vietnam war so congress changed budget procedures to include SS as part of the general budget. Since SS is a large part of overall federal expenditures, the cost of the war immediately became a much smaller percentage of the total federal budget.

Enter Reagan. He wanted to lower taxes on the wealthy while making large increases in the military budget; a sure recipe for big deficits. At the same time, the prospect of baby boomers retiring en masse 30 years in the future provided the excuse to raise SS taxes; you know, shore it up, set aside a nest egg against future requirements. In effect he raised SS taxes, which everybody pays, including the poorest citizens, in order to lower taxes on the wealthy. Since it all was part of the same budget it masked the real shortfall and reduced the deficit in the general budget.

I know this is complicated but bear with me. The surpluses in the SS fund, which under any circumstances can not be used for anything but retiree benefits, made the overall deficit much smaller. And in fact the trust fund is still generating surpluses and as a result the federal budget deficit we hear about is actually much worse than reported.

So what’s the problem? Would you be worried about the future if you had all your expenses covered for the next 40 years? The stickler is that the US government has borrowed 1.7 trillion dollars from future retirees and what’s borrowed eventually has to be paid back and the powers that be, republicrats and demopublicans alike, are scared shitless of that looming obligation. Thus the talk of increasing SS taxes or setting back the retirement age.

In a few years when the boomers start to retire those surpluses will end and the fund will begin to cash in its bonds. Think of it; not only will the federal government not have an extra hundred billion or so to play with, and finance wars with, but will have to start coughing up, making good on its debt. Talk about budget crunch.

When asked about the SS trust fund, Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first treasury secretary, referred to it as no more than a bunch of IOU’s. Now, the secretary, with a net worth of more than 100 million dollars, probably has quite a few of very same treasury bonds held by SS in his portfolio. Do you think he thinks the money the US government owes to him is just a bunch of IOU’s? Pieces of paper that can be torn up, reneged on, on a whim?

Why would O’Neill talk like that? Undoubtedly he realizes that the only place the US government can possibly get the money to pay off those SS held bonds is by taxing the wealthy and the corporations. That’s why politicians of both parties are making dire predictions about the precariousness of SS and the need to raise taxes and reduce benefits and more insidious, in the case of the neo-cons, to privatize it. They’ve been using our money, borrowing is a better word, to lower their taxes and fight their imperialistic wars and don’t want to have to pay us back.

However, they aren’t taking into account that geezers and crones are the only people who consistently vote. You want to see a fogey revolution? Try to take away our benefits.