The Great Social Security Scare

President Bush has wasted little time cashing in what little political capital he has gained with his majority election this past November.  Just weeks into his second term, Mr. Bush has dispatched his Republican majorities to their home districts, in order to sell his new plan to rescue what he would have us believe is a reeling system.

The motivations behind President Bush’s almost religious devotion to reformation of Social Security are twofold:  first, he sees a system on the verge of collapsing under it’s own mass, and the chance to rescue it (and his legacy); but on a more emotional level, he sees this opportunity as a chance to promote a society of ownership (and again, hopefully divert his legacy away from the unjustified war and massive expansion of debt, not to mention the wholesale rape of America’s land and air, with an eroding of much of the Bill of Rights thrown in for good measure).

While some may consider his motivations admirable, the virtue ends there.  Either Mr. Bush is acting rather liberally in his use of the term “crisis,” or he is looking at a set of figures doctored expressly to justify his cause.  Many estimates (including that of Alan Greenspan) place Social Security in a crisis state somewhere near 2042 – Mr. Bush conveniently chooses to use 2018 instead.  If this were considered a crisis, then I would be curious to discover the way in which the President would define the one thousand plus American deaths for which he is directly responsible in Iraq.  If Social Security had six months or less of operability (as was the case in April of 1983), I could justify such a frenzied pursuit of change, but this is clearly not the case.

Mr. Bush considers change a necessity in the Social Security system; this is beyond debate.  What we may debate though, is the virtue of his system.  The use of privatization as a means to alleviate Social Security’s infirmity could be described most generously as misguided (for a more colorful, and accurate, characterization of the plan, refer to the President’s detractors as they appear on cable news programs).  This is ostensibly the answer to inevitable benefits cuts for those under the age of fifty-five.  If we can no longer give you a reasonable level of benefits, the thinking goes, then let’s throw all that money into the market.  Unfortunately the strength of the market is prone to fits and starts, and there are no guarantees that we will all see superb returns.  The only guarantee is that we will find a new crop of very wealthy money market managers in New York.

When I go to a casino, I will bet my budget until it is gone.  In my lesser moments, I may even dip into my discretionary funds for a little bit of extra enjoyment if I find the tables unkind.  But I will never put the keys to my car on the table, because that is my security net.  While this might be an extreme comparison (I don’t think the President intends to put the Social Security bankroll on a Hard 8), it is disturbingly close.

If President Bush would like to improve his citizen’s financial future, he should send his Republican majorities to their constituents to encourage responsible savings practices from a young age, that they can use funds above and beyond their social security benefits to support themselves as their working days come to an end.  Mr. Bush should be spending his political capital to assure that the idea of Americans who cannot afford to put any additional savings away is a thing of the past, through improved wages and decreased financial burdens for those living hand-to-mouth.

The President’s idea of an ownership society is admirable to be sure.  This is an idea that we should have been pursuing for many years, and I am encouraged that someone is finally talking about it.  The critical flaw in this conversation is that it is taking place at the potential expense of one of this country’s most important programs.  I fail to see the way in which creating an additional two trillion dollars in national debt and diverting a portion of one’s taxes into a private account will provide any genuine sense of ownership.

By promoting home ownership, reasonable consumption, and responsible savings for the future, we may realize a true sense of the ownership society in America.  This is certainly not the case by stripping our collective safety net and making a superficial display to create a false sense of empowerment.  But what are we to expect in these dark days?

By: Thomas Falbo

Contact: Thomas at, or (585) 303-1718

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