13 September 2011

Blatant Baby Boomer Bribery Bullshit

I can only express my anger through sufficient alliteration.

Watching the recent Double-Republican debate ("Tea Party GOP" is redundant) in Tampa, I saw that much of the discussion was occupied with the rhetoric of entitlement reform.  This issue of rhetoric has increasingly dominated the conflicts between the Republican candidates, largely because they're in lockstep on most issues.

Oh, sure, some of them want to lower the corporate tax rate to 9% and some want to entirely eliminate corporate taxation and some want to just sign over a few states to Enron and call it a day, but because those are rhetorical distinctions, without merit in any real political discussion (and they know it), these various candidates are essentially arguing towards the same ideal - as little taxation as possible for corporations.  In the American discussion about where to drive the national car, the Republicans are just arguing over how fast we should be going when we ram the brick wall.

But throughout all of the back-and-forth on Social Security, driven by Texas Governor Rick Perry's recent statement that the program was a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie," one constant holds forth.  It's a promise that's been present for the past eight years, ever since President George W. Bush made the first sally.  It goes something like this: Social Security is broken, and we have to end the program as you know it... but only for the young.

Here's an example from Mike Pence (R-IN):
Well, I don't know if they're saying don't touch [entitlements]... I think they're saying for people on Medicare or in Social Security..., let's keep the promises we've made to seniors.  Let's keep the promises we've made to people near the age of retirement.  I've said many times that I believe personally that we ought to draw the line at the age of 40, and say anyone over the age of 40, we'll keep you in the same deal that you've been promised in Social Security and Medicare all of your life.
Let's first of all, let's explode the myth of "broken Social Security" that I heard a lot of in the debate.  In a world of complex problems, Social Security is a simple one.  Unlike Medicare, it's not the future trend that's the problem - we're not in danger of rampaging growth in expenditures, but rather we're simply at too low a level of funding.  Add in a big chunk of money to the pot (a not insignificant hurdle, I'll grant) and the problem is pretty much gone.  This is not a broken program, it's just a program that need recapitalization (MSNBC Business analysis).  It's a different story from Medicare: try it there, and you only stave off disaster for five years.

There's a sort of problem, which is that since 1972 a subtle math error ("double indexing") unintentionally increased the rate at which benefits accrue.  It goes faster than the rate the payroll tax can match it; this was given a temporary fix in the early 80s, but that fix expired.  Social Security ain't broke.  But really, my focus isn't on this generally-accepted bit of wrongness among the GOP, but rather with their proposed "solution."

For all the rhetoric and the debate over the rhetoric going on, basically most of the GOP agrees with this "solution": some form of privatization of Social Security.  It comes in different flavors in Gingrich's plans or the Ryan plan, but essentially the government would no longer be managing Social Security's funds.  Right now, it takes in money from everyone who's working, and feeds some of it to current retirees and some of it into investments.  We pay for current retirees.  Current retirees paid for it when they were working, for their elders.  And that generation paid for the generation before them.  For seventy years, it's worked remarkably well, because it's fairly simple in its basics.

Privatization would still take the money from everyone who's working, but would feed it all into individual funds.  You'd have your own retirement account.  You could manage it to some extent, which presumably means investing it in different ways or at different rates.  It is a dramatic change from Social Security, and would mean the end of the program.

I should pause here to point out what happened to 401(k) accounts in the recent market crashes.  Just think of the horror of the destruction of a generation's Social Security in that way.  Of course, the government would step in - it'd just get piled on the debt.  Over and over.

While I think this "solution" is a bad idea, that wouldn't be the end of it.  It doesn't take a genius to see where it would go from there.  After ten years (or less) of privatization, conservatives would demand to know why the government was forcing anyone to save, or why there were such-and-such restrictions on investing with that fund, or whatever.  Making the government the clunky middleman rather than the manager just begs for the middleman's elimination.  You can hear the soundbites already: "The government shouldn't be forcing anyone to put money under their pillow - we need to let people invest how they want to invest!  Set America's money free from the shackles of Washington!"

And just like that, the safety net for the old would be gone.

I'm not sure how many people are fooling themselves about how privatization is still somehow magically "Social Security" just because they kept the name, or how many people have failed to think through and see that privatization would be a stepping stone to outright elimination.  But I think a lot of people actually do know those uncomfortable truths.  I think this because of that ever-present promise... we'll change it, but only for the young.

Moving the money to individual accounts won't perform any loaves-and-fishes multiplication - we're still going to have a bit too little money coming in, and a big chunk needed to make up the shortfall.  If you're not going to put more money in through taxes (heaven forbid!) then you need to reduce the payout.  Everyone realizes that - most Republicans just also sorta think the money would work harder in private hands rather than public.  They just don't quite believe it, and know they can't quite sell it to the baby boomers who are coming up on retirement benefits.

But there is an idea they can sell to the baby boomers.  Simply: fuck you, we got ours.

It's not so outright, of course.  These boomers have kids and grandkids they're worried about.  They have to keep thinking of themselves as fiscally responsible and honest.  They need something to tell themselves, at night in the dark.

With Social Security, it's the idea that privatization isn't really an elimination of the program, and it's the idea that the kids will be better off if we change it.  They're not willing to do this for themselves, because the baby boomers have been expecting their full benefits.  You'll actually hear that word, "expect," as if it's a magical justification that only applies to their expectations!  The idea that their grandparents, parents, and their children might have had expectations - might have expected them not to destroy Social Security! - isn't as important as their expectations.

It's also why the Medicare prescription drug program, Part D, was passed a few years ago.  The baby boomers didn't want to pay for a program that would benefit them by providing cheap prescription drugs, so they just tacked the whole damn thing onto the deficit.  It was quiet enough so that they can ignore that their children have to pay the resulting debt.

It's also why they seize any possible strands against the proof for climate change.  The science isn't proven, it's not certain, so they can keep cramming coal into our air - better to err on the side of disaster, am I right? If we do need to take action, it will only be after more study and some serious results... maybe in twenty years.  Maybe when the kids can deal with it.

If I was wrong, you'd see them calling for an immediate transition to privatization - say, within the decade.  It's perfectly possible, and just as plausible and easy to do.  It's also immensely more fair.  But it'd result in a shared sacrifice, rather than one they can pile on top of the young.  And on a gut level, they know it.

I'm not saying that baby boomers are stupid or evil - my parents are boomers, and they're neither of those things.  But far too often that generation has let itself be convinced that the best thing for them is also the "right" thing to do.  As soon as they got the knife, their slice of cake just happened to turn out the biggest.  Not all of them agree with it (my parents included), and not all of them have gone along with it.  Just like always in life, no individual is at fault for the actions of a group - except where they had a hand in it.  But when a book was written about the generation before the boomers, it was called The Greatest Generation.  What could we call the Baby Boomers, short of the Selfish Generation?

Fuck us, they got theirs.

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