President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address last night (the first of his second term) was cleverly designed to make it difficult to criticize. But, skillfully sandwiched between praise of liberty, freedom and democracy, and the heartbreaking embrace of an Iraqi voter and the mother of a slain marine, was as vicious an attack on the social fabric of America as has been heard in a SOTU, as least as long as I remember. That he lent his support to the suppression of scientific advance, the destruction of reproductive rights, and discrimination against homosexuals is no surprise, but they are distressing and alarming positions to find in a State of the Union Address.
It also came as a surprise to no one that Bush's main focus last night was the dismantling of Social Security. Make no mistake, that is what Bush and his fellows are fighting for -- not the repair of Social Security, not an initiative to fund Social Security into infinity, but rather a dismantling of Social Security. Bush's point-by-point outline of his stated "Social Security Crisis" last night was as close to an outright, bald-faced lie as anything he said in 2003 about Nigerian yellowcake -- probably closer, since anyone can run the numbers and see this "crisis" is a lie, and not everyone had access to the intelligence disproving the Nigerian claim.
Beyond the rhetoric, beyond the cries of "crisis," the facts are clear, if you want to look for them: in the past, the present, and slightly into the future, Social Security runs at a surplus. That surplus is invested in U.S. bonds. In the near future (2018 or 2020 are the common predictions), should no changes be made, our system will stop running at a surplus, and have to use some of that savings to keep benefits as they are currently legally mandated. That could continue until either 2042 or 2050 (again, depending upon estimates), when the surplus is predicted to run out. At that time, again, only if no changes are made, benefits would likely be reduced to 70% - 80% of what is currently mandated.
So, there is no immediate "crisis." Even doing *nothing,* our current system will sustain itself for another 40 - 50 years, without any benefit cuts. However, doing nothing is irresponsible to future generations. Much can be done to shore up the system. Raising the retirement age by 2 - 5 years over the next decade would do a great deal to offset the coming shortfall. Also (and this is a little-known fact), the current cap for payroll tax income is around $87,000. That is, any money you or I make beyond $87,000 (I say "you or I" facetiously -- chances are we're not anywhere near that number) is not taxed for Social Security purposes. Raising that number to, say $95,000 or $100,000, and tying that number to inflation, will also help close the gap. And, a responsible combination of these smaller measures and others like them will sustain the current, robust Social Security system (which, since its inception, has reduced the poverty rate among senior citizens from 50% to less than 10%) into the projectable future.
So why, you might ask, does George W. Bush want us to believe Social Security is in "crisis?" The answer is purely ideological and transparent. Bush believes in market forces and private accumulation of wealth, and abhors social safety nets. It's blatant in the words he uses to push his proposals -- he speaks of "personal accounts" (because the word "private" tested poorly) which can be used to "pass your money along to your kids." His policy is about the accumulation of wealth, not about protecting our seniors.
Social Security was built on the idea that society should lend some basic support to those whose hard work in their youth helped drive the economy. It is, in words which have become ugly in recent decades, a supremely successful social welfare program. Bush's proposals weaken traditional Social Security (they rely upon a dramatic -- depending upon the estimates, 40% to 70% over the next 50-years -- reduction in traditional Social Security benefits), and replace it with a personal savings plan. Social Security is not meant to be a source of great wealth -- it is a safety net for those who, for whatever reason, were unable to accumulate enough savings for retirement. It is a basic income, which allows seniors to live comfortably off of even modest savings, or sparely off of little savings. We have other means -- IRAs, 401ks, private investment -- to accumulate wealth. That is simply not the point of Social Security.
But Bush knows we are selfish. He knows that, given the choice of giving a portion of our income to current retirees, or investing that money for our own use, many of us will choose the investment. But we have a societal responsibility to preserve a system by which we reward a lifetime of work with a basic provision for the expenses of living once work has stopped. Shunning our responsibility to society, which will certainly result in more seniors living in poverty, in favor of the possibility of a slightly bigger retirement nest-egg for ourselves, if all things go well, is irresponsible and immoral. Self-reliance is an important American value, but responsibility in care for our elderly and others who cannot work for themselves is an important human value.
To further underscore the fact that Social Security is not actually in "crisis," but that the language of alarm is simply a propaganda tool, let us remember that, during an unsuccessful congressional campaign in 1978, according to the Texas Observer, GWB "warned that Social Security would go bust in ten years unless people were given a chance to invest the money themselves." Again, that was in 1978. Bush wants to destroy Social Security -- he has always wanted to destroy Social Security. But there was no "crisis" in 1978, and there isn't one now.
So, while Bush's first term was about Empire and Ideology, in that order, his second looks to be about Ideology and Empire, in that order. I'm not surprised, just sad.
Two last comments about the SOTU and the proceedings surrounding it:
I do appreciate that authors of popular blogs are looked to for political commentary, but who picks these guys? On CNN, the blogoshpere was represented on the right by articulate, aggressive conservative Andrew Sullivan. But the left was not represented by Josh Marshall or Juan Cole or Markos Zunig, but rather by Ana Marie Cox. Now, I know Wonkette is a very popular bog, and I read (and enjoy) it nearly every day, but its jokey, snarky tone (It's a Gawker Media site, and a self-proclaimed "gossip" blog, for gosh sake) is hardly appropriate for a response to the State of the Union, and Cox always comes off as nervous and sarcastic. On television, she's just not a strong enough personality to balance Sullivan. Give us someone who can hold his/her ground, and who is as good on camera as he or she is online.
Lastly, I know that the Democratic response is written beforehand, but are the milquetoast speeches given by Senator Reid and Representative Pelosi really the best "rebuttal" to the SOTU the Democrats can come up with? The viewership for that rebuttal is, I'm certain, way lower than what precedes it, but could we at least try to be engaging? Try to capture an audience? Perhaps if folks suspected that the Democrats might actually come out swinging, they might stick around to see what happens. Reid's defense of Social Security, while factually far more sound than anything Bush said about it, was presentationally as weak as his constant fake laughter was insipid -- Bush lied outright during his speech, and Reid can't even improvise a comment about that? And Pelosi's speech was the among most blatant runs to the middle I've ever seen on political TV -- security remains an important issue but, when Bush and his administration are poised to rip deep into our social fabric, talking casually about homeland security is not helping anyone. Bring me a Barabara Boxer or a Howard Dean -- someone who can speak his/her mind, fight for his/her beliefs, and who is capable of a little fire, or at least movement from the neck down and an expression other than a pained, self-conscious smile. I know these folks are our current Democratic leadership, and I applaud Reid for uniting the Democratic senators against Bush's Social Security boondoggle, but, for this really important moment, can't we get a pinch-hitter?
Was Martin Sheen not available? Sheesh.