How lionlike the Democrats sound as they circle around Social Security, roaring their defiance! After years of servility some of them even dare to shake their fists at Alan Greenspan and hurl insults at the man. When the chairman of the Federal Reserve put in a decorous word for Social Security “reform” in February, House minority leader Harry Reid made so bold as to call Greenspan a “hack.” Paul Krugman, who primly chastised Ralph Nader back in 2000 for wanting to “re-educate” Greenspan, now pelts the chairman with rotten cabbages on an almost weekly basis in his New York Times column.
Presumably, enough Democrats realize that if they can’t be seen as putting up a fight on Social Security, then the last supposed major reason for anyone to support their party will have disappeared. (To anyone claiming choice to have an abortion is as powerful a reason, I offer the obvious, which is that the Republicans will never formally move to rescind the legality of abortion. They will merely continue in the enterprise, in which countless Democrats have colluded, of making it harder and harder for poor women to get one.)
The etiquette of substantive one-party rule in America requires us to overlook the facts that the preliminary salvos advertising the need for Social Security “reform” were launched by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that under Bill Clinton privatization was so far advanced that the secret team under the supervision of Lawrence Summers, then in Clinton’s Treasury Department, was discussing how to number the individual retirement accounts. Fortunately, Monica Lewinsky caught Clinton’s eye, and before long he had impeachment and the need for friends to his left at the front of his mind.
So the Democrats get to boast in the midterm elections next year that they fought Bush to a standstill on the key plank in the President’s domestic agenda. Meanwhile, the Republicans, many of whom do not want the undermining of Social Security hung round their necks, roll two long-cherished bills through Congress, both with crucial Democratic support.
Near the end of February many House Democrats voted for a Republican bill to transfer large class-action suits from state to federal courts. It’s the state courts that have awarded big settlements against the tobacco and asbestos companies. Federal judges have consistently cut back the big awards. Transfer of the suits will be a huge victory for the business lobby. Earlier in February the Senate passed the same bill, 72 to 26. Among Democrats voting for a bill written by the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers were such supposed bright hopes as Obama of Illinois, Salazar of Colorado and Bayh of Indiana, along with possible aspirants for the 2008 nomination such as Dodd of Connecticut.
Then in early March no fewer than eighteen Democratic senators joined the Republicans in voting through a bill the banks and credit-card companies have been touting for years, a rewrite of the bankruptcy laws to mandate debt peonage for ordinary Americans. The House will soon follow suit. The bill just passed by the Senate will require many people filing for bankruptcy court protection to repay a portion of their debt under Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code rather than allowing them to wipe most of it out under Chapter 7. I’ve seen estimates that this change could force 30,000 to 100,000 additional filers a year into Chapter 13.
Maybe we should multiply those numbers. Many Americans have virtually no leeway on their monthly budget. A co-pay on some relatively minor health emergency sends them scrambling to the loan shop. If interest rates start to move upward, many households on flexible mortgage rates will default, and they’ll plummet into bankruptcy and debt peonage for the rest of their lives.
And as the dollar tumbles, so does one of the keystones of what in the 1950s used to be reverently termed the American Way of Life, meaning in coarse material terms a civilization that guaranteed its middle class the decent jobs consequent upon affordable higher education and the well-paying jobs that stem from same.
But one-party America voted for those jobs to leave. All through the 1990s Democrats and Republicans voted for the free-trade agreements that saw blue-collar jobs and now white-collar jobs flow south and east. The Labor Department reported in March that 373,000 discouraged college graduates dropped out of the labor force in February, a far higher number than the number of new jobs created. “So far in the 21st century,” Reagan’s former Assistant Treasury Secretary (and fierce Bush critic) Paul Craig Roberts writes, “there is scant sign of the American ‘new economy.’ The promised knowledge-based jobs have not appeared. To the contrary, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a net loss of 221,000 jobs in six major engineering job classifications.”
So it’s fair to say this revamp of the bankruptcy laws is as sinister and menacing a portent of the shape of things to come as would be the physical construction of new debtors’ prisons for the middle class in every American town to match the prisons for the poor already planted in the outback.
What a dismal pass we have reached in one-party America. These days there are more auto manufacturing jobs in Ontario than in Michigan. Why? Canada has a national health plan. Despite occasional pro forma denials, both GM and Ford favor one, since health is the biggest item in their budgets. Both US senators from Michigan oppose a national health plan. Both are Democrats. That’s the reality of one-party America.
Senator Mitch McConnell and other Republicans on the Hill suggested the other day that Bush’s Social Security reform is like three-card monte. While the Democrats circle round the old New Deal program, the Republicans drive through the corporate agenda on tort reform and bankruptcy. Next will come the environment. Enough Democrats will be with them on that too.
And then in 2010 a Democrat can “fix” Social Security.