Now that the recommendations of George W. Bush's Social Security task force have been quietly shelved, it's time to recall that there are simple and equitable solutions available to deal with Social Security's potential future problems resulting from the retirement of millions of baby boomers.
Five years ago, four former senators--Alan Simpson of Wyoming, John Danforth of Missouri, David Pryor of Arkansas and I (two Democrats and two Republicans)--met on the campus of Southern Illinois University with the deputy chief actuary for Social Security. After looking at many possibilities, we recommended two changes:
First, all income should be taxed for payments into the Social Security Retirement Trust Fund. Today income up to only $84,900 is taxed. While the benefit payments are mildly progressive, the taxes are regressive. Most Americans pay more into Social Security than to the IRS. Covering all income would not only help Social Security, it would reduce the growing gap between those more fortunate and those less fortunate. If you earn $1 million a year, your increased tax would be less than $57,000. You could afford that. And you would pay it knowing that you are helping insure a more secure old age for your children and grandchildren.
Second, the Consumer Price Index, which is used to measure inflation for the purpose of determining cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits, should be corrected. If the price of beef goes up, more people buy chicken, but the cost of food in the index reflects the price of beef--substitution is not considered. Similarly, although drug costs have shot up, boosting the inflation rate, the index does not reflect that generic drugs can be substituted, lowering the cost of prescriptions slightly. If adjustments in the CPI are made, Social Security benefits could continue to rise with inflation, but the rate of increase would be slightly reduced.
Adopting just the first of our proposals would bring in most of the funds needed to meet increased Social Security costs. Adopting both of them, according to the actuaries, would keep the retirement fund solvent for seventy-five years, barring an economic disaster. Neither of these proposals is popular. Political parties don't like to do unpopular things, but a bipartisan Congressional commission could reverse this. It should be created. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will become.
The alternative advocated by George W. Bush and his carefully rigged commission--that a portion of Social Security payments be designated for investments in the stock market--should be a nonstarter. It would be a bonanza for stockbrokers but could hurt most retirees. Has anyone tabulated the cost of auditing millions of private accounts? Does the performance of the stock market during the past two years argue for subjecting people already living on the margin to greater risk? And not simply the experience of the past two years. From December 31, 1964, to December 31, 1981, the Dow Jones average went up less than 1 percent for all those seventeen years. The inflation increase for that period was 95 percent. Interest on government bonds looks good compared with that performance.
The wildest scenario came from a former Reagan Administration economist, Martin Feldstein, who suggested that the federal government should guarantee these investments. I would love to have the government guarantee my investments, but the S&L bailout would look tiny compared with what that idea could cost.
Social Security has a problem. Let's face up to it and deal with it in a way that makes our tax system slightly more progressive.
The Bush Administration has vigorously and effectively responded to the terrorist attack of September 11. The country seems united behind that effort. Certainly there was no hint of a doubt in the repeated standing ovations Congress gave the President's State of the Union address, including his bold declaration that the war on terrorism has just begun. The President singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the most likely next targets of America's aroused ire against terrorists and governments that attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction that we, the Russians, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Israelis already possess.
No longer in government, I do not have the benefit of national security briefings or Congressional committee deliberations. So perhaps instead of making assertions, it may be more appropriate for me to ask some questions that have been on my mind both before and since September 11.
Which course might produce better results in advancing American security? Is it by continuing to boycott, diplomatically and commercially, such countries as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Cuba and threatening to bomb them? Or would we be better off opening up diplomatic, trade and travel relations with these countries, including a well-staffed embassy in each? If we are fearful of a country and doubtful of its intentions, wouldn't we be safer having an embassy with professional foreign service officers located in that country to tell us what is going on?
Our leaders frequently speak of "rogue nations." But what is a rogue nation? Isn't it simply one we have chosen to boycott because it doesn't always behave the way we think it should? Do such nations behave better when they are isolated and boycotted against any normal discourse? What do we have to lose in talking to "rogue nations" diplomatically, trading with them commercially and observing their economic, political and military conditions?
Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget, as the President has proposed, wouldn't we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half of that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world? We are now twentieth among nations in the percentage of gross national product devoted to improving life in the poor nations. If we invested half of the proposed new military spending in lifting the quality of life for the world's poor we would be the first among nations in helping others.
Is it possible that such an achievement would reduce some of the gathering anger that the poor and miserable of the earth may be inclined to direct at the rich and indifferent? Why does a wealthy zealot like Osama bin Laden gain such a huge following among the poor and powerless of the world? Acting on the old adage "charity begins at home," why not invest the other half of the proposed new money for the Pentagon in raising the educational, nutritional, housing and health standards of our own people?
Our military services are the best in the world. But with a military budget at record levels, do we need to allocate another $48 billion--an amount greater than the total military budget of any other nation? Is not the surest foundation for our military forces a healthy, educated, usefully employed citizenry? And is not the best way to diminish some of the international trouble spots, which might embroil our young men and women, by reducing the festering poverty, misery and hopelessness of a suffering world?
Of course we need to take reasonable precautions in our airports and other strategic points to guard against terrorists or nut cases. As a World War II bomber pilot, I appreciate the role of both tactical and strategic bombing in all-out warfare. But is sending our bombers worldwide in the hope that they might hit terrorist hideouts or such hostile governments as Iraq an effective way to end terrorism? May it not more likely erode our current international coalition, while fanning the flames of terrorism and hatred against us as the world's only superpower, hellbent on eradicating evil around the world?
The Administration now has seventy-five officials hidden in bunkers outside Washington poised to take over the government in the event of a terrorist attack. Is it possible that paranoia has become policy? No such extreme measures were undertaken in World War II, nor in the half-century of cold war between the two nuclear giants, Russia and the United States.
All of us who love this land want our President to succeed. Nothing would give me greater happiness than to see him become a great President. But is it possible that our well-intentioned President and his Vice President have gone off the track of common sense in their seeming obsession with terrorism? Is there still validity to the proverb "whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad"?
For half a century, our priorities were dominated by the fear of Russian Communism--until it collapsed of its own internal weakness. As I listen to the grim rhetoric of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, I wonder if they are leading us into another half-century of cold war, with terrorism replacing Communism as the second great hobgoblin of our age.
There is enough blame to go around for the events that have turned the Camp David promise of peace into the killing fields of the Mideast without dragging in President Bush.
Two years after a tragic accident, activists are celebrating a major victory.
They helped set the stage for the current scandals.
Tom White, who pocketed millions running Enron Energy Services, one of Enron's more egregious frauds, remains Army Secretary even after lying to the Senate about his Enron holdings. White continues to say he didn't mislead investors about EES's profitability even as his former Enron employees describe how he goaded them to pretend the unit was making money when it was losing money.
Harvey Pitt, lawyer-lobbyist for the big five accounting firms, continues to serve his former clients as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he defends self-regulation. George W. Bush rebuffed Treasury Secretary O'Neill's recommendation that executives and accountants be held personally responsible for misleading investors, relying instead on Pitt's SEC to oversee executives--even as his budget starves the agency of resources needed merely to retain its staff, much less police the Fortune 500.
Enron's Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow remain at large, neither yet having seen the inside of a grand jury room. The secret partners in the off-balance-sheet enterprises remain undisclosed. The Justice Department--in an investigation headed by Larry Thompson, whose former law firm represented both Enron and Arthur Andersen--appears to be joining Pitt's SEC in pushing Arthur Andersen to cop a plea and settle claims before discovery.
The Bush Administration is staffed with more than fifty high-level appointees with ties to Enron, as documented by Steve Pizzo in a study for American Family Voices. It dismisses all Enron inquiries with imperial disdain. The President stonewalls Government Accounting Office efforts to gain access to Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force records while he continues to peddle the Enron energy plan, which lards more subsidies on big oil companies. Republicans held unemployed workers hostage to win passage of the corporate tax giveaways that Ken Lay lobbied for personally. And Bush continues to argue for turning Social Security into 401(k)-type retirement accounts like the ones that evaporated on Enron employees.
Each day brings another revelation of Enron's remarkable penetration of the Bush Administration, but the White House refuses to reveal the contacts its appointees had with Enron officials and executives. One result is that too little attention has been paid to the delay in imposing price controls when energy companies, led by Enron, were gouging California and other Western states in last year's ersatz "energy crisis." Bush brags that his Administration did nothing to help Enron, but holding off on price controls bought enough time for Lay and other executives to unload substantial amounts of stock.
The Administration's attempt to dismiss Enron as a business scandal, the case of a rogue company run by desperado executives, is laughable on its face. After all, Enron's "Kenny Boy" Lay was Bush's most generous financial patron. Enron's business plan, such as it was, depended on political favors. Enron's freedom from regulation was the result of political fixes. And now the fate of Enron's policies and principals depends in large part on political calculations.
Yet the Bush dodge seems to be working. The press has done its job, but Democrats have failed to find their voices or their spines. If Enron had been a Clinton patron and Gore was in the White House, Congressional Republicans would have forced a special counsel and resignations of compromised officials weeks ago.
Concerned citizens--and Democrats with a pulse--should take off the gloves. White and Pitt should be forced to resign. The criminal investigation should be taken out of the hands of compromised Republican appointees and placed under an independent prosecutor. Enron's energy, tax and privatization plans should be exposed and defeated. And fundamental reforms to protect investors, defend retirement accounts, shut down tax havens, and hold corporate executives, accountants and lawyers personally and criminally accountable are long overdue. For that to happen, voters will have to teach a lesson to the Enron conservatives of both parties who continue to betray their trust.
"I went down to Tommy Thompson's house," the crowd sang.
The targeting of "terrorist" groups harks back to earlier repression of dissent.
It's been six months since nineteen fanatics controlled by Al Qaeda seized four airliners and wreaked bloody, fiery havoc on the United States. In the aftermath, stunned and angry Americans gave the Bush Administration their full-throated support for a war against the perpetrators of the atrocities and those who directed, financed or harbored them. Now, at the half-year mark, Bush's approval rating for this war still hovers above 80 percent, but hairline cracks are appearing in the consensus.
As John Nichols reports in this issue, Representative Dennis Kucinich's recent speech criticizing Bush's war went where no Democrat had gone before. His message--that Americans had not enlisted for the wider military effort the Administration is now undertaking or for the curtailment of civil liberties at home--evidently struck a nerve. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senator Robert Byrd lectured Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that there would be no more blank checks for the Pentagon, while Senate majority leader Tom Daschle mildly reproached the Administration by asking whatever happened to Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Omar.
Daschle's cautious criticism struck a Republican nerve. Senate minority leader Trent Lott blasted Daschle for trying to "divide the country." But the ancient dodge of hiding behind what Senator John Kerry in a recent speech called the "false cloak of patriotism" may not work this time around. Polls show that a majority of respondents don't want Bush to expand the war beyond Afghanistan unless there is hard evidence that the nation targeted is harboring terrorists. The renewal of fighting in Afghanistan with US troops heavily engaged is a reminder that there is an unfinished job in Afghanistan, not only mopping up Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants but helping the central government extend its writ outside Kabul. This is no time to embark on a global crusade against nebulous "evil."
The casualties US forces have been taking in the new fighting will mute the criticism, but Democrats, who had unwisely pledged to allow "no daylight" between them and Bush on the war, seem to be positioning themselves to begin asking some impolite questions. These are long overdue. The Administration has recently been committing US troops to a series of problematic missions, none of them more than distantly related to the original war on Al Qaeda authorized by Congress. In the strategically important Philippines, US "trainers" are in country aiding the hunt for a band of kidnappers; in Georgia US instructors will be at risk of becoming caught up in a civil war. There is high-level talk about committing US combat troops to Colombia's civil war, cynically transforming counternarcotics into counterterrorism. And then there is Iraq, glittering prize for a politically potent alliance of Pentagon hawks and Beltway conservatives.
Now that Democrats in Congress have regained their lost voice, they should use it more--asking tough questions, grilling officials about the new commitments, about exit and entrance strategies (i.e., what objectives are these troops being sent to achieve?). One might think Congress would be in a feisty mood these days after the way this Administration has ignored it--not even telling it about those secret bunkers where senior officials will ride out a terrorist strike. Apparently, the White House thinks Congress is expendable. It's certainly conducting the war as if it does.
Dennis Kucinich never doubted that millions of Americans had deep concerns about George W. Bush's ever-expanding war on ill-defined foes abroad and on civil liberties at home. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair admits he underestimated the depth of the discomfort until February 17, when he delivered a speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, in which he declared, "Let us pray that our country will stop this war."
Recalling the Congressional vote authorizing the President's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks--a resolution supported by Kucinich and all but one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee--the Ohioan thundered, "We did not authorize an eye for an eye. Nor did we ask that the blood of innocent people, who perished on September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan. We did not authorize the Administration to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyhow it pleases. We did not authorize war without end. We did not authorize a permanent war economy. Yet we are upon the threshold of a permanent war economy."
Kucinich's "Prayer for America" speech was interrupted by repeated standing ovations. But the real measure of the message's resonance came as the text of the speech circulated on the Internet--where a genuine worldwide web of opposition to the Administration's actions led to the posting of Kucinich's words on websites (including www.thenation.com) and dispatched them via e-mail. Within days, Kucinich received 10,000-plus e-mails. Many echoed New Jerseyan Thomas Minet's sentiments: "Since the 'Axis of Evil' State of the Union Address, I have been searching like Diogenes with his lantern for one honest person in Congress who would have the guts to speak out about the attack on Democracy being mounted by the Bush Administration. It has been a frustrating search indeed, and I was just about ready to give up hope when I ran across 'A Prayer for America.' Thank God for this man's courage." Others simply read, "Kucinich for President."
For Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor who led Democratic opposition to the US bombing of Yugoslavia and proposed establishing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, speaking out against military adventuring is not new. But he says he's never experienced so immediate and enthusiastic a response. "We can't print out the messages as fast as we are receiving them," he says. "But I've read through a lot of them now, and they touch on the same themes: The Administration's actions are no longer appropriate, and it is time for Congress to start asking questions. The people understand something most of Congress does not: There is nothing unpatriotic about challenging this Administration's policies."
Kucinich was not the first Congressmember to express concern about Bush's plans. Lee cast her cautionary vote in September. In October, responding to reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Representative Jim McDermott criticized the speed with which the Administration had taken military action and the failure of the White House to adequately consult Congress. In December, Kucinich, McDermott and Lee joined five other House Democrats in signing a letter to Bush, written by Representative Tammy Baldwin, which noted, "We are concerned by those in your Administration and among our own ranks in the Congress who appear to be making the case for broad expansion of this military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict." Another letter, by Representative Peter DeFazio, called on the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution before expanding the war. In February Senator Robert Byrd said that Congress should no longer hand the President a "blank check." Senate majority leader Tom Daschle suggested the war "will have failed" without the capture of Osama bin Laden--a statement rebuked by Republicans, who want no measure of success or failure applied to this war.
But Kucinich's speech was a clarion call. "For most people, Kucinich's speech represents the clearest Congressional criticism they have heard about the conduct of the war, and of the Administration's plans to expand it. That's enormously significant," said Midge Miller, who helped launch Senator Eugene McCarthy's antiwar challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. "Citizens look for Congressional opposition to organize around--they look for leaders to say something. When I read Kucinich's speech, I thought, This could be a turning point."
It has certainly been a turning point for Kucinich. Overwhelmed by invitations to speak, he says his top priority will be to work with Baldwin and others to encourage a broader Congressional debate over international priorities, Pentagon spending and the stifling of dissent. Expect battles in the House Democratic Caucus, where minority leader Dick Gephardt has been more cautious than Daschle about criticizing Bush. But Kucinich thinks more Democrats will begin to echo Senator Byrd's challenge to blank-check military spending in a time of tight budgets. Kucinich plans to encourage grassroots activists to tell members of Congress it is not merely necessary but politically safe to challenge "the Patriot Games, the Mind Games, the War Games of an unelected President and his unelected Vice President."
Kucinich, whose working-class district elected a conservative Republican before him, is confident Democrats from even the most competitive districts can safely join him in questioning the war. "The key," he says, "is to recognize that there is a great deal of unity in America around some basic values: peace and security, protection of the planet, a good quality of life for themselves and for others. When people express their patriotism, they are not saying--as some would suggest--that they no longer believe in these things. There's nothing unpatriotic about asserting human values and defending democratic principles. A lot of Americans are telling me this is the highest form of patriotism."