Letters published in the February 22, 2010 issue of the Nation.



‘Criminal Theft’ From You and Me

Skokie, Ill.

As a former Social Security Administration employee, I was thrilled to see William Greider’s "Looting Social Security" [Jan. 25]. The massive surplus figures are readily available, but the mainstream media seem unable to find them. I would only quarrel with the tendency to define Social Security as an entitlement. It’s the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA)–an insurance program paid out of wages. Benefits are distributed according to the amount paid in and years worked.

A looting issue Greider didn’t address is the outright criminal theft from lower- and middle-class workers. Social Security is a flat tax, so deductions begin with the first dollar of wages each year. Deductions continue up to a ceiling. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president, that ceiling was $29,700. When Reagan left office it was $48,000. Today it is slightly over $100,000. When that ceiling is reached, which happens only to the richest Americans, it’s like receiving a huge tax cut. The exception is Medicare, for which there is no wage ceiling. That deduction is about 1.5 percent plus a matching amount from the employer. Healthcare for our oldest, sickest, neediest citizens costs 3 percent in the public sector. For the younger, healthier segments of society, it is 17 percent of GDP.

Under Reagan the percentage of deductions increased by 25percent. In effect, there was a 55 percent tax increase on lower- and middle-class workers. That is the largest tax increase in history and the largest redistribution of wealth upward. The mainstream media missed that one too.

The final turn of the knife is the interest paid on the bonds bought by surplus Social Security contributions. Reagan used the bond money to conceal the costs of tax cuts for the wealthy and a massive military buildup to spend the Soviet Union into the Stone Age. Since nothing substantial or revenue-generating was acquired with the funds, that interest plus the principal must be paid back out of current income taxes. Part of a worker’s income taxes goes to replacing his own previous Social Security contributions.





Greider Replies

Washington, D.C.

Targeting Social Security to cover the deficits caused by bailing out Wall Street and fighting two wars at once is a great injustice that will not prevail if people awaken to the threat. Both political parties collaborated back in 1983 to produce this huge and regressive tax increase on working people. The media remained silent because it was done by a "bipartisan commission" chaired by Alan Greenspan. Does that sound familiar? Barack Obama and the governing elites in both parties are contemplating a repeat performance. Ronald Reagan was famously against tax increases of any kind, but his budget director, David Stockman, talked him into supporting this one by assuring the Gipper that if the payroll tax was increased by 25 percent, it would turn people against Social Security and eventually destroy the system.





A Warm and Fuzzy Hamas?


Regularly, experts and journalists use their magnifying glass to search for any change in Hamas’s position toward Israel and the peace process. Fawaz Gerges does just that. He writes, "Although low-key and restrained, those shifts indicate that the movement is searching for a formula that addresses the concerns of Western powers yet avoids alienating its social base." He curiously quotes the well-known interviews of several Hamas leaders announcing that they would be willing to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza but forgets to mention that they all added that their movement will never recognize Israel. Belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas sticks to its religious vision of an Islamic state from the sea to the desert. This is broadcast from Gaza on TV and radio, and taught in schools managed by the organization. Here, there is no change whatsoever, not even "low-key." To pick up as argument the conflict between Hamas and the Islamist groups close to Al Qaeda is dead wrong: the Brotherhood was always against bin Laden, for both religious and political reasons. I write in my book Le grand aveuglement: Israël et l’irrésistible ascension de l’Islam radical (Albin Michel, Paris) that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad already rejected, at the 1994 Khartoum meeting of all Islamist movements, a proposal from bin Laden to participate in a global jihad.

Some writers imagine that Hamas is going through the same process the PLO went through and will gradually become pragmatic. This comparison is mistaken. When the organization of Yasir Arafat started its ideological shift at the end of the 1970s, they had an intense ideological debate and met Israelis, secretly and publicly. But they were Palestinian nationalists, while Hamas is a religious movement. Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, drew the red lines for any future indirect deals with Israel: no recognition, no direct talks and a truce limited in time only if it serves the interests of Hamas. It seems that any change in its position will remain low-key.





Gerges Replies


While Sheik Yassin’s statement evokes Hamas’s original position toward Israel before his death in 2004, Hamas’s current leaders have taken important steps to soften and moderate the organization’s stance. Hamas still has a long way to go before recognizing Israel, but it has taken the steps, gradual but generally in the right direction.

A change is stirring in Hamas. Since being elected, it has been forced to moderate in order to govern effectively. It is no longer an opposition party representing one particular group; it is a party that has responsibility for the entire Palestinian people. Hamas has shown that it can be a rational actor and knows its future in government depends on re-election. Hamas has broadened its purpose beyond being purely a religious movement and now resembles a nationalist political movement.

While at first glance Hamas leaders’ statements–that they are willing to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem but never recognize the state of Israel–may appear contradictory, it shows the gradual progress the leadership has made toward seeking peace with Israel. Hamas knows that the best solution for Palestinians is a state that is not constantly under attack by Israel. Hamas leaders also know that in order to appease the more radical elements of the organization, the leadership must make statements to satisfy them. As a political scientist and historian, I know that movements that have taken such a path often moderate even further as their position is institutionalized into the rules and norms of the international system.

Hamas has even shown that it will clamp down on groups that do not accept any agreement with Israel–note the crackdown on the Salafi-jihadi factions in Gaza. It is more than just an antipathy toward groups associated with Osama bin Laden. This is the behavior of a rational actor making slow steps on the long road to peace. There are no guarantees that these steps will lead anywhere, but they go in the right direction. Is it not irrational to ignore those changes and treat Hamas as a monolith, frozen in time and space?


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