Pat’s Social Security Trap

Pat’s Social Security Trap

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a disappointment to those who counted on him to uphold the banner of ethical social change.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former senator, has a careerlong history of promoting bold new ideas for government, helping turn them into public policy and then explaining a few years later, with urbane detachment, why the scheme was wrongheaded folly. If the White House should succeed in dismantling Social Security as we know it, expect Moynihan to hold forth a few years from now on how stupid that was. The ex-liberal neocon intellectual is nimble if not reliable. In retirement he sounds like a born-again libertarian serving as high-minded front man for George W. Bush's privatization campaign, with textual conceits supplied by the Cato Institute.

Shame on Moynihan, but don't leave out his co-chairman on Bush's Commission to Gut Social Security, Richard Parsons, co-chief operating officer of AOL-Time Warner. Both are media darlings, well spoken and knowledgeable, but both are too smart not to know the deceitful word games their commission is playing on Americans. Big media, with a few honorable exceptions, are respectfully swallowing the big lies. In its news columns, the Washington Post described defenders of Social Security as "know-nothings" and "Luddites." On the editorial page, the Post called House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt "demagogic" for his reasonable assertion that Social Security's problems can be fixed without cutting benefits. The Moynihan-Parsons lies are more artfully crafted than the broadsides from ham-handed right-wingers, but they encourage the same fallacious inferences, designed to mislead and frighten: Social Security is on the brink; it hits the wall in fifteen years; the Social Security trust fund is a mere accounting device–the trust fund, the pair wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "holds no accumulated reserves of wealth but only promises that future taxpayers will be asked to redeem…. Where will the Treasury get the money?"

These scaremongering phrases are verbal tricks on innocent citizens unfamiliar with the accounting realities. Moynihan knows better because he co-engineered the bait and switch the last time a bipartisan commission "reformed" Social Security, back in 1983, when Congress raised the payroll tax rate dramatically to build up huge Social Security surpluses–$1 trillion now, more than $3 trillion by the end of the decade–the very surpluses Moynihan now suggests are meaningless. Social Security no longer operates on a pay-as-you-go basis; it's now pay-in-advance. Roughly three-quarters of the country pay more in regressive payroll taxes than in income tax. They rightly resent it, and Bush wants to whip that resentment into support for privatization.

If the money isn't there, as Moynihan-Parsons insinuate, what happened to it? The federal government spent it. What did it buy? Mainly, Reagan's huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, also his military buildup. That money was borrowed, and when more workers retire, the government has to pay it back.

Practical solutions to this noncrisis are simple and modest in scale. The government can reborrow funds in the bond market to pay back Social Security when that becomes necessary. Or Congress could eliminate the earnings cap on payroll taxes that now exempts income above $80,000 (even Moynihan would raise the cap to $100,000). Or, for equity's sake, it could restore the estate tax on the wealthy that Bush just repealed and dedicate the revenue exclusively to Social Security.

Bush's privatization scheme is another grand attempt at bait and switch, only this time the money will be turned over to Wall Street, which just lost $3.5 trillion in net worth for American households. Yes, some people do win big in the stock market, but many others lose. The real trade-off citizens are being asked to accept is giving up the rock-solid security of social insurance for the open-ended risks of private investment. The ex-senator would not experience this, since he has a Congressional pension–a promise Congress is unlikely to rescind.

The affluent welcome the choice since they are already well fixed for retirement, but the majority will, I expect, wisely reject it. Social insurance does not make anyone rich, but it delivers what it promises: a modest but secure nest egg for retirees (also widows, orphans and the disabled). Moynihan's malicious insinuations to the contrary, Social Security can default only if the nation has collapsed in utter ruin or if right-wing politics cancels everyone's insurance policy.

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