Senior Moment

Social security turned over to Wall street? Your check's in the mail

Alan Greenspan, official Washington's favorite geezer, has surfaced as Wall Street's latest Trojan horse in the fight to turn Social Security over to the stockbrokers. Bill Clinton toyed with the idea, and Bush has talked about it, but the stock market crack-up of 2001 put the subject on the back burner.

Now it's back. In February, Greenspan told a congressional hearing that Social Security might not be able to pay out benefits to baby boomers at existing rates. At that time, Bush seemingly distanced himself from Greenspan. At the same time, the president left open the possibility of changing payouts to baby boomers. Greenspan repeated the same warning last Friday, amid a discussion of whether it might make sense to invest some part of the giant fund in private securities.

Social Security overall is widely thought to be in pretty good shape, safe until 2042, and with small changes here and there, probably stable for many years after that. But the Bush tax cuts will eventually work their way through the financial system in such a way that Social Security will be placed under increasing pressure. If government revenue continues to decline, then sooner or later, the Social Security pot will decrease too.

Here is an issue that ought to be perfect for Kerry and the Democrats. No need for bullshit. But instead of straightforwardly pointing out how Bush is trying to destroy Social Security by turning over the nation's pension system to Wall Street—precisely at the moment when people with already privatized pensions in the form of 401(k)'s are struggling to get back on their feet—Kerry started his now famous waffle. He told a voter in Everett, Washington, who had questioned whether the nation's retirement program was really in trouble: "We've made little fixes, little jots and jags here and there, that have been able to change it."

Then, in the unmistakable vague terms of the Democratic Party's Bush-lite policies, Kerry said, "I guarantee you, the first, best thing to do to protect Social Security is to put America back to work in jobs that pay more." That's pure Clinton. Then Kerry said, "I will never privatize Social Security. I will not cut Social Security benefits. And I will not raise the retirement age." This is political fine print for leaving the door open. Kerry is saying that, like Bush, he won't cut benefits.

But cutting existing benefits is not the issue. It's what happens in the future, with payouts to baby boomers and beyond, that Greenspan is talking about. As for privatization, this is another bit of inside-the-Beltway semantics: No politician in his or her right mind would ever propose "privatizing" Social Security. What politicians talk about—beginning with Clinton and continuing through Bush—is having the government invest a certain percentage of the overall fund in private securities or, in Wall Street's wet dream, allowing each person paying into Social Security an option of investing part of his or her stash in private securities.

Not only does Kerry not address these key points, but he refuses to openly say what's going on here, that Greenspan and Bush are engaged in a policy to reduce government revenue through tax cuts in such a way that it puts more and more pressure on the currently viable Social Security system until it eventually does crumble and collapse.


Additional reporting: Alexander Provan, Alicia Ng, and Laurie Agnese

 
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