The stench of death is everywhere around Social Security privatization. Today the Washington Post publishes an analysis of its poll showing support for Bush on Social Security is falling yet again. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, David Brooks writes a âA Requiem for Reform,â in which he blames GOP miscalculation, Democratic partisanship, and the selfishness of the voters for killing privatization. (A departure from his usual sunny populism, wouldnât you say?)
Actually, if reform dies, it wasnât selfishness that killed privatization. It was precisely the opposite.
The irony of Brooksâ complaint, which weâre sure to see repeated elsewhere, is that selfishness has always been at the core of Bushâs economic agenda. He passed tax cuts by dismissing Democratic worries that it would burden future generations with debt. Remember him waving dollar bills and promising, âitâs your moneyâ? He organized lobbies representing the affluent to push for the tax cuts that would benefit them disproportionately. Karl Roveâs re-election strategy was built on appealing to the narrow self-interest of a series of groups. Farmers got lavish crop payments. The steel, shrimp, textile and lumber industry got tariffs. HMOs and pharmaceuticals got lavish subsidies. Etc.
Unsurprisingly, Bush approached Social Security privatization in the same spirit. The strategy was to divide up the electorate and appeal to each segment in very self-interested terms. They would neutralize seniors with the assurance that their benefits wouldnât be touched. The young would be lured in with promises of amassing great fortunes in private accounts. Blacks would be peeled off from the Democratic coalition with bogus claims that Social Security harms them disproportionately. And Wall Street and other businesses, who smelled large profits down the road, would pony up tens of millions of dollars to fund the whole campaign.
But it hasnât worked. And the main reason is that the public is not quite as selfish as the conservatives thought.
The privatizersâ weakest assumption turned out to be their belief that the elderly would support privatization if they knew they wouldnât be affected. For weeks, as polls have shown rising hostility to privatization, GOP pollsters and strategists have conceded that they need to do more to reassure seniors on this point. Bush has obligingly harped on it at every stop.
Yet senior citizens overwhelmingly oppose Bushâs approach. And itâs not because they think their benefits will be cut â polls show they overwhelmingly they buy his reassurances. As todayâs Post reports:
By and large, the elderly do understand the president has promised not to touch their Social Security checks, according to polling.
But that is not relevant to their political opposition, Smorodin said, noting that older people also worry that pension benefit cuts will hurt their children and grandchildren.
At 69, Gene Wallace knows the White House's proposal would have no impact on his Social Security check, but if Bush believes that will silence the Republican mayor of Coldwater, Mich., Wallace grumbled, "he's all wet."
"I'm a parent as well as a grandparent. Somewhere along the line, they are going to be eligible for retirement assistance," he said, with all the energy he could muster three weeks after open-heart surgery. "It's everybody's concern what happens to this country."
I find this pretty heartwarming. Who wouldnât? Iâll tell you who: an economic libertarian who sees concepts like social insurance or collective interest as fundamentally alien. Which is to say, the sentiment that has driven privatization from the very beginning. As usual, this sentiment was voiced in its most naked way by GOP strategist, business lobbyist and Rove confidante Grover Norquist. Last year, speaking to a Mexican newspaper, Norquist chortled over the demise of the World War II generation:
This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations."
Before that generation, whenever you put a draft in, there were draft riots. After that generation, there were draft riots. This generation? No problem. Why not? Of course the government moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. One side spits off labor law, one side spits off Social Security. We will all work until we're 65 and have the same pension. You know, some Bismark, German thing, okay? Very un-American.
Brooks writes today about how privatization opponents used âfamiliar scare tactics designed to frighten the elderly,â using one of the most hackneyed clichÃ©s favored by critics of Social Security. Hereâs what Iâd like to see them explain: Whatâs wrong with being frightened about a future in which your children and grandchildren live in an every-man-for-himself society?