Ten years ago, as Americans celebrated the 70th anniversary of Social Security, the presidency of George W. Bush was already disintegrating over his attempt to ruin that amazingly successful program. The people’s rejection of the Bush proposal to privatize the system was so powerful that Republicans in Congress scurried away — and his political reputation never recovered.
Since then, the United States has endured a market crash and a crushing recession that proved how much this country needs its premiere social insurance plan. Those events demonstrated that ceding control of Social Security and its revenues to Wall Street, in accordance with the Bush scheme, would have been a national disaster. And yet the Republican candidates for president seem utterly unable to learn that simple economic lesson.
To paraphrase the French adage, the more things change, the more conservatism remains the same. On this 80th birthday of Social Security, the increasingly right-wing Republicans continue to blather the same old nostrums, as if they missed everything that has happened since 2005 — and as if they still want revenge against Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the humiliations he inflicted on their ideological ancestors.
Since Aug. 14, 1935, Republicans and their financial backers have sought to undo the progress that Social Security represents for workers, the elderly, the disabled and their families. Today’s Republican presidential wannabes all claim to be offering something new, but whenever they talk about Social Security, they sound as if they’re stuck in 2005 — or 1935.
From Rand Paul to John Kasich, from Marco Rubio to Rick Perry to Lindsey Graham to Ted Cruz to Jeb Bush to George Pataki, all agree that Social Security should be privatized. And with the possible exception of Mike Huckabee, all agree on undermining the only program that keeps millions of older Americans from ending their lives in poverty rather than dignity. Chris Christie, robber of public employee pensions, would swiftly raise the retirement age to 69, threatening grave hardship for blue-collar, lower-income Americans. Carly Fiorina would inflict similar suffering on workers who weren’t fortunate enough to snag an undeserved $40 million “golden parachute,” like she did.
Behind Republican warnings about the solvency of Social Security — and their enduring desire to privatize — are major financial interests that would like to seize the system’s revenue streams for their own profit.
Greed is always in fashion, of course. But working Americans see no reason to privatize Social Security, when its administrative costs amount to well under 1 percent of its revenues. They know that the Wall Street geniuses who almost sank the world economy eight years ago would charge far more than one percent, while imposing enormous risks on everyone but themselves.
So thanks, but — most emphatically — no thanks. As we mark this anniversary, most surveys show negligible support for privatizing Social Security or reducing its benefits; indeed, there is growing public support for proposals to expand and improve the system.
Yet polls also show many young Americans worrying that the system may not be sufficiently robust to pay full benefits by the time they reach retirement age. The latest report of the Social Security trustees, issued last month, suggested that the system’s trust fund could be exhausted by 2034.
Even then, the system’s revenues are projected to pay at least 75 percent of the benefits owed. But that wouldn’t be good enough when benefits are already too low — and there are several simple ways to fix Social Security’s finances so that nobody need worry. Long before the trust fund runs out of money, Congress can follow the example Ronald Reagan set in 1983 by raising the payroll tax rate — or mandate more progressive policy changes, such as lifting the cap on earnings subject to the tax and broadening the tax base.
Declaring the nation’s “ironclad commitment” to Social Security, Reagan — who had once opposed the system as a symptom of socialism — also expanded its base by bringing government employees into the system. Today, real immigration reform, which the Republicans also oppose in nativist lockstep, would create a stronger future foundation for all retirees and disabled workers.
So whenever would-be presidents start braying about the need to pare, prune or privatize this country’s most effective government program, remember this: Saving Social Security for future generations — even with higher payroll taxes — is far more popular than any of them ever will be.
The best financial decision any future beneficiary can make is to vote accordingly.