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Saturday, January 08, 2005

TOPSY TURVY! Everything is Upsy-Daisy -- TOPSY TURVY! Everyone Is Acting Crazy

There's an interesting planet we've seen more of lately -- the planet of New York Times columnist David Brooks, or, as Atrios calls it, Bobo's World.

For me, the best way to describe Bobo's World is kinda like a Jimmy Stewart movie, the scene where he pleads something like, "Don'tcha see? Don'tcha see? It doesn't have to be like this -- it can be better...." Except he then envisions something so completely divorced from reality that you blink, shake your head, and wonder if one of you needs to adjust their medication.

Brooks' column in today's Times is an excellent example of this. It's all about Bush's upcoming attempt to disembowe- er, save Social Security. Forget, for a moment, that the entire argument is a sham -- that Paul Krugman and others have shown how Social Security may need some very minor tweaking, but it doesn't need to be overhauled unless, say, you want to siphon some of its money in a big payoff to the financial institutions who backed your presidential campaign. Let's just look at Brooks' view of the politics of the thing, shall we?
Here are five observations about the politics of Social Security reform:

First, many Republicans will be loathe to back a bill that has no Democratic support. They don't want to transform a big, popular program without bipartisan cover.

Gee, ya think? If the Repubs ramrod something like this through with no Dem support, it will pretty much expose the Repubs as everything we on the left have been saying about them for years.

Second, it will be hard to get Democratic votes for a bill that includes personal accounts. Democrats oppose them for the same reason that Republicans support them: because they think the accounts will create Republicans. People who have them will start thinking like investors.
This is at best misleading, but why take it at best? It's bullshit. The Dems think -- and this is certainly the way the evidence points -- that the accounts will endanger the savings of millions of taxpayers. Social Security is a big group insurance program at core, and the president's proposals take a substantial chunk of that change and play it on the stock market. One bad day can wipe out millions of people's retirements. Don't think it can't happen? Enron. The high-tech bubble. The Crash of '87.
Third, any compromises that win you Democratic votes in the Senate, lose you Republican votes in the House. For example, if Senate Republicans raise the payroll tax caps, they might get some Democrats. But they will lose House Republicans by the dozens. This is the cruel logic we are going to come across again and again this Congress. Changes that build majorities in one house destroy majorities in the other.

I'm still trying to make sense of this one. It's like the "flypaper" theory of terrorists -- if they're all in Iraq, see, the US is safe. If there is a "steady state" number of voters between the House and Senate, it's along party lines, not compromises.

Fourth, even if Republicans try to go it alone, they probably will not agree among themselves. If the White House comes out with a bill that cuts benefits, the Democrats won't have to go into opposition. Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes will already be there. On the other hand, if there are no benefit cuts, the financial markets may go ballistic. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is working on a Third Way approach to please both sides. If he can do it, he's a magician.

Besides the fact that the White House has already discussed cutting benefits, Brooks' chosen opposition is telling. Last I checked, Gingrich, Kemp, and Forbes haven't won any elected office in a long time. They're talking heads from a bygone age -- except that they still wield phenomenal power of propagandizing. What about votes from currently elected officials, hmmm?

And his second point is also disturbing, if shallow. If there aren't benefit cuts, the financial markets may go ballistic? Why? The higher the benefits, the more money going into the markets, right? If there are percentage-based fees, the more money that goes to them as well. If someone could explain this to me, I'd appreciate it.

Fifth, the administration is doing a poor job of communicating with members. Republicans, except at the top, feel isolated. They doubt that John Snow or anybody else in the administration has enough skill and authority to guide this through Congress.

Got that right. Dubya is making this a big prioirity, but not telling any of his allies how to sell it. Maybe because there isn't a way, but we'll let that pass.

All of this adds up to big trouble. Does that mean you walk away from Social Security reform? No. It makes sense to preserve and modernize New Deal and Great Society programs so they fit tomorrow's world. But it does mean you stop and look for alternate routes before you hit the roadblock.
There's a big roadblock that the Repubs don't want to talk about, and fortunately the Dems are talking about: Social Security works. Less than 1% of money paid into it goes to overhead; more than 99% goes where it should, to benefits payments. But this apparently isn't good enough:
Next, it would be useful to broaden the frame of discussion. All the talk so far revolves around Option 2 from the president's 2001 commission. Why limit ourselves? There are dozens of creative reform ideas out there.... [Some] suggest a consumption tax.
Ahhh, the consumption tax. Penalize those who don't save! Of course, most people don't make enough to have substantial savings nowadays -- many are living hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck -- and our entire economy is geared to consumption. This nails poor-to-middle-class people in the worst way, because they consume the most.
Politically, blending Social Security reform with tax reform gives you more moving parts. There are more opportunities for negotiation and compromise.
Funny, I've learned over the years that, the more things something does, the less well it tends to do all of them. Legislation is no different. And blending the straightforward pay-in-pay-out mechanics of Social Security with the vast tangle of tax legislation that "reform" will leave, as it has every other time it's been reformed, will only provide more opportunities for confusion and exclusion.

But here's the part where Brooks is at his best -- saying nothing, in a manner calculated to be eloquent but ultimately both clumsy and vacuous:

The president's role - at the Inauguration and the State of the Union address and after - will be to educate the country about the problem and lay out some parameters. He doesn't need to say what the legislation should look like. That's too wonky. He should talk about what the country should look like. Social Security is more than accounting; it's values.
Values? I've got a value for you: Not giving substantial amounts of money to investment firms from the retirement plans of old people, so those retirees don't starve in the street.

Here are some of the values he might endorse:

First, Social Security reform should liberate our kids, not shackle them. It should eliminate the fiscal overhang so they have the money to tackle the problems that will arise in their own day.

Second, the reform should be transparent, so that people can see what kind of return they are getting on the money they put into the system. People should have information about their own lives.

Third, it should enhance people's control over their own retirement. In a self-governing democracy, citizens should do for themselves what they can do for themselves.

I have no idea what the fuck he is saying here, except that people should be self-aware and do what they are able to. Thanks, Brooks. That's helpful. Except, of course, that part of the point of Social Security is to help people who sometimes aren't self-aware, and who even if they are have little or no knowledge of the financial markets, and who have tried to do for themselves, but circumstances have thwarted them. They don't want to become investors. They want to eat, and to sleep under a roof.

Fourth, people should be encouraged to work longer. In an age in which many live into their 90's, we should be making better use of people in their 70's and 80's.
In which his fucking ghoulish heart manifests itself. During the late 80s and early 90s, McDonald's had a series of posters, encouraging retirees to come in and work for Mickey D's to have fun, to get to know people, and, if necessary, to help make ends meet. I've known more than enough senior citizens to know that nobody works in a fucking McDonald's for fun and to get to know people. Especially a senior -- he or she has nothing in common with kids young enough to be their grandchildren, and the work is physically demanding even at the simplest level. Wal*Mart employees, same thing. They're not there for socializing -- they're there because they're desperate. And "making better use" of seniors reduces these people's lives, experiences, and sacrifices to commodities to be expended and then discarded. Besides, if people work longer, we can up the age at which we start making payments -- say, to 70, or 72, or 75. And some of those old folks won't make it that long. It's a sure money-saver!
Fifth, we need a savings revolution. The plan should encourage the nation to save more, to create more capital for America's future greatness.
Reality and Brooks have an adversarial relationship. Again, this is really great if you can afford to save. Most people can't. And, between the constant encouragement of (and measurement of the success of the economy based on) consumption and the hideous mountain of personal debt in this country through credit cards and mortgages, more and more people are making more and more payments with the money Brooks airily suggests they should be saving.
This is a time to trust the legislative process. Social Security has a better chance of passage if Congress leads. It's also time to think big. Social Security reform plus tax reform go a long way toward getting you to an ownership society.
And this is the heart of Dubya's horrific "ownership society" -- making people, especially poor and middle-class people, pay cash-on-the-barrelhead for services which, for generations, we have all paid for with taxes.

Government exists to do what individuals can't and private companies won't. Individuals can't provide police and fire protection or negotiate international trade agreements or maintain food and water safety standards and pollution controls or preserve parks or guarantee the health of old people. Private companies can do much of this, but they do so with their own interests at heart, and for as much profit as possible. Taxes pay for a great many good things, and tax reform should encourage those who have the most to help those who have the least, not because we want to penalize people for being rich, but because it's good -- Biblically good, if you wish -- to help those in need, so that they have food, shelter, comfort, and hope.

But not in Bobo's World. There, everyone is an investment wizard, and we can all be rich if we just clap our hands and believe.


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