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Social insecurity and you

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For a young guy, Hans Riemer is a little odd, for which we should be grateful. He spends much of his time obsessing over Social Security, which is not what most 29-year-olds do. Matter of fact, most 49-year-olds don’t think about it very much either.

That’s because baby boomers refuse to admit they are ever really going to get old. Bundles of contradictions that we are, we assume that a) even if we by some chance ever do get old, Social Security won’t be there, and b) by then, well, maybe we won’t need it. That’s assuming that all the money we had in our 401(k)s (some in Enron stock, naturally) reappears when the stock market rebounds. And, in any case, didn’t we hear that the politicians “fixed” Social Security forever, or something, a couple years ago?

Well, O cynical romantics, listen up. We have a right to demand it will be there, and, yes, we will need it. There are few things less understood than Social Security. And there aren’t many facts of modern life in America that are more important.

For most of us, life as we know it wouldn’t be possible without it. If you don’t believe that, imagine financially supporting Mama and Grandpa, and having them live with you till they die. That’s how it was before Social Security, and that’s also how it may be again for millions of us, if George W. and the boys hot to “privatize” Social Security get their way.

Incidentally, Social Security isn’t just for old people; there are 107,000 kids under 17 — mostly, survivors — collecting it in Michigan alone.

Two years ago, the privatizers were a lot more outspoken than they are now, simply because it seemed the great stock-market boom would go on forever. Why force people to tie up their money in a stodgy, guaranteed plan when they could maximize their benefits by diverting it to high-tech stocks instead?

Since then, the NASDAQ has fallen from 5,000 to 1,800, the dot-coms are belly-up, and the privatizers are, for now, pretty quiet. Yet behind the scenes, the Bushies are still just as eager to cripple or destroy the most successful government program in history, according to Riemer, a policy expert who should know.

He is with the Washington-based Institute for America’s Future and director of something called the 2030 Center, which is working to see that today’s young adults will have a future. Last week, he spoke at Wayne State University to deliver this message: Social Security really ain’t broke, and for your sake, don’t let them ruin it.

Before his speech, he told me that last year Bush appointed a commission to study the future of Social Security. But the deck was stacked: “Everyone on it was already on record ... as replacing Social Security entirely or partly by private investments.”

What this would most likely mean is that some fraction of the amount workers now pay in to the trust fund would be invested elsewhere. Eventually, they would still be eligible for some regular Social Security benefits — but the amount would be reduced.

More significantly, the amount of money going into the trust fund would drop even faster. The trust fund, which as of now will have more than enough money to get us through to 2037, would run out of money much sooner.

That commission came up with three plans to present to Congress, which were unveiled to little notice on December 11, a date when the public was still fully consumed with what had happened three months before. The plans have some differences, but, according to Riemer, all would be bad news for most of us.

“None of the three options provide the necessary funds in order to protect private beneficiaries, or to restore long-term solvency to Social Security.”

Instead, they would pay for privatization by cutting benefits. And the more you need them, the more you would lose. That’s not just his analysis. Peter Coy of Business Week, hardly a socialist magazine, took a look at the Bush proposals in December. He concluded, “The diversion of funds in all three plans would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor … the argument that it would benefit the poor is deeply flawed.”

Worse, Business Week speculated that privatizing Social Security might help inflame and deepen class divisions in this country. Why, I wondered, haven’t Bush and Co. started pushing one of their three plans after their commission completed its work?

“Their strategy is to wait till after the midterm elections,” Riemer predicts.

The shrubbery knows that with the recession, and Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate, messing with Social Security wouldn’t fly right now. Better to wait, and hope for a solid Republican majority next year. Then they can, and will, slip it to us.

Unless, that is, we stop them, by working to send to Congress only friends of Social Security, and pressuring candidates and congressmen to pledge to oppose privatization.

Incidentally, it is true, as those who want to tamper with Social Security like to argue, that it was never meant to cover all the financial needs of the elderly. People do need other investments, pensions, etc.

Yet imagine what life would be like without it for 44 million people — an estimated 10 million of whom have no other income. Very late in the last presidential campaign, an irritated George Bush snapped that “the way [Al Gore] talks about Social Security you’d think it was some kind of government program.”

Bingo, chucklehead. In fact, it may be the one government program that has prevented the far left from being an effective political force. Hopefully there are still intelligent conservatives who understand that. The rest should be allowed to shift their own accounts to Enron futures, right now.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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