You're going to be hearing a lot about Social Security in upcoming months. Most of it is going to be false. You're going to hear arguments that purport to show that a radical and hasty revamp of America's most successful government program--specifically, the partial privatization of the system--is required to save the system. You will also hear that liberals, because they are blindly wedded to an anachronistic ideology of self-sacrifice for the common good, or are so warped by their hatred of the president, don't care about fixing the system. That too will be false.

You will hear a lot of this tendentious spin from President Bush, who dreams of entrenching in the 21st century a conservative "ownership society" to rival the liberal New Deal consensus of the 20th century, and not incidentally, to take the Democratic Party's signature domestic policy achievement of the last century and turn it into the centerpiece of the grand Republican vision that will extend his party's hegemony for decades to come.

Yes, liberals are going to fight the president on this. Not because they oppose reform (which they don't), or hate the president (which they do), but because Social Security has a proven track record. It works.

Just ask Seattle's Representative Jim McDermott, a liberal's liberal, who, when he is not appearing in Michael Moore movies, sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, where much of the impending legislative battling over the president's push for private accounts will take place. McDermott acknowledges that the system faces a fiscal crunch of moderate, and easily correctable, proportions. Reform the program? Sure. What he will oppose--as he should--is the president's self-aggrandizing desire to blow up a social insurance system that over 70 years has saved countless millions of the nation's elderly from the grim debasements of poverty.

That does not mean that liberal Dems are opposed to change. "Clearly, there is not enough money in the system in 2042. We should acknowledge that," McDermott says. But there are any number of "very simple ways" to fix that problem. For instance, eliminating the cap on payroll taxes (arbitrarily set at $90,000), would go a long way toward closing the fiscal gap. Raising the retirement age slightly? McDermott is willing to talk about that.

But the core of the program must survive intact. "The system came out of the disaster of the 1920s," McDermott says. "It really has been remarkably effective in lifting seniors out of poverty." He's right. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, as late as 1959, 35.2 percent of the country's seniors lived below the poverty line. By 2000, only 9.9 percent of the elderly were poor. There was a time not so long ago--when I was a kid in the 1970s--that people still associated being old with being poor. Jokes about old people eating dog food the last week of the month were common. There is no greater testament to the success of Social Security than the fact that this association seems like ancient history now.

To his credit, McDermott is unafraid to say what is true: The president claims Social Security will go "bankrupt" in 2042, he is trying to bamboozle the American people. "Crisis, crisis, crisis, crisis, crisis," is how McDermott characterizes the president's disingenuous rhetorical strategy. He points out that Bush's political war to privatize the system--which pits Democrats against Republicans, the young against the old, the poor against the rich--is a war of choice, undertaken on narrow ideological grounds, just as the Iraq war was. And Bush is selling his new war with the same sort of fearmongering.

"Do we live in a society where we think of we, or just me?" McDermott asks. "Bush is pushing the idea that everything is me."

You don't need to be a liberal to realize that Bush's primary concern isn't saving Social Security. His real agenda is to promote a radical individualism that eviscerates the primary social contract that binds us together as a society. His plan would add trillions--trillions--in new debt, at a time when the country is already groaning under the weight of record deficits, without making Social Security solvent (Bush intends benefit cuts to accomplish that). "I think for the American people this is a watershed event," McDermott says. "This one is a bedrock of Democratic security in this society. If Democrats give up that, what's left?" Good question.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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