Fearing Fear Itself: Social Security and Other 21st Century Disasters

Columbus Alive | February 3, 2005
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most well remembered quote was the one where he told his Great Depression-era constituents that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. So it’s somewhat amusing that as our current president and his party officially launch their effort to reform Roosevelt’s most enduring and most successful program, the rhetorical weapon they reach for more often than not is fear itself.

The issue of Social Security has been raised by politicians and talking heads for months now, as far back as Bush’s mention of the “ownership society” at the Republican National Convention in September, mostly by way of desensitizing people to the idea of screwing around with it and making sure Republicans win the first battle of the coming war—that of the language we’ll all be using to fight it. If they can just properly frame the debate, as they did with “partial birth abortion,” the fight is half over.

So the media learns it’s to use the positive-sounding word “reform” instead of “change,” “alter,” “rollback” or “dismantle.” Instead of talking about “privatizing” or “private accounts,” they’re to say “personal accounts,” which sounds more agreeable and, we hear, polls better.

With that groundwork successfully laid, they’re now ready to roll: The campaign to change, I’m sorry, “reform” Social Security began last weekend, when congressional Republicans left a West Virginia retreat with a 104-page battle plan entitled “Saving Social Security,” according to The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the playbook. Among the advice offered within on how to talk about the issue was obvious stuff like to play up the word “personalization” over “privatization,” as well as this little gem: "avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head.”

The key to selling the issue of reform is creating and hyping a Social Security fiscal crisis, giving it an urgency that must be addressed immediately. Personally, I’d like to think that it would be all but impossible for a political party to create an urgent crisis out of thin air and successfully sell it to the American people, but then, much of our armed forces are currently occupying Iraq.

So with fewer and fewer workers paying into Social Security for each person drawing from it (and increased life expectancy meaning people are drawing those benefits for ever longer amounts of time), the math of the current system will eventually catch up with the program. But eventually is still a way’s off.

How far a way’s off? Most economists—including those who work for congress and Social Security trustees that President George W. Bush himself appointed—believe that 2018 will be the year that the program starts paying more out in benefits than it takes in from payroll taxes.

Mind you, this isn’t the year Social Security goes bankrupt; it’s merely the year the equation shifts and it starts to lose money. Because the system has been lending its surplus to the federal government in the form of U.S. Treasury bonds, in 2018 it will need to start cashing those bonds in to pay benefits—so the feds will have to either cut spending, raise taxes or borrow more money from elsewhere.

Another few decades of paying full benefits after that, in 2042, all of the treasury bonds will be cashed, and the system will at this point need to either start taking in more money or paying out less (not 100 percent less, just less…maybe as little as 25 percent less). There seems to be more uncertainty about this date than the first, however, and some, including the Congressional Budget Office, predict Social Security won’t actually reach this point until 2052.

Does something need to be done in the next decade or so in order to be ready for 2042 or 2052? Sure. Does it need to be done tomorrow? Probably not. In the meantime, there are plenty of more certain and more urgent crises the president and his congress can start worrying how to solve, and the rest of us would be better off fretting over and talking about than if we’ll see a Social Security benefit cut in 40 years.

By 2026, for example, the planet could be an average of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the 18th century, which would completely erase the seasonal ice—already eroding at over 9% a decade—by the end of the century. It’s also a big enough change to lead to the extinction of several species of seals, birds and—get this—polar bears.

The projection comes in a paper to be delivered before the Dangerous Climate Change conference in England this week and is being touted by conservation group the World Wide Fund for Nature. So, in addition to whatever havoc climate change could have—and, some scientists say, is having—on smaller species all around the world, polar bears could go the way of the dodo before Social Security runs out. Let’s see Tim Russert demand answers from U.S. senators about the impending polar bear crisis on Meet the Press some time with the same tenacity he questioned John Kerry on Social Security recently.

A world without polar bears not American enough a worry? Then here’s something that ought to make the oilmen in D.C. sit up and take notice—imagine a world without oil.

Adherents of peak oil theory offer another more apocalyptic crisis than that looming over a particular New Deal program. Peak oil theory refers to a date when oil gathering will have reached its absolute peak, after which it will steadily decline along a curve. However, even though we won’t run out of oil all of a sudden, population and demand will continue to increase as oil extraction decreases, so if it shrinks back to 1985 levels, demand will stay at 2005 levels. That means $10 gas at the pumps, followed by wars over resources, and then the general fall of our petroleum-based civilization as we know it—assuming we don’t do anything to think our way around our current dependency on oil.

Some peak theorists believe we’ve already peaked, others think we could peak as soon as this fall, or perhaps 2007 or 2008, while the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the government agency responsible for collecting and analyzing energy data, puts the date a little further back than that, but still before the earlier than the Social Security crisis rears its ugly head— 2037.

Perhaps Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove and Republican pollsters and advertising slicks publishing 100-page playbooks for talking about Social Security “personalization” could use their persuasive powers for good instead of evil, and start coaching congressman on how to sell alternative energy policy to their constituents?

If that’s still too Green and liberal a worry to make a Republican heart skip a beat, there’s always the projected date for the erosion of America’s hegemony over the planet as it’s sole superpower and undisputed leader, as set not by the Noam Chomskys of the world, but by the U.S. National Intelligence Council—2020.

The NIC report entitled Mapping the Global Future available online at the CIA’s website (foia.cia.gov/2020/2020.pdf) is only slightly longer than the Saving Social Security playbook, but much more alarming. It’s thesis is that the U.S. is a declining power, and though it will remain powerful, China and India could quickly emerge as global players, and together with countries like perhaps Brazil and Indonesia and the superstate of the European Union, pursue strategies to minimize and further erode U.S. power.

Among the support offered for this scenario is that the U.S.’s focus on the “war on terrorism,” particularly as pursued in Iraq, alienate many countries who simply don’t share the concern, and Asia could therefore look to the EU rather than the U.S. as a model (it already looks to China over the U.S. in almost every area, the report says). Meanwhile, our gargantuan deficit—now over $3 trillion, thanks to Bush’s policies—is financed by the banks of China and Japan, which are essentially buying America piece by piece.

The patriotic thing to say is that America is the greatest country in the world and always will be; the smart thing to do is to make sure it stays that way. If we insist on worrying about potential near future crises, can we at least worry about the scariest and soonest ones first?

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Founded in 1983, Alive is the Capital City's oldest and only independent alternative and is known for providing a forum for the area's free thinkers. The paper's spirited and original perspective on music, arts and culture distinguish it from the...
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