Social Security turns 71 today. One can argue about whether or not the program was a good idea in 1935, but there should be no question about its inadequacies today. And its flaws just get worse with each passing year.
Social Security will begin running a deficit in just 11 years. Of course, in theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2040. That’s not much comfort to today’s 33-year-olds, who will face an automatic 26 percent cut in benefits unless the program is reformed before they retire. But even that is misleading, because the Trust Fund contains no actual assets. The government bonds it holds are simply a form of IOU, a measure of how much money the government owes the system. It says nothing about where the government will get the money to pay back those IOUs.
Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities—the amount it has promised more than it can actually pay—now totals $15.3 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a "T." Setting aside some technical changes in how future obligations are calculated, that’s $550 billion worse than last year. In other words, because Congress failed to act last year, our children and grandchildren were handed a bill for another $550 billion.
Moreover, Social Security taxes are already so high, relative to benefits, that Social Security has quite simply become a bad deal for younger workers, providing a low, below-market rate-of-return. In fact, many young workers will end up paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They will actually lose money under the program.
But the single most important problem with the current Social Security system is that workers have no ownership of their benefits. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in the case of Flemming v. Nestor, that workers have no legally binding contractual or property right to their Social Security benefits, and those benefits can be changed, cut, or even taken away at any time. This means that workers completely dependent on the goodwill of 535 politicians when it comes to what they'll receive in retirement. And because workers don’t own their benefits, those benefits are not inheritable. This particularly disadvantages those groups in our society with shorter life expectancies, such as African-Americans.
Social Security reform was once a bipartisan issue. Democrats like Senators Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were outspoken in warning about the program’s looming insolvency, and in calling for innovative approaches to fixing it. The Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank arm, the Progressive Policy Institute, explored many approaches to reform, including personal accounts. Congressmen like Charlie Stenholm reached across the aisle in search of compromise. Even President Clinton led a national debate to “Save Social Security First.”
But since President Bush called for reforming the nation’s troubled retirement program, congressional Democrats have had only one answer: "No." No to personal accounts. "No" to changes in benefits. "No" to offering a real reform plan of their own. "No" to any discussion or negotiation.
At the same time, Republicans—apparently terrified of offending AARP and other special interests—have scurried for cover, running from positions they should know are correct. Republicans seem to believe that if the just stick their heads far enough in the sand for long enough, Democrats won’t attack them. The result is a choice between Democratic obstructionism and Republican cowardice.
And we wonder why so many young people are turned off to politics?
NPR reporter Luke Burbank, guest-hosting "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me," mocked Sen. Joe Lieberman's decision to run for re-election as an independent after losing the Democratic primary. Burbank ridiculed Lieberman, saying that "nothing, not poor poll numbers, not scorn from his party, not losing the damn primary, could stop him from running for Senate . . . selflessly ignoring the will of the people. . . . If [the independent campaign] doesn't work, he's planning a bloodless coup of the Bridgeport High School PTA."
OK, that's a fair point. But I was trying to think of how NPR might have treated other candidates who lost an election and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. One example was Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.), who ran for the Republican presidential nomination. After losing every primary, he filed to run as an Independent. Nexis doesn't include any NPR transcripts from 1980, but the general reaction of the mainstream media was to celebrate Anderson's courage and independence in standing up to the extreme conservative Republican primary voters who gave the nomination to Ronald Reagan. That same year, liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) lost his primary to Alfonse D'Amato and went on to run as the Liberal Party nominee. Again, the media reaction was sympathetic.
But then I remembered a more recent example of a political candidate who wouldn't give up, even after winning the election: Joe Lieberman in 2000, along with running mate Al Gore. So Lieberman may be the first candidate in American history to refuse to accept losing an election twice.
Do they still sell those "Sore Loserman" shirts?
Here's an idea for the cash-strapped Louisiana Democratic Party: for next year's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, instead of paying big bucks for first-class air travel and hotel rooms for some national party poohbah, why not have the dinner feature Rep. William Jefferson, currently the target of an FBI investigation, and businessman Vernon L. Jackson, who has pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson?
The often astute Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein writes that Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), a candidate for the Senate, is "a budget-balancing fiscal conservative."
Well. According to the National Taxpayers Union, Cardin voted 13 percent of the time to restrain taxes and spending in 2005, making him slightly more spendthrift than the average Democratic House member. He has introduced 42 bills in this Congress to raise spending, and one bill that would cut spending. It's true that he has supported some IRS and budget process reforms, but he has not supported a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.
As I wrote last week, the search for a fiscally conservative Democrat continues.
Meanwhile, a headline in the Post reads:
"President Remains Eager to Cut Entitlement Spending"
Honestly, it's like reporters are Charlie Brown and Bush is Lucy, pulling the football away time after time. Bush promises to control spending, then increases spending by 48 percent. Bush promises to control spending, then passes a multi-trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare. Bush says, "We need to cut entitlement spending," and he gets a six-column headline in the Post.
Joseph Lieberman, the sitting Democratic senator from Connecticut who now aspires to be the sitting Independent senator from Connecticut, declared yesterday that the antiwar views of Democratic primary winner Ned Lamont would be "taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England."
And what do we — and by "we" I mean Senator Lieberman and the rest of us — know about the people who wanted to blow up the planes?
- We know that they are mainly Britons, many with Muslim names that are common in Pakistan. At least two are believed to be recent converts to Islam.
- We also know that two British nationals and five Pakistanis were arrested in Pakistan a few days earlier, and have been described by Pakistani officials as "facilitators" of the wider plot.
- We know that the tip that initiated the investigation came from a member of the British Muslim community who, soon after the July 7, 2005 London Underground bombings, reported the group's suspicious behavior to British authorities.
- And we know that the outlines of the plot look very similar to the failed Bojinka Plot of 1995, which would have involved the downing of airliners over the Pacific using liquid explosives.
These salient facts have led many to speculate that the just-foiled attacks are at least inspired, if not directed, by Al Qaeda, perhaps even Al Qaeda senior leadership such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Remember them? Hint: one is Saudi, the other is Egyptian.
So, to return to Ned Lamont, how is his opposition to a continuation of the ruinous Iraq War, and his support for a refocus on Al Qaeda, good news for the guys now sitting in Pakistani and British jails?
Does Senator Lieberman believe that the expenditure of vast resources on the war in Iraq (to recap: over 2,500 American dead, and over $300 billion spent) directly contributed to the breaking up of the British terror plot?
Does Senator Lieberman believe that the war in Iraq has made it harder for Al Qaeda to recruit followers to its murderous cause? If he does, he apparently disagrees with U.S. intelligence officials, who, according to the Washington Post, "now identify the war in Iraq as the single most effective recruiting tool for Islamic militants."
Does Senator Lieberman believe that the war in Iraq has enhanced our ability to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, home of the newly resurgent Taliban and possible home of bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other Al Qaeda leaders?
Does Senator Lieberman believe that the would-be attackers share the same goals as the people who are waging violence in Iraq today? If so, just to be clear, which people in Iraq? The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr? The successors to the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? The secular ex-Baathists? And, remind me again, just WHO are we fighting in Iraq?
It is time for the opponents of the Iraq War to clarify for Senator Lieberman — and anyone else who wishes to conflate the war in Iraq with the war against Al Qaeda — that the anti-Iraq War movement is not opposing the essential war against the people who killed over 3,000 Americans on 9/11, and not against fighting those people who were planning to kill thousands more over the Atlantic in the next few days.
The war in Iraq was, is, and will be a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda. People who argue otherwise either misunderstand the enemy that we are fighting or are engaged in a cynical ploy to exploit the anxiety of millions of Americans.
In the new Afghanistan, which seems uncomfortably like the old Afghanistan, the cabinet has revived the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice. The government will once again be able to keep an eye out for short beards, chess playing, slipping veils, alcohol, and other vices.
An official tells the Washington Post that he's "swamped with job applicants" for the department.
Perhaps if they lose in the fall, Sens. Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman could team up to lobby for such a department in the United States. And future president Hillary Clinton just might endorse the effort.
See if you can pick out which statement below represents reaction to yeterday's news of the foiled terror plot, and which statements represent response to the strategy of terrorism.
- "This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11." — President George W. Bush, 8/11/06, quoted in the Washington Post Express.
- "We cannot afford no security, but we cannot afford total security, because . . . absolute security could come only at the expense of grounding all the planes and really undermining our way of life. And that would, of course, be a defeat for America." — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, 8/11/06, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
- "Everything that can be done to protect [travelers] is being done." — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 8/11/06, quoted in the Washington Post Express
As Ohio State University national security expert John Mueller points out in his brilliant Regulation article, A False Sense of Insecurity, "The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions."
By communicating messages of confidence, control, and resolve, two of three top administration officials have done a good job of responding to news of the foiled terror plots. The third has unwittingly played into the terrorism strategy.