Volume 74, Number 34 | December 29 - January 04, 2004

Talking Point

Save Social Security with the flat tax, not Wall St.

By Ted Rall

Think back to the 2000 election campaign. Was anyone talking about Iraq? No way. Yet by fall 2002 we’d gotten so riled up — although nothing had changed — that millions thought Saddam was an imminent threat that had to be taken out. You have to hand it to George W. Bush: he can conjure a crisis from a vacuum.

Now the same team that brought you “Iraq on $200 Million a Day” is pimping a preemptive strike on Social Security, seizing on Generation X doubts that the program will still be around when they retire and excessively rosy Democratic assurances to drive a stake in the biggest New Deal-era program.

Mark Weisbrot and Dean Baker, coauthors of “Social Security: The Phony Crisis,” point out that Social Security can continue to pay out full benefits through at least 2042, and 75 to 80 percent of that after that. So you’re O.K. if you’re now 65, but not so O.K. if you’re 18. But don’t-worry-be-happy types aren’t telling you that Americans born after 1963 have already lost four years of benefits. (The Social Security retirement age rises from age 65 to 69 in 2028.) That fact, coupled with pseudoliberal pundits’ evil “even the youngest Baby Boomers will get their full Social Security checks” mantra, creates a generational wedge issue ripe for G.O.P. exploitation. (Believe it or not, John, not everyone is a Boomer.) “It’s very important for seniors to understand nothing will change,” Bush says. “In other words, nobody is going to take away your check.” Gen X response: Yeah, we read Tweenlinese.

Old-school liberals are far closer to the truth than the reform crowd: there won’t be any Social Security “crisis” for at least three decades. Still, given that it’ll be 125 degrees in the shade because of global warming, there’s no reason not to spare our kids another headache. Is privatization a good idea? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s get one thing straight: the Bush reform plan certainly isn’t necessary to make the system, which is currently projected to see negative cash flow beginning in 2018, solvent.

Unless something changes, the system’s trustees project that Social Security will run up a total shortfall of $3.7 trillion (in 2004 dollars) through 2080. But that could easily be fixed by overhauling the current 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax, a highly regressive burden that falls only on income up to $87,500 a year.

The U.S. workforce is made up of 228 million employees who earned a total of $6.7 trillion last year. The richest 1 percent took away a whopping $1.8 trillion, or over 26 percent of America’s national income. Wanna guess where the 1 percent-99 percent divide is? Interesting coincidence: at $87,500 a year. Slap the same 12.4 percent FICA payroll tax on the over-$87,500 crowd — the kind of “flat tax” that makes Steve Forbes’ cheeks flush — and you bring in $219 billion a year. That puts the system into the black starting in 2037 and as far beyond that as a C.P.A. can see.

Whereas elimination of the payroll tax cap would increase the system’s revenues, others are looking to cut expenses. Charles Schwab, C.E.O. of his prominent discount brokerage firm, favors “means testing” — i.e., he doesn’t believe that rich people like him, Bill Gates and George W. Bush should receive Social Security benefits when they retire. “If you’re above $50,000, you can’t apply, because you have adequate income,” he says about his proposal. But $50,000 isn’t that much. And, as the American Academy of Actuaries points out, Social Security’s political popularity relies on the fact that everyone who pays in gets to take out, period: “A much broader loss of public support could result if a means test caused Social Security to be viewed as a government-mandated income redistribution program rather than an earned right.”

A third alternative would address corporations, entities whose tax burden — between 15 and 20 percent of revenues collected by the I.R.S. — is at a record low compared to individuals. A Social Security tax on corporate earnings would help compensate for the fact that corporate America has shifted the burden of providing retired workers with security in the form of defined-benefit pensions to the federal government.

To their credit, key Bushies including Treasury chief John Snow say they won’t rule out raising the payroll tax cap. But don’t be fooled. Republicans come not to save Social Security but to loot it. Wall St. investment banks want to charge, as their counterparts robbing the newly-privatized U.K. retirement system do now, 20 percent fees on your Social Security account. (The British parliament imposed a 20 percent limit on fees, which were often even more outrageous.) Personal retirement accounts, proponents promise, will be strictly voluntary. And they will — for now. Once the system has been partly privatized, it will only take the stroke of a president’s pen to transform Social Security into another 401(k) subject to the giddy booms and shattering crashes of the stock market…exactly the problem Social Security was created to avoid.

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