The Day After Tomorrow Never Knows
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Even as these words appear, Bush the Second is touring his domain, Red America, in the second week of his “Sixty Towns in Sixty Days” propaganda blitz toward changing Social Security as we know it. As always, he is preaching to hordes of the screened and Chosen, the already converted who cannot contemplate their leader without violating the First Commandment. From Louisville, Kentucky, to Great Falls, Montana, he is warning the faithful that something must be done now — i.e., privatizing the system — before the sky falls on America’s favorite entitlement.
Let us be fair and balanced. Social Security was pieced together back in the 1930s, when few workers had permanent jobs let alone pensions. Having grown up under the laissez-faire conditions of the previous fifty years, few Americans could expect to reach the 65-year bar set for retirement, let alone surpass it. Like most primitive insurance programs, it was a “tontine,” created so that only those who outlasted the other contributors would actually collect. Over the years it was tweaked so that dependents could draw from the wage-earner’s account, and so that awards would keep up with inflation. Thus, FICA payroll taxes have periodically had to increase as well. Ironically, as progress and the liberal legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society have improved health and thus longevity for ever greater numbers of Americans, increasing lifespans have stretched the social safety net. More elders are surviving; per capita relatively fewer payrollers help subsidize each of them.
The Primate-in-Chief maintains that, as a result, Social Security will be bankrupt in 2042. Alas (still being fair and balanced here) the poor unfortunate’s dyslexia is acting up again, and none of his objective White House advisors have the heart to set him straight. It is true that, at the best current guess, the system will start paying out more than it collects in 2018; however, by 2042 — by the same best guess — it will merely have exhausted its $2.3 trillion surplus. If nothing were to change, it would take another generation or so to go bankrupt, perhaps in the 2080s. One must acknowledge, however, that few certainties exist in economics because the economy is a dynamic, chaotic system, with multiple variables that cannot all be accounted for at once.
Curiously, so far Bush’s sermons to true believers in Republican districts have not changed many minds. Polls show that even the majority of these constituents continue to like Social Security pretty much as is, which is why the Republican congress has so far failed to propose any sweeping changes — like the Prez’s favorite, setting up private accounts tied to the stock market in place of government guarantees. In fact, since the Bushblitz began, support for his plan has dropped from 40% to 37%. Despite siccing the Slow Boat Veterans for Falsehood on the AARP, to attack the grayheads as gay-lovers and troop-haters, pederasts and Satanists, Republicans continue to find that more poll respondents trust the AARP than the GOP on questions of post-retirement welfare. Although Americans are not noted for their long historical memories, Bush’s “ownership society” recalls the last time the average citizen relied mostly on the stock market for his future wellbeing — those heady days before October 1929. In fact, the ownership society of the last Republican hegemony paved the way for the New Deal and Social Security.
But elephants, they say, don’t forget. Scratch the superficial rhetoric, and you find the GOP’s racial subconsciousness rolling darkly beneath the current debate. For conservative and libertarian thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, the worst thing about Social Security is that it is a liberal program that remains functioning and trusted. For Karl Rove and his ilk, intent on founding a Thousand-Year Republican Reich, government largesse belongs only to high rollers, not payrollers. Like Michael Tanner of Cato, he believes that turning all potential Social Security recipients into mandatory investors in the stock market will automatically make them anti-government voters as well. It is hard to see what evidence they are relying on; stockholders are currently the loudest voices calling for state action against corporate corruption and bloated CEO salaries, pitting them fairly squarely against the Party, which prefers to let Ken Lay. But then conservatives and libertarians alike rely on faith-based philosophies.
If the White House were honestly concerned about the solvency of Social Security, the junta could consider fixes like those favored by most Americans polled: raising the salary cap on FICA deductions, for instance. Doing so would not affect the wage-earner taking home $50,000 a year, but would nip at the paycheck of those making two or three times as much. Unfortunately, the Republican God forbids any solution requiring that sacrifice begin at the top.
For that matter, if this administration were genuinely and foresightedly gazing toward the survival of Americans in the latter half of the 21st century, it would start with an issue for which the numbers are a good deal more scientifically sound-like global warming. Like the economy, the climate is a highly complex system with multiple variables and thus uncertainties. But the most educated conclusion — the one accepted by over ninety percent of the world’s scientists — is that the world is warming up and that human industrial activities seem to be playing a role. The evidence is presently available for all to see, in books — such as Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Maslin (Oxford, 2004) — and on the Web.
The best guess, again, is that global mean surface temperatures could rise by two to ten degrees Fahrenheit (1.4°-5.8° C) by 2100, with consequential melting of polar ice, rises in sea level, alteration of ocean currents and weather systems, and many effects that are frankly unpredictable, although nothing like The Day After Tomorrow. It is possible that Russia and Canada would inherit the globe’s grainbelt, while the American heartland becomes the world’s second Sahara. With so much yet unknown, however, it behooves us to act now to prevent the worst. Even if much of this warming is part of a natural cycle, as critics of the anthropogenic theory assert, reducing greenhouse gases would assure that the system can right itself naturally hereafter, instead of heading into a self-sustaining runaway heat wave as some predict.
There are quite reasonable objections to some of the proposed solutions, and no one pretends that acting globally will be easy, if possible at all. Right now, however, there exists one huge obstacle to addressing the problem realistically: the Bush administration, which views the situation through the same oil-filmed eyes as Exxon/Mobil. Thus, the U.S., which contributes one fourth of all the greenhouse gases belched into the atmosphere, will barely even talk to the rest of the world about potential fixes. In the Bush League’s faith-based scenario, if they don’t want to believe it, it won’t happen. Tell them otherwise, and watch them cover their ears and go “la da da da.” On the subject of the environment, as on so much else, they are distinctly pre-science.
So why should we trust their prescience on anything, let alone Social Security?