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A Tactical Play on Social Security

by Christopher Chantrill
June 27, 2005 at 2:48 pm


FOR A MOMENT last week it looked as though the Republicans were going to give away the store on Social Security reform. As Britain’s Guardian reported the rumors the Republicans in Congress were going to draft a bill “stripped of President Bush’s proposed personal accounts financed with payroll taxes” and it would “avoid the difficult choices of curbs on benefits, higher taxes or changes in the retirement age needed to implement the president’s call for long-term financial stability.” It looked as though Republicans had given up on reforming Social Security with personal accounts. Some conservatives started panicking.

O ye of little faith. When the Republicans’ proposed Social Security bill was actually announced on June 22 it turned out to be a nice tactical play that still achieved the strategic goal of getting the camel’s nose of personal accounts under the tent. The plan called for taking the current Social Security surplus—the share of the FICA tax that gets spent on regular government programs—and putting it into personal accounts for existing taxpayers.

According to Republicans the “plan addresses a common complaint by workers and seniors that Social Security taxes should be earmarked for retirement programs and not spent by the government on other things.” But Democratic “opponents of individual investment accounts were not cheering. ‘This is privatization, plain and simple,’ said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), and would be ‘riddled with uncertainty for everyone.’” The new plan is thought to help the reelection in 2006 of Republican senators in blue states like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Sometimes it seems that Democrats have the easy job as they defend their rent-seekers from Republican reformers. But maybe the job isn’t as simple as we think. At the Daily Kos a convoluted “Social Security for Dummies” complete with graphics seems to require an awful lot of brightly colored boxes and arrows to prove conclusively the simple proposition that the Bush Administration sucks. The endless bombastic rhetoric from the Democrats may be hiding something. Maybe they are starting to feel like the French at Verdun.

In 1914 after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and their bid for a decisive victory over the French the Germans had to do something about fortified Verdun, to turn it from a threat that pointed like a dagger back into Germany and transform it into a liability for the French. They ingeniously achieved this by cutting railroad access to the fortress complex in two surgical strikes: one in the Argonne and one at Saint-Mihiel. By cutting these two vital arteries they put Verdun on life support for nearly four years. As we all recall, it took two million Yanks in 1918—General Pershing, his doughboys, and Colonels Marshall and Patton—to get the blood flowing again.

Republicans should stop lusting after nuclear options and decisive victories in their political wars with the Democrats. Decisive victory is the coin of our adversaries, the lefty revolutionaries. Conservatives are supposed to believe in gradual, incremental change as recommended two hundred years ago by Burke: a sensible reform here, a bureaucratic reorganization there. If we constrict the supplies to the vast fortress complex of Democratic government programs by a strategic tax cut here and a tapping of the Social Security surplus there we force the Democrats to spend all their political energy defending the status quo. First they must meet the substantial needs of the ruling experts in their comfortable academic chateaux. Then they must fluff the pillows of subaltern bureaucrats in their snug tenured billets behind the lines. Finally they must get supplies out to their rank-and-file poilus sitting at the front watching the evil Republican artillery barrage creeping closer and closer.

Democratic sympathizers spend a lot of time worrying about President Bush’s low poll ratings and present difficulties. They should be spending more energy worrying about the worsening prospects of Democratic rent-seekers. They might worry about the imploding Detroit automakers, and how that will affect rent-seeking Democratic union workers. They might worry about the reckless promises of public employee pension funds and how that will affect vital programs that help people. They might worry about the credibility of California teacher union officials as they try to convince the public that Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to make teachers work five years instead of two before getting tenure will mean that “if faced with a five-year probationary period, most candidates will look for jobs elsewhere.” Now really, wouldn’t a teacher shortage force the Governator to increase their pay?

Nobody minds if Democrats use a little honest graft to help workers to get a leg up, or state workers to get a decent pension, or teachers to exchange pay for tenure. But when their rent-seeking grows into a monster that eats the federal budget it is too bad to complain when their fellow Americans cry: Enough!

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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