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Fool Us Once: Bush and the Hard Sell on Social Security

February 12, 2005
By Rich Broderick

I once lived in a duplex whose porch windows looked out on the backyard of a little house owned by a single woman in her late 30s or 40s, a spare, wound up sort whose bumper stickers admonishing the world to "Live simply so others can simply live" and "One day at a time" were belied by the frantic nature of her comings and goings. She always seemed in a rush; whenever I would encounter her on the sidewalk she'd pause just long enough to exchange a greeting, then dash off to her next emergency.

Her entire property displayed evidence of neglect, but it was the backyard that more than anything else symbolized the frenetic quality of her existence. It looked like a stretch of river bottom, a chaos of overgrown peashrubs, gangly buckthorns and mulberries blocking out the sun and choking each other's roots systems, and waist-high clumps of matted grass.

Every so often, the sorry state of her little yard preyed upon the owner to a sufficient degree that she would have at the mess with an old-fashioned push mower which she'd retrieve from behind a screen of undergrowth. For fifteen minutes or so the neighborhood would echo with the chopping sound of the mower as she wound up and lit into the tall weeds. But then, exhausted, she would abandon this all-but-hopeless task, leaving the mower wherever she finished up her last stroke, its blades choked with grass stems like some spindly version of a wooly mammoth caught grazing by the sudden onslaught of a new Ice Age. In the three years I lived in the duplex, I never did see my neighbor succeed in mowing her lawn and I'm sure if I returned to that spot today I'd find her mower buried in the grass somewhere, dried grass spilling from its maw.

I am reminded of my neighbor by George Bush's campaign to privatize Social Security. The President has been at this, fitfully, ever since the very fledging beginnings of his political career, making the same specious arguments designed to disguise the same ideological assumptions that drive his efforts today. As early as 1978, during his first run for office - an unsuccessful attempt to win a Congressional seat from Texas - he was claiming that Social Security was on the verge of collapse: back then, he said the system would be broke in 10 years, an assertion that, like millenarian claims that the world is going to end tomorrow, was proven flat wrong without in any way denting the confidence of the doomsayer.

Now the system is going to be "flat broke" in - when is it, again? 2018? 2042? Or is it 2052? At any event, soon, and so there is a crisis and if we don't act now, this minute, this most fiscally-irresponsible national leader in world history (a recent survey of military conflict revealed that no country that we know of since the beginning of time has ever — ever — cut taxes during a time of war) insists that our future financial security will be destroyed.

In pushing this case, Bush is using all the strategies that he and his administration successfully employed in frogmarching the country into war with Iraq: lies, misleading statements, doctored statistics, politicized government "research" — you name it. This time, however, I'm not so sure he's going to have such an easy time having his way with us.

It's one thing to whip up alarm in the country by claiming that a failure to act immediately, without further ado or reflection, might, indeed, probably will, result in a mushroom cloud rising over the remains of Chicago, another thing to try to generate that kind of hysteria by saying that, unless we take radical action today, retiree benefits will have to be cut 40 years hence! Nope. That doesn't quite measure up to a Paul Revere level of urgency. As a species, we are well-geared to react with panic to the first kind of threat, more likely to sit back and chew on things when faced with the latter kind. As with the Iraq invasion, the public will eventually catch on to the duplicity; unlike the Iraq invasion, this will probably happen before, rather than after, any action can be taken. Indeed, all the lying and overstatement and demagoguery employed by the Bush White House to get us into what the Daily Show calls "Mess O' Potamia" is probably going to hamper Bush's efforts. As Bush once said on the campaign trail, "fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can't get fooled again!"

In fact, the likeliest outcome of all this agitation is to ruin any chance whatsoever that there might be a reasoned debate about the future of Social Security. In fact, if I were a libertarian conservative opposed to the very idea of a government run retirement benefits program, I would be pissed off at Bush. By the very ineptitude and mendacity of his approach to the question, he is likely precluding any real discussion of Social Security for a decade or more.

On the face of it, there is no particularly good reason why, as a country, we should not engage in an honest and open debate of whether the current Social Security system is the best we can do, or whether privatizing or partially privatizing it might not be a better way of operating the program, just as there was no reason why the country could not have engaged in a discussion two or three years ago over whether it was a good idea to overthrow Saddam Hussein for any of the real reasons why the Bushies wanted him out, notably his pending decision to convert his oil sales into Euros - a move that could potentially have had devastating effects on the U.S. economy. In the end, we probably would have decided that a full-scale invasion and occupation of Iraq was not the best course of action, but the point is, we never had a chance to have that discussion.

But this is a White House weaned on the Straussian concept of the Noble Lie - of the need for an enlightened elite to conceal the truth from the masses. Bush and his entourage believe, perhaps rightly, that a frank admission that they want to dismantle, not reform, Social Security for ideological reasons, and that they represent a wing of the body politic that has never accepted the New Deal, wouldn't sell very well with the public. And so Bush, whose natural temperament and intellect is that of a salesman not statesman, is doing what any good drummer would do when saddled with a questionable product - he misleads, distracts attention, puts on a dog-and-pony show, hoping all the while that we won't notice. As someone once said, you can fool all of the people some of the time - and usually that's enough.

In this case, however, probably not.

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