The Birthday Bush Wants To Ignore
August 11, 2005
Jonathan Tasini is president of the Economic Future Group and writes his "Working In America" columns for
TomPaine.com on an occasional basis. His blog Working Life chronicles the labor movement and other issues
affecting American workers.
Itâ€™s got to be tough when people ignore your birthday. But it must add insult to injury to have the very same
people who are your legal guardians spread rumors about your health and forecast your demise. What to do? I
guess call out those gossip-mongersâ€”which Iâ€™m happy to do, in the service of Social Security on the eve of
its 70th anniversary this Sunday.
Yep, that grand ol' dame has been around a long time, keeping old people out of poverty. And, over the years,
Democratic and Republican administrations have all marked significant Social Security milestones with public
events and proclamations. Just 10 years ago, the Social Security Administration celebrated the programâ€™s 60th
anniversary with the theme â€œSocial Security: Weâ€™re here for your benefit,â€� and deployed a special
postage cancellation stamp, placed messages on baseball stadium scoreboards and used the media to promote
Social Security programs.
But not this White House gang. As of now, the Bush people arenâ€™t planning anything for August 14th. Now,
this should be less than shocking given the administrationâ€™s enthusiasm for dismantling Social Securityâ€”an
enthusiasm, I might add, that thankfully has not been embraced by the general public.
But itâ€™s worth noting that it isnâ€™t just the lack of recognition that is galling. Itâ€™s the willful twisting of
information and the use of a government agency to manipulate the publicâ€™s perception of Social Security
(Hmmmâ€¦twisting of information, manipulating the public? That is just so unusual for this White House).
I remember being startled earlier this year when I read my Social Security statement (yeah, Iâ€™m dating myself)
and found this curious language: â€œCongress has made changes to the law in the past, and can do so at any time.
The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2042, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to
pay only about 73% of benefits.â€� I did a double take. Thereâ€™s no justification for such a negative spin,
considering it is far from certain Social Security will face such a predicament if modest changes are made in the
Turns out that, thanks to an investigation by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, this decidedly negative outlook replaced
language conveying the opposite message used four years earlier. The earlier statements assured workers that
Social Security was a â€œfoundation on which to build your financial futureâ€� and promised them that the
program would â€œbe there when you retire.â€�
And late last year, if you happened to call the Social Security Administrationâ€™s toll-free number, you would
hear this message while you were on hold: â€œDid you know that the 76-million strong baby boom generation will
begin to retire in about 10 years? When that happens, changes will need to be made to Social Securityâ€”changes
to make sure there's enough money to continue paying full benefits. And most experts agree, the sooner those
changes are made, the less they are going to cost.â€� But that wasnâ€™t true, either. Without any changes, the
system can pay full benefits through 2042.
Then, as folks dug deeper, they found a widespread campaign that made the White House look like some greedy
heir trying to push old granny over the cliff to horde an inheritance. Before the Bush people took over the
presidency, the Social Security administration documented in consecutive reports to Congress that the program
would be solvent until 2032 (its 1998 report), that it had gained two more years of solvency (1999) and the
program had added three additional years of solvency (2000).
The Bush administrationâ€™s reports? Well, the press releases seemed gloomy: Long-range deficits remain
(2002); Social Security not sustainable for the long term (2003); and little change in long-term solvency of Social
Security (2004). The problem was that the facts released by the Social Security trustees did not mesh with the
press releasesâ€”the trustees found, in four of the last five years, that the programâ€™s solvency had improved.
What to do? Try to convince the public via the media. During the dog-and-pony show that sent SSA Deputy
Commissioner James Lockhart on a nationwide tour to pimp for the administrationâ€™s privatizing plan, Lockhart
was asked what would happen if no changes were made to Social Security. â€œWell, if we donâ€™t make any
changes, and we just keep muddling along, if you will, when the trust fund itself disappears in 2041, weâ€™ll have
to slash benefits,â€� he said. Thatâ€™s just false.
You get the picture. The series of misstatements and outright falsehoods about Social Security have been reported
in bits and pieces. But itâ€™s fitting that we consider them as a whole. One of the most successful social programs
in our nationâ€™s history continues to be maligned by those responsible for ensuring its long-term health.
Mark Twain once said that the rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated. If Twain were alive today, heâ€™d
probably say the same about the demise of Social Security. And, indeed, if the Bush administration wants to ignore
Sundayâ€™s anniversary, one can draw inspiration from this simple fact: When the president began his little road
show in February to promote private accounts, 40 percent of Americans thought the plan was a good idea. Two
months later, just 33 percent support privatization.
So Iâ€™m making a mental note to throw a little party 30 years from now: August 14th, 2035. It will be a
centennial tip-of-the-cap to a good investment for tens of millions of people, including, by then, if the body holds
up, yours truly.