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Not So Social

Why are conservatives obsessed with “reforming” Social Security? And why are they so determined to cast college students as the face of their misguided, politically unpopular, dead-in-the-water privatization policy? To find out, I wrangled at the National Press Club in DC on Monday with President Bush’s first employer, a young conservative, and a Russian television crew.

The occasion was Social Security’s 71st anniversary, and to celebrate, I appeared live on C-SPAN to debate Mount Holyoke student Jo Jensen on the merits of so-called private accounts. The event was hosted by the 60 Plus Association, an AARP competitor that caters to jet-setting retirees rich enough to eschew government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. 60 Plus advocates two ideas: introducing Social Security private accounts and eliminating the estate tax, which its president, Jim Martin, has helped re-brand as the “death tax.” In combination, these two policies would give a big hand-out to the rich, hurting the majority of working Americans in the process.

If Bush’s scheme of cuts and privatization were ever to be enacted, the situation would be especially dire for our generation: a medium income worker born in 1980 would experience a 16 percent reduction in benefits under conservative privatization proposals. A high income worker born in 1980 would see a benefit cut of 28 percent. For younger workers, cuts would be even steeper. Conservatives refuse to engage these numbers. In fact, the only statistic Jensen, the young conservative C-SPAN debater, cited in her remarks was that more college students supposedly believe they will see a UFO than receive Social Security benefits in their lifetime. It’s good to know my peers have a sense of humor.

Indeed, it’s ironic that an organization called Students for Saving Social Security (S4) even exists. Jensen is the deputy director of this K Street, Astroturf group that claims to have “thousands” of members agitating for private accounts on campuses nationwide, but couldn’t fill seats at Monday’s event with pro-privatization college students, even though Washington is swimming with summer interns from across the political spectrum. When I arrived at the National Press Club, I met Martin (a former Republican Hill staffer who in 1968 gave recent Yale graduate George W. Bush his first job on a Florida Senate campaign), Jensen, several other staffers associated with 60 Plus and S4, the C-SPAN crew, and a reporter and cameraman for a Russian news network. Until about 10 Campus Progress-ers showed up, the rest of the seats were completely empty—no press, no young activists, no curious bystanders.

That might be because politically, Social Security privatization is incredibly unpopular. Congress won’t touch it. According to numerous polls, less than 1/3 of Americans support Bush’s proposal. Coming up on the midterm elections, you’d think conservatives would want to talk about something more unifying. You know—like providing affordable health care, child care, and a college education to all Americans, or finding our way out of the quagmire in Iraq. But I guess not.

Social Security privatization is little more than a distraction from the tragically ineffectual domestic and foreign policies of the Bush Administration. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security will be able to pay out 100 percent of expected benefits until 2052, and after that it will be able to provide 80 percent. The average American would enjoy a larger guaranteed Social Security pay-out under the current system than under the system of cuts and privatizations President Bush floated in 2005—even if nothing whatsoever is done to make up for the 20 percent budget shortfall. Furthermore, rescinding Bush’s tax cuts to just the top 1 percent of earners would more than make up for the expected Social Security shortfall over the next 75 years.

Privatization is ridiculously expensive—it would be the $1 trillion gorilla among Bush’s ill-conceived unfunded mandates—right up there with No Child Left Behind. But right now, Social Security is one program conservatives have yet to screw up after six years in power. It’s one of the last issues onto which they can graft their empty rhetoric of “personal choice” and “responsibility.” Economic analyses by expert non-partisan sources including the Congressional Research Service demonstrate that the privatization “choice” espoused by conservatives does little more than put middle class Americans between a rock and a hard place, opening their retirement savings up to the caprices of the stock market while drastically reducing their guaranteed monthly Social Security benefits.

As long as organizations like 60 Plus and S4 exist, I’ll be happy to show up and talk about the pitfalls of private accounts. I was grateful for the public platform, and I appreciate the courtesy extended to me by Martin and his organization. I even enjoyed the e-mail that flooded my inbox afterward: one former public school teacher thanked me for my defense of the program that makes his retirement possible, while a “keep your hands off my money” conservative called me a “valley girl” and a “tart,” even accusing me of sleeping with my “Communism professor.” I guess that’s what I should expect as a progressive young woman speaking about economics. But using fresh, young faces to debate this issue won’t rehabilitate Social Security privatization from exactly where it belongs: the political dustbin, along with so much of the Bush administration’s failed agenda.

Dana Goldstein is associate editor of

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