John Buell

Retirement, Social Security, Culture Wars

The current Social Security debate reflects one of the great paradoxes of US politics. Months after Social Security helped save the economy from complete collapse, the program suddenly became unaffordable.

Conservatives of course, from the New Deal on, have despised this program. It is universal and has benefited not only the poor but most middle class citizens as well. Conservatives also suspect it’s a Trojan horse that might well encourage strengthening other universal programs, like health care or college education for all. Combating this strange and paradoxical attack, however, requires consideration of the culture as well as the economics of Social Security. Social Security is part of our broader cultural wars. Some of the most widely discussed “reforms” of the system reflect insensitivity toward or even disdain for the poor, for manual workers, and anyone who values leisure over our work and spend culture.

The weakness of the economic case against Social Security is obvious and has been meticulously documented by Dean Baker. The cultural implications of the debate have received less attention. Over many years the trust fund has taken in more in taxation than it has paid in benefits. The surplus has been invested in government bonds and the government has used the funds for other purposes, including tax cuts for the rich. The rich in turn have used some of their money to buy stocks and government bonds. Workers have been prepaying for their own retirement. Indeed, since the cap on income taxed for retirement has been relatively low, the tax is regressive. No wonder Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a larger percentage of her income in taxes than does her boss.

Now that the baby boomers are starting to retire, government may need to draw on the fund by cashing in its bonds and sending some of the proceeds to the folks who funded the bond purchases in the first place. But having made such a stink over profligate government as the cause of our economic woes, there are anguished demands to reign in the promises made to workers. The most discussed idea now seems to be an increase in age at which full retirement benefits become available.

Mainstream media insist that demanding government meet its fiscal obligations to the Social Security trust fund may be unfair or unrealistic. But turn the tables around. What if a left-of-center government took power and said that in the light of its purported fiscal crisis it would be unfair or unrealistic for government to pay those wealthy bondholders the full principal on their bonds at maturity. I can already hear screams about the moral irresponsibility and dire consequences of such a default.

And what is the cultural message in the reforms, aka default, citizens are being asked to accept? What is the big deal in being asked to retire at 67 instead of 65? Such a demand is hardly class neutral. I look at my own situation as compared to friends and acquaintances in this working class, waterfront community. One part- time lobsterman, nearing 65, survives by hauling wood, moving, storing and painting docks during the winter. He endures chronic back pain and has suffered a heart attack. Another electrician friend crawls around in attic enclosures I can’t imagine even being able to squeeze into. His pension decimated by the housing and financial meltdowns, he counts on Social Security as his one refuge. Now, however, convinced by the media that Social Security is bankrupt, he laments “I am never going to be able to retire.”

I am 65. I love the work I do, which includes writing op ed columns and books as well as teaching online college courses. I have no intention of retiring as long as I can still breathe. I suspect Pete Peterson, the billionaire anti social security guru, feels the same way.

Despite all the talk of the US as a post industrial society nearly half of workers over age 58 are at jobs that are physically demanding or involve difficult work conditions. And a disproportionate number of those depend most heavily on Social Security. They have every right to demand that government not welch on its obligation to them

Life expectancy has increased, but so has the economy’s overall productivity. More broadly, the great promise of capitalism from at least the 1950s has been the claim hard work, savings, and reinvestment would foster technological advance enabling more leisure. Citizens would then have the right to choose how the benefits of increased productivity should be allocated.

The French still keep alive a part of the capitalist promise that is ridiculed or indefinitely deferred by elites in Europe and especially here in the US. Despite efforts by European and US media to portray public sector workers as greedy or unrealistic, the great majority of French citizens recognize that all workers have a cultural and economic stake in opposing President Sarkozy’s efforts to increase the retirement age for state employees. If Sarkozy succeeds, his actions, much like President Reagan’s attack on the air traffic controllers, will encourage broader attacks on the working class. Mark Weisbrodt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research argues: “It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to expect that as life expectancy increases, workers should be able to spend more of their lives in retirement. And that is what most French citizens expect. They may not have seen all the arithmetic, but they grasp intuitively that as a country grows richer year after year, they should not have to spend more of their lives working.”

Corporate capitalism, American style, has never been as simple, complete, and linear as its advocates imagine. Even its successes have opened up new rights claims its fundamentalist advocates disparage or deny.

Leisure is an especially compelling claim, both for its own sake as a space for other transformational possibilities in our personal and collective lives. Both Pete Peterson and the electricians and boat hands that sustain his affluent life should have the right to leisure and a comfortable retirement. No expert commission should usurp this right.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2010

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