Columns » Ernest Dumas

Social Security is for the rich


You're an average working stiff who earns less than $87,000 a year, so they take payroll taxes out of the first and last dollar you earn each week to pay your Social Security when you retire. The payroll taxes that you and everyone else who draws wages or a salary for a living are giving the government far more money than it needs every year to pay current benefits, but it's all recorded there in the Social Security Trust Fund ledger and the treasury will be obliged to pay you when the time comes. Now let's say that the wise leaders of your government make this proposition to you: "Because of your generosity in paying so much into the Social Security Trust Fund to make it solvent far into the century and pay as well for the other costs of benevolent government, we're now able to reduce the income taxes on our richest friends and eliminate all taxes on the vast estates of untaxed wealth that they will leave when they die. Your surplus tax payments into the Social Security Trust Fund will help us continue to pay the government's bills - war and what have you - since the rich and big corporations won't be paying too much into the treasury anymore." Would you give them your blessing? And what if they proposed going a little further: "Since things are getting a little tight after eliminating so much of the tax burden of the rich and corporations, we know you won't mind if we reduce the benefits that we promised when you retire." Does that sound like a good deal? But this is not a fantasy. It is exactly what the government - the Bush administration and the Republican Congress - have done and what they now propose. And it is the explanation for the latest bogus Social Security scare roused by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Bush Treasury Department. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with it, but so far their bluff has not been challenged. Here's the truth: Social Security is robust, in fact about the healthiest program in all of government. It can pay the full benefits promised by current law to all the baby boomers for the next 38 years, after which it would either need an infusion of more cash or a reduction in benefits. Raising the income ceiling would make it solvent through most of the 21st century. Social Security is not the fiscal crisis, but Greenspan, George W. Bush and his treasury buffoons just don't want to say what it is. Three tax cuts in three years, mainly benefiting the richest Americans and the most profitable corporations, have plunged the nation into the scariest fiscal crisis in 70 years and now even your payroll tax dollars can't paper over their misdeeds. That's why Greenspan gravely called for adjustments in Social Security benefits and Bush ignorantly called again for partial privatization of Social Security - to get this deficit spending under control. Let's go over this one more time: Reducing payroll taxes and diverting them into private stock accounts, as Bush proposes, would make the budget deficits $1 trillion worse, not better, over the next 10 years. Nobody seems to be able to explain it to him. A little history might illuminate this discussion. President Ronald Reagan asked Congress in 1981 to sharply reduce taxes, mainly for high-income people, who would invest the extra money and create jobs, which in turn would produce massive new government revenue and eliminate the modest budget deficits of that time. But it tripled the deficits instead. So the next year he raised excise taxes, paid by the little people, to make up some of the loss. Then in 1983, on the recommendation of the Greenspan commission, Reagan and friends phased in a series of payroll tax increases on workers. The taxes weren't needed to fund Social Security, but the huge trust surpluses would pay down the burgeoning deficits spawned by the Reagan tax cuts and military spending. See, Social Security could then borrow more easily in the future when it needed the cash because it had held down the national debt. That's where we found ourselves when Bush took office in 2001, after promising in the campaign never - NEVER - to use Social Security funds to pay the bills of the rest of government. By then, remember, the rest of government was running a surplus, too, though a small one. He pushed through the Republican Congress the first of three tax income cuts. The first one amounted to 6.2 percent of the annual income for households receiving more than $1 million a year in income. For middle-class taxpayers the break amounted to a few hundred dollars - at most, 2.5 percent of their household income. The huge surpluses vanished overnight, and the government is running a deficit approaching $600 billion this year, so Social Security is again paying down nearly $200 billion a year of it. Now Bush is seeking more tax cuts from corporations and the wealthy and more hits on Social Security - to save it, you understand. Do you see the pattern here? If he were as honest as Gov. Earl Long, who was asked to explain to Louisiana people how he had promised them one thing and done the opposite, Bush would say, "tell 'em I lied." He won't, but he did.

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