Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Real Reason For Social Security "Reform"

Republicans, if nothing else, are consistent. When the economy is down, they can be sure to argue that the only way to build it back up is to cut taxes and regulation. When the economy is up, they argue that the way to keep it going is to cut taxes and regulation. If Bill Frist's wife is constipated, I'm fairly certain that he would prescribe tax cuts and regulation (and perhaps some fiber).

Of course, history does suggest otherwise. There was thing called The Great Depression. You may remember reading about it, or perhaps you watched The Waltons. Anyway, times were tough. People were starving. Amber waves of grain turned to vast bowls of dust. Unemployment was the norm. Life, generally, sucked. America got this way under the "leadership" (note intentional use of irony quotes) of Herbert Hoover, a laissez faire Republican champion of low taxes and free markets.

Enter Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A scion of wealth who became a man of the people, he saved American capitalism from itself with policies of taxation and regulation. FDR's economics (actually John Maynard Keynes' economics) adopted activist polices- putting people to work on public projects to increase the demand for goods and services- that flew in the face of Republican economic thought- cutting taxes to increase the supply of money in the economy. Republicans, who sometimes called FDR a traitor to his class, were incensed.

FDR deftly charted a course between extremists on the left- who were calling for government control of all private property, AKA communism- and extremists on the right- who were calling for crackdowns on personal liberties the unemployed in line, AKA fascism. By giving the unemployed immediate relief, while keeping American business in business, even if on a shorter leash, FDR became beloved like few other Presidents before him.

And that, argues Daniel Gross in Slate, is why Dubya is making a full court press to "reform" (note intentional use of irony quotes) Social Security.

Dead going on 60 years, FDR still makes self-styled champions of American-style capitalism fulminate, much the same way their counterparts in the 1930s raged against "That Man." Why? The New Deal era reminds national greatness Republicans... of their party's futility in a time of true national greatness. I also suspect that many Republicans are simply unable to forgive Roosevelt for what may have been his greatest and longest-lasting achievement: saving American capitalism through regulation. And since they can't tear down the Triborough Bridge or the Hoover Dam, these guys act out by going after Social Security.

The fight over Social Security, therefore, is a proxy war- it is a fight over FDR's legacy. No Republican since Lincoln is as holy in public memory as FDR. Changing Social Security is a way to remove the halo from over his head- making him no longer the People's Champion who saved America from the excesses of American business, but rather the meddlesome class traitor who left us all the alphabet soup agencies. Again, Daniel Gross-

It's difficult to discern the short-term political gain for Republicans to try to dismantle Social Security now. So the payoff must be more psychological or intellectual. Now that they indisputably control all three branches of government, Republicans finally have the opportunity to slay some of the liberal demons that have been bedeviling them for so long.

Those liberal demons are taxation and regulation. What amazes me about Republican trust in business is their utter distrust of individuals to regulate their own behavior. The right wing response to crime, sexuality and religion issues is almost always in favor of more regulation. Smoke pot? You're not fit to walk among us. Are you gay? Then you shouldn't enjoy the privileges of family life. You a Jew? Buddhist? Atheist? I suppose you can believe what you want to, but never forget that this is a Christian nation, boy, and if we post the Ten Commandments on our courthouse walls, you ought to just shut up. These are the same people who believe that business will always regulate itself for the betterment of humanity. Recent history suggests otherwise.

I fear that Social Security will only be the first step, and that much of the public regulatory system will be dismantled in some way, because while I trust most people will do the right thing, I absolutely do not trust corporate America to do anything.

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