John McCain’s widely quoted criticism of Social Security repeats an on-going misinterpretation that seems to have as its goal the privatization of retirement accounts.
“Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s got to be fixed,” he said.
He attempted to clarify his initial remarks by saying younger workers “are paying so much that they are paying into a system that they won’t receive benefits from on its present track that it’s on — that’s the point.” Well, that’s clear enough, maybe.
Obama’s interpretations in the past haven’t proven much better.
But the question is, “Is this accurate?” Is the system heading off the cliff? Many informed people don’t think so, and politicians who use Social Security as a tool for their own policy positions (unsurprising but disappointing) rather than working to improve the system and keep it functioning for the benefit of all continue to add to the fog.
“None of the dire predictions is even remotely likely. And privatization might well do more harm than good,” according to Fred Brock in his retirement guide, Retire on Less Than You Think.
“Why all the fuss?” Brock asks. “Think hidden agendas, on all sides.” He points to the attraction of 2 trillion dollars to commission-driven Wall Street brokers. The same folk, it’s worth noting, who gave us Enron speculation and the current mortgage bundling investment opportunities. Thomas Frank called it the “trillion dollar hustle” back in 2002.
What bugs me, among other things, is that this goes beyond inaccuracy. It scares the dickens out of retired folks who don’t know all the facts and are afraid their retirement is jeopardized right now. These folks, many of whom have no other retirement support, don’t deserve to have their fears stoked by politicians with agendas.
Those in my family are barely making do now. They’re worried about Medicare and high drug bills and it just seems unnecessarily frightful to pile this onto their legitimate concerns.
Secondly, it sows generational cleavages. Ageism is a reality and these candidates know it. The idea that younger workers are paying for benefits of older workers that might not be available when they retire is simply not an inevitability and if it appears a shortfall is looming it can be addressed. Pitting young against old is damaging to the conversation and deflects away from genuine problems and the search for solutions.
This issue will take at least forty years to play out according to knowledgeable economists. There is time to work out a solid plan to keep social security as the backstop for retirement for all workers but we need a constructive discussion between Obama and McCain and the nation, not more inaccurate, divisive off-the-cuff musings.