The 'we' in Social Security

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It's been just a month or two, but already it seems like 50. The focus-group maestros and message masseuses are out in force. (It's personal accounts, not private accounts.) The megabuck ad campaigns are rolling into place. The folks who brought us the Swift Boat ads in the presidential campaign now are going to maul the American Association for Retired Persons, which has committed the crime of opposing the president's plan.

I am talking of course about the Social Security debate, which quickly has become a dreary reprise of everything that has made big-time American politics such a numbing turnoff.

The parties have reverted to their predictable roles: the White House as callow adolescent, disguising an ideological aversion to Social Security as a concern for the program's future, the Democrats as anxious mothers, averse to change and cowering at anything that looks like "risk."

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One could easily surmise that the central issue is portfolio strategy. Investment analysts and economists offer, in turn, euphoric promises of stock market riches and stern warnings about budgetary consequences and risks. Yes, returns are important. But there are other ways to achieve those, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, let alone plain old-fashioned saving. (How come politicians don't talk about that any more?)

Besides, if returns were the only question, there would be no reason for a Social Security program in the first place. If you really believe in the ideology of private - excuse me, personal - accounts, then how do you justify a government program that taxes you to establish one? That's conscripted investment, not choice.

Social Security isn't based on market returns but on something very different - gratitude.

I know, I know. A word like that isn't going to get you far in Washington policy salons. Reporters will roll their eyes. Policy types will smirk. Well, let them. The reason we set aside a small portion of our earnings each week to make sure no one in the previous generation has to sleep in the streets, is that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us.

In my own case, the list starts perhaps with the wise nurse who put my new baby brother into my lap and said, "Here's your brother." Sibling rivalry never happened. There were Cub Scout den mothers and Little League coaches. The teachers who suffered my antics and defiance. The neighbors who looked out for me when there was turmoil in my home. The many helpers in the faith community and elsewhere who appeared on my path at crucial points.

We all could make a list like that - and probably should. Once you start, there is no end. And beyond such specific persons are a multitude of others - the men and women who fought the wars, built the tunnels and bridges, fixed our cars, grew our food, went out of their way so that our lives could be a little better. We stand on the shoulders not just of giants, but also of ordinary people who did selfless things. We owe them something.

We don't live in small towns anymore in which we can reciprocate one on one. Social Security is a way by which we all say, "Thanks."

The policy types talk about "generational equity," but that reduces it to legalism and monetary abstraction.

I'm talking about debts that are moral and fundamental to our role in the society of which we are a part.

The president seems to find it distasteful that we set aside a portion of our earnings for people other than ourselves. But that is the glory of the system, its moral core. The generation that established Social Security understood this. They came through the Depression and the Great War. They knew that we all are in this together.

It is we baby boomers - some of us at least - who've forgotten. Grover Norquist, a leader of the ideological right, actually accused the World War II generation of supporting "anti-American policies" such as Social Security. He cheered that they're dying off. The Me Generation has reappeared with a right wing face, and it's no more constructive than the version of the 1960s.

There are lots of ways to fix the system and enable the financially strapped to establish nest eggs. But Social Security is one government program that actually works. It is positively lean by private sector standards. America will come to no great harm if some of us miss a percentage point or two on that portion of our retirement. (In truth, the touted stock market returns on private accounts would be more than a little hype.)

But if we no longer are willing to pay a debt of gratitude to those who came before us, that's a different story, and probably a tragic one.

Jonathan Rowe is director of the Tomales Bay Institute and a former Monitor staff writer.

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