Most reasonably aware individuals know that during his second term of office Bush has pushed social security "reform" harder than any other issue. Most will also be aware that the harder he has pushed, the less enthusiasm has been produced even within Republicans in Congress, some of whom have already declared Bush's push for privatization D.O.A., while the public at large has increasingly opposed all of Bush's efforts as they learn the details. Although Americans remain largely passive on most political issues, the great exception seems to be Social Security. An overwhelming number of Americans like Social Security and do not want to see any major alterations including no significant reduction in benefits. And given the devastation wrought in the Gulf Coast by Katrina, any significant shift to privatization by introduction of individual retirement accounts seems doomed, at least for now. Given all of this, is there still a need sounding the alarums about the Right Wing effort to destroy Social Security under the guise of "reform." The answer: yes.
Although the Right seems temporarily thwarted in their attempt to gut social security, this was not merely a short term goal, but a hope dear to political conservatives and ultra free marketers stemming back to the 1930s. Bush may have wrongly read the political winds in assuming that his political capital would allow him to begin the gutting of social security, but it isn't a dream that extreme fiscal conservatives will give up any time soon. As Conason points out in this book, Social Security was the crowning achievement of the New Deal, a program that guaranteed that tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of Americans would enjoy at least one source of persistent and reliable income during their retirement years. By any measure it is both one of the most successful programs in the federal government as well as one of the most solvent and best administered. Despite profound mischaracterization by Bush and others ("lies" might be a more accurate though less polite word), it is by no means anywhere close to being "bankrupt" nor is it in any kind of trouble. So why the fuss? If it isn't, as Bush claims, broken, why the panic to "fix" it by shifting huge numbers of Americans away from social security to annuities that would be purchased by individual retirement accounts (annuities, it should be pointed out, that would have a fixed life and could run out before the life of the retiree, unlike social security)? Because it is the second largest item in the federal budget (the military annually receives around 50% after discretionary spending is considered). It is the largest program outside of the military overseen by the federal government. Fiscal hyper conservatives (I say "hyper" because even many fiscal conservatives persist in supporting social security) therefore hate social security because it is such a large hunk of the federal government, they hate it because it represents the greatest achievement of the New Deal, and they hate it because it is administered by the public and not the private sector. Many fantasize about shifting all that money away from the government and into accounts administered by the financial and investment industry. The fact that social security is a great boon to most Americans hardly bothers their conscience at all. One is reminded of one of FDR's pronouncements that all of America is not better off unless most Americans are better off. The assumption of the Far Right is "Who cares if most Americans are worse off if the privileged few is better off?"
So, while temporarily stymied, this is a beast that is going to rear its ugly head until America is a more moral and just nation, with most Americans embracing those principles. Joe Conason wants to unmask the charade that Bush's drive to "reform" social security truly is. The book consists of four chapters with an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter examines in detail what is really behind Bush's plans to "reform" social security. On the one hand, this examination is provoked by the fact that Bush's extreme and bizarre claims that social security is in crisis clashes so sharply with the reality of social security's solvency. In fact, social security is running surpluses and will continue to do so far decades unless the economy slows down dramatically (in which case the individual retirement accounts that Bush promotes will also perform badly). Yet Bush makes false claims that it is on the verge of bankruptcy. On the other hand, there is the stunning vagueness of Bush's own "plan." In fact, he has made no specific plans to put in its place. He has talked of individual retirement plans and made overly optimistic and misleading claims about their virtues (omitting the facts that the cost of administering them would take a significant hunk out of them and that the annuities would run out after a set period of time, conceivably leaving someone with nothing left in their annuity with several years left in their life). Conason also points out the inconsistency of Bush's claims. His dire warnings about the impending collapse of social security are not credible under any reasonable analysis of the program, but even at their most pessimistic would require a severe and sustained downturn in the economy. Yet when he promotes the virtues of individual retirement accounts, he makes assumptions about the extreme health of the economy. In other words, Bush wants his cake and eats it, too. Conason reveals the ideological motivations behind "reform," the desire of extreme conservatives to undo the major lasting achievement of the New Deal.
The second chapter looks at the people who were involved in Bush's commission to privatize social security. This commission contrasts markedly with one that was convened under Ronald Reagan. Chaired by Alan Greenspan, Reagan's commission was comprised with representatives from across the political and economic spectrum and suggested a range of suggestions that represented a legitimate consensus on how to make social security solvent through the middle of the 21st century. Bush's commission, on the other hand, was formed exclusively of opponents of social security and proponents of privativization. As Conason examines in detail who the individuals behind the commission are, one realizes to what degree this effort to "reform" social security is base in the ideology of a relatively small number of right wing individuals. Chapter Three takes this to another level by looking at the phony grass roots organizations, what are known as "Astroturf" outfits, which appear everywhere to promote "reform" but do not actually have significant membership or any membership at all. Many of these exist merely as websites. Some have active membership lists that run into the double digits, such as the pseudo-African American outfit Project 21, which is largely headed by white males. In fact, there are no significant grass roots organizations that promote privatization on the scale of groups that oppose it, let alone the AARP and its 35 million members. Conason does not point this out, but this is an issue that divides many in the very conservative wing of the Republican party. The Religious Right, though overwhelmingly and passionately conservative on cultural issues, such social issues as abortion, and on foreign policy issues touching Israel, nonetheless tends to be far more mainstream or even to the left on economic issues. As Michael Lind has pointed out in his fine book on the Right UP FROM CONSERVATIVISM, most Americans are conservative on social issues but liberal on economic issues, and the Religious Right is not an exception on this. So, even many on the Right are as passionate in their defense of social security as the Left. Because the grass roots Right doesn't always go with the leadership on this issue, the need for Astroturf organizations are created.
The final chapter focuses on the organizations that will profit from privativization and the enormous boon that would redound to banks, investment houses, and insurance companies (I work for one of the latter and was distraught when I saw my company identified as a major funder of the Cato Institute's initiative to replace social security with private accounts). Like so many of Bush's initiatives, this social security revision is one that typically benefits his donor base (as opposed to other things he does that unifies his voter base), but hurts the vast number of Americans. The parallels here are his tax cuts that led overwhelmingly to benefits for those at the top of the economic pile and his prescription drug benefit that will lead to virtually no significant aid to seniors but massive profits to the drug industry.
This is an issue that Americans cannot remain apathetic on. Although Bush may attempt to revive his individual retirement accounts suggest, more likely we'll have to see a new president provide leadership on this issue. It does raise again, however, the issues that Thomas Frank raised in his superb book WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? Why do Americans continue to support Republican candidates who in fact work against the interests of the vast number of Americans? The Bush years will be looked upon as years when the president worked over and over and over for the welfare of the very wealthy and for large corporations, but did absolutely nothing for middle class and poor Americans. In fact, in nearly every way middle class and poor Americans will be much worse off after eight years of Bush (and by "middle class" I actually mean all but the top 1% in the economy). As long as Americans continue this trend of voting on social and cultural issues that can't and won't be addressed by politicians and focus instead on truly political issues such as social security and tax fairness (in contrast to the pigs-at-the-trough cuts we have seen under Bush) that do in fact effect them, there will be danger that things they count on could be endangered. Conason's book, therefore, should be read by anyone concerned about the ongoing welfare of the vast bulk of American's.