Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2005 / 15 Shevat 5765
Is it fair to label Bush's risk-taker pitch as racist?
In his post-re-election crusade to reform Social Security, President Bush has targeted an intriguing pitch to black Americans: The current system is racist.
Or, in his word, it "disadvantages" black folks.
"After all, the life expectancy of African-American males is a lot less than other groups," Bush said in a recent Washington Post interview, "and, therefore, if you really think about that, you have people putting money in the system that aren'tfamilies won't benefit from the system."
"And therefore it seems to me to make sense," he continued, "if I were a part of a group of people that were being disadvantaged by the Social Security system, that I'd at least like to have the opportunity to have some of the money I put in the system passable to my family."
My conservative friend Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, recently went a step further: "Would liberals support Social Security reform if they thought of it as reparations for blacks?"
Blacks are disproportionately poor, partly for historic reasons, and blacks, especially black males, tend to have shorter lifespans than whites. And, since the average life expectancy of a black male is 68.6 years and the retirement age of Social Security is set under current law to eventually rise to 67, "this cannot be a good deal."
Maybe not. But as an African-American male, my first thought upon hearing about the gap in black life expectancy is to ask, shouldn't we be doing something to increase black life expectancy?
Let's leave that aside for the moment to deal with the president's central question of whether black Americans could get a better deal out of his proposed partial privatization of Social Security.
The answer is basically the same as it is for investors of any color: It depends.
Like millions of Americans who have set up private retirement accounts, I have benefited more than I had any right to expect from the economic boom of the past decade or so. I have also lost my shirt on a few. Either way, my return is way higher than the return I could reasonably expect from Social Security.
And, as the president says, I am accumulating wealth to pass on to my survivors, who I hope will appreciate the favor. Wealth accumulation, like income growth, is another area in which black Americans lag.
But, of course, higher potential return requires more risk. Critics ridicule Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," an illegal pyramid scam that pays out what it takes in as phony dividends. But most Americans, according to polls, still see Social Security as a safety net. You want a Ponzi scheme? Try Enron or WorldCom stocks. Those who put their retirement savings into those frauds suffered terrible consequences with-out a safety net to fall back on.
But that doesn't mean that the government's retirement program can't be improved upon. It simply means that Congress is wise to approach this proposal with the usual caution it reserves for what is known on Capitol Hill as a third-rail issue"Touch it and you die."
Social Security was not created to be a savings or investment program. It is a safety-net program born in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to guarantee a bare-minimum income cushion for "our seniors," as politicians call old folks.
The president says the retirement system will run out of money starting in 2018, when Social Security outlays exceed revenue. But even some conservative experts concede that as long as the economy outperforms expectations, that date will be pushed further back into the future, as it has been pushed before.
The real crisis involves Medicare and Medicaid, as the share of workers who receive medical insurance through their employers continues to decline and health-care costs continue to rise. Even Medicaid, originally designed to be a "welfare program," has become the primary source of funding of nursing-home care for all but the most wealthy.
By changing Social Security, Bush hopes to put a conservative stamp on a cherished New Deal program and, along with possible reforms in Medicare, Medicaid and the tax structure, lay the groundwork for the "ownership society" that could bring years of Republican political dominance, buoyed by a new generation of risk-takers from all races, colors and creeds.
Those are big dreams. Texas-size big. But he has yet to tell us how he proposes to pay for it all.
His ownership society might better be called a "risk-taker society." That's OK for the big winners, but we have to own the losses too.
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