Published on Tuesday March 1, 2005 by the Seattle Times
Desperate Privatizers: A Stroll Down Hysteria Lane
by Froma Harrop
| The president's plan to privatize Social Security is clearly headed for political oblivion. The people don't want it. They want a benefit that, however modest, is guaranteed. And they see no need to "save" a program that's fine until 2042 — and may not need much fixing even then. This tent needs folding.
Despite months of the hard sell, 67 percent of Americans remain opposed to trading guaranteed benefits for private investment accounts. So says a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll. A mere 17 percent thinks there actually is a "crisis." That's down from 18 percent in January.
So the threats, scare tactics and flattery (there's a bit of Wall Street wizard in all of us) have gone nowhere. Lesser mortals would have raised the white flag by now and moved on to the next issue, but the privatizers, mostly conservatives, fight on. Trouble is, they're running out of ammo.
That ammo bag is so empty that holdouts have dug to the bottom and pulled up the World's Most Desperate Argument for Privatizing Social Security. That is, the sort of people who oppose privatization support gay marriage.
A group called USA Next ran a Web ad showing an American soldier, a line crossed over him, next to a kissing male couple and the words "the real AARP agenda." The AARP is the main lobbying group for older Americans and opposes private accounts.
By the way, it was news to the AARP that it supports gay marriage. USA Next had apparently jumped on the fact that the AARP had fought an amendment to ban gay marriage in Ohio. The AARP says it wasn't taking a stand on gay marriage, but objecting to another part of the proposal, which barred legal recognition of civil unions — whether gay or hetero.
The point of the ad, explains USA Next chief Charlie Jarvis, was to show "how out of touch they (AARP's leaders) are with the large majority of their own members."
The AARP is no doubt shaking — with laughter.
Let me interrupt this column with a disclaimer. It's a bit unfair to hang these Looney Tunes around the necks of serious thinkers who support privatization. Their idea is a bad one, but they don't deserve this.
What has really thrown the loopy for a loop is that older Americans have joined forces against the privatization plan. Polls show younger people far more accepting of private accounts than their elders. That's why Bush's plan left people 55 and up untouched by the proposed changes. The idea was to neutralize a powerful and potentially hostile voting bloc.
Perhaps the privatizers thought the "greedy geezers," once protected, would not care what happened to Social Security after them. Bad guess.
The folks are going to stop the kids from doing something stupid. Many have known world war and a great depression. They saw the pitiful old people that Social Security lifted from the gutter. And they've spent a lot of time thinking about retirement.
So what if the young people are receptive to letting go of guaranteed benefits. They're also more receptive to hang gliding and riding motorcycles in the rain.
Besides, the children are too busy to focus on the debate over privatizing Social Security. They are working long hours and raising families. To them, retirement seems unimaginably far off.
Thus, the younger set has not fully evaluated elements of the sales pitch. They may not understand the difference between a guaranteed benefit and one that may or may not match historical returns on investment. And they haven't been through enough economic turmoil to assess the risks of stock investing.
The parentals are doing the kids a favor.
And the kids, if they are smart, will wonder about a few things. For example, why are older Americans being spared the privatization plan? If private investment accounts are such a great deal, why aren't 56-year-olds clamoring to get in on it?
The AARP's own polling shows that the more working Americans know about the plan to change Social Security, the less they like it. Learning curves go only up. If more of the public hasn't been won over by now, the quest to privatize Social Security is truly a lost cause.
Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.
© 2005 Seattle Times