The political nomenclature “left” and “right” originated at the time of the French Revolution. French legislators favoring radical reform sat on the left side of the legislative assembly and those favoring the old aristocratic order sat on the right.
Through the years, as the political terminology has evolved, leftists have come to be associated with social and political change while rightists have come to be identified as conservatives who revere tradition and the maintenance of the status quo.
In the United States in 2004 the meaning of these two terms has been reversed. The self-described “conservatives” of the Bush administration are pushing for sweeping, far-reaching change. It’s the Democrats, or left-of-center liberals, who are in the position of fighting to preserve the status quo.
Since the 1930s, the United States has been governed by a political philosophy of a mixed economy, government regulation of the marketplace, and economic and social programs to moderate poverty and encourage economic opportunity and growth.
This philosophy has been predicated on a social contract of shared burdens, with all Americans contributing to the national good on the basis of their incomes and skills. We all kick in tax money for public investment, to fight poverty, and to assure that our fellow citizens have a comfortable retirement. This philosophy transformed us into a prosperous nation, the richest and (for good or for ill) the most powerful nation in the world.
The Second World War was the best expression of this national consensus. Americans from all economic classes fought and, without complaining, shared in the rationing of resources and in the paying of higher taxes. John Kennedy, in his 1960 inaugural address, articulated this still existent social contract very well. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said, “ask what you can do for your country.”
Under the Bush administration this philosophy of shared burdens is under assault. The most egregious examples are the war in Iraq and the proposed effort to privatize social security.
It’s understandable that most parents don’t want their children risking their lives by joining the military. It’s also understandable that most college-educated kids with job opportunities are not avidly pursuing military careers. But it’s unprecedented -- and a gross violation of the social contract that has long drew us together -- that the most gung ho supporters of war oppose paying taxes to finance it.
The Bush administration has transformed patriotism into a cheap and symbolic sentiment. Wear an American flag lapel pin, but buy SUVs and Hummers, burn gasoline, and oppose the raising of taxes to support public investment in energy independence. Poor and working class kids will meet the needs of military recruiters; the rest of us sacrifice nothing. Wave the flag and party hearty.
This is even truer of the social security proposal. When I was growing up, young people expected to pay a payroll tax to help finance the retirement benefits of their parents and grandparents. Even during the generational battles of the 1960s no one complained about the payroll tax; young people didn’t think it an unfair burden.
I don’t think today’s young people are more selfish than previous generations. But all of sudden we hear that the social security tax is unfair; that young people shouldn’t be forced to support the retirement of their elders.
This mantra comes not from young people but from right-wing ideologues, the political descendents of those who opposed social security from the very beginning. Just as 9/11 gave them an excuse to start a pre-planned Iraqi war, right-wingers have used an apparent crisis in Social Security as an excuse to sabotage the integrity of the entire system.
The crisis of course is a hoax. Because of the retirement demands of the baby boom generation, the government projects that, without reform, the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money in 2042. Protecting the Trust Fund requires simple adjustments, not basic restructuring. As it exists, the Social Security payroll tax is highly regressive. Low and middle-income employees pay a much greater percentage of their wages than wealthy individuals. One easy fix is to raise the cap on payroll taxes, which now stands at $87,900. But with the Bush administration this is a non-starter. Their first principle of governance is to lower taxes for their wealthy benefactors.
Moreover, financial investments are always risky. Investors have been known to lose their shirts in the stock market. Indeed, any prospectus for buying stocks warns as much. The brilliance of Social Security is that it provides risk-free pensions for senior citizens. Those who want to invest in the financial markets and partake in the risks of the “ownership society” are always free to do so, with or without privatization.
The plan to privatize social security is a gift to the financial industry and an attack on one of the most successful programs ever to come out of the New Deal. It will also be terribly expensive, with transition costs, according to proponents of the plan, estimated at between hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars over a decade. Because of tax cuts, all of this money will have to be borrowed. According to Joshua B. Bolten, the director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, such massive borrowing, even with existing deficits, is “fiscally prudent."
There is nothing prudent or, for that matter, conservative, about the administration’s Social Security plan or its militaristic foreign policy. Both policies, and many others, represent a reckless ideology. Republicans are hell-bent on destroying our country’s unifying social contract. History calls upon Democrats to uphold conservative doctrines and traditional governing values, and to defend those ethical principles of social justice that have inspired our nation for generations.
Marty Jezer is a weekend columnist for the Brattleboro (VT) Reformer where this commentary first appeared. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.