President Bush has begun to take his ''Social Security is in crisis'' snake-oil show on the road, but at this point he seems not entirely full-throated in its behalf. Even Bush seems to realize you can only cry wolf (''The crisis is now!'') so many times, and he is near his quota in regards to Social Security.
And his first-term presidential commission made up entirely of pro-privatizers obscured as much as possible the costs of implementing their grand idea; nonetheless, emboldened by his second-term squeaker victory, Bush persists.
To the question, ''Why?'' there are a lot of answers: ideology, hubris, the accolades of his peers and consorts and retainers. But, to fulfill my New Year's resolution to try to think kindly of the president, one reason might be his genuine attachment to the pleasures of inheritance.
Bush certainly knows those joys, and he would like more Americans to be able to leave something to their offspring. That he is leaving a national debt plumped up by record deficits to everyone's offspring doesn't seem to bother him much. But when he speaks of his desire to ''save'' Social Security, he often emphasizes the thrill of being able to ''pass on'' whatever loose change is left in his hoped-for private accounts -- or whatever has accumulated therein if death strikes before retirement.
Of course, economists point out that the wealth most people are able to pass on to their progeny is by means of home ownership. African Americans, though, have been shortchanged when it comes to this method of intergenerational transfer.
Statistics show African Americans lagging behind in home ownership nationwide -- courtesy of redlining and predatory lending -- and when homes are owned, they often face urban decay and become the prey of equity sharks, who acquire the property before death intervenes and leave nothing for heirs to claim except debt.
However, Bush's faith in his ''ownership'' society is genuine. He demonstrated his love of home ownership by buying 1,600 acres and building a lovely ranch house on them right before he ran for the presidency.
Because the president was largely self-employed until entering politics, he had to pay his FICA taxes himself, both as owner and employee, rather than have them deducted from his paycheck, like most workers. One can see why he resents Social Security: He had to write those quarterly checks to Uncle Sam during his early years when he was unsuccessfully wildcatting in the Texas oil markets.
So, he comes by his antipathy to the system honestly. Why do I have to pay this, he doubtless often wondered, when I could be using the money to invest in some more dry holes? Now, as president, he can do his best to get rid of the whole shebang. In any case, he is rich and can self-insure and doesn't worry about disability or death benefits.
And, I don't doubt that the president's compassion for the tsunami victims is genuine, too. Even though, as has been generally pointed out, he may have been a bit slow showing he cared, when the White House recognized its PR problem -- like Tom DeLay forfeiting his Republican Congress-granted get-out-of-jail-free ethics card -- it responded big-time.
Bush sent his brother Jeb, an expert in natural disasters and a governor with recent experience receiving hefty government handouts, off to the area with lame-duck Secretary of State Colin Powell, to assess the damage. Bush then arranged for his father and former President Bill Clinton to champion private donations for the relief effort.
It does go against my New Year's resolution to think any of this was done cynically, especially Bush's highlighting of private giving (just like private accounts in Social Security!), in order to make up for his lackluster original response to the startling calamity.
Indeed, Bush wasn't any more self-serving in this matter than Clinton, who couldn't resist letting himself be used by Bush, for the usual Clinton reasons: wanting to be in the public eye, to show the world he feels its pain, and repay the current president for treating him with so much public respect -- respect Clinton himself relinquished by his reckless personal behavior, behavior that let the Bush family regain the White House in the first place.
© 2005 Chicago Sun Times