You've no doubt read and heard reams of information about the possible restructuring of Social Security. At least I hope you have. This is important to you, your kids and elders, as well as to your country and its future Ã¢â‚¬â€� so don't let this one slip by you.
I've been watching and listening, and I've come to understand why my heels are sunk deep in the ground on much of what I'm hearing.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I'm drawing Social Security myself. The monthly check has made it possible for me to work two days less a week and still pay my bills. I use those days to write poetry and fiction.
I like getting my checks from Uncle Sam, because I've done non-profit work for most of my career and nobody stashes fat retirement accounts at such jobs. I chose a working life of public service instead of going on with well-paying work that made me cringe with embarrassment. Thanks to Social Security, that choice hasn't doomed me to the proverbial diet of cat food in my "golden" years.
My situation is a good one, and I'm assured it will not change if/when the system changes for others. The underlying assumption of these assurances is that elders only care about their own hides. I resent that.
Sure, my age means the changes ahead, whatever they are, won't affect me directly as they will my kids and grandkids. But my concern for them, and for the social fabric of my country, means that I am involved and deeply concerned -- nobody messes with the future of my family (and my country), and tells me not to worry about that.
Like a huge percentage of U.S. households, my husband (who also works in the non-profit realm) and I have had a pretty simple savings plan: pay off the mortgage, doubling payments whenever possible, so we own the roof over our heads and the land in our garden before we stop earning paychecks.
That tried-and-true form of savings has served families well in the past; I was appalled when the head of the Fed advised all of us to use our home equity to get liquid and buy more stuff. I was appalled when the national call after 9/11 was not to enlist, to sacrifice, to be brave, but to go buy something in support of the economy.
Have you gotten the impression that our leaders think this is no longer the Home of the Brave? That you and I are too lazy, selfish and stupid to rise to the needs of our times? That we're only useful if we feed our bucks into the maw of the corporations that fund our politicians? It's the ultimate reduction of "citizens" into "consumers."
I refuse to be so reduced. I insist on being a citizen and respected as such. Spend money on stuff I don't need to strengthen my country? They've got to be kidding. I'll stick to The Plan and sock money into that mortgage, with not one unnecessary cent going into a mall -- and nothing into the stock market.
The voices of all my solid, farmer ancestors whisper, "Land, a house, that's real." Buying stuff I don't need: "Damn foolishness." Putting my money at the disposal of multinational corporations and counting on their being able to multiply it would be, they admonish -- "Gambling."
It's also a way to have us all rooting for said multinationals, no matter what they do, just so they pay those dividends. No, no, no, thank you. I've always been a proponent of entrepreneurial small businesses, but I see no evidence that the corporations that dominate the stock market can be trusted to do the right thing for their customers, their employees or the environment, and those things matter to me. I do not wish to be complicit in their misdeeds by funding them. Even worse than being demeaned as a consumer would be signing on as a stockholder, dependent on corporate earnings.
When politicians pretend that they're concerned about small businesses, look behind the rhetoric and you won't find the great guy or gal who invented a new and useful product and built up a growing little company that hires your neighbors and pays local taxes. You're much more likely to find the beneficiaries of that politician's real concern to be transnational corporations that export jobs from this country and offshore their headquarters to avoid U.S. taxes -- at the same time that they're gobbling up U.S. government contracts.
But Americans love entrepreneurs and small businesses so politicians play that song for us, at the same time they actually serve the huge multinationals that fund their campaigns. It's what the late Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois would label as "pandering."
Stock brokerages are right up there with multinationals on my No Way list, and that's because I've got some context, and a memory. From my parents' tales of the years that followed the stock market crash to friends' loss of their retirement savings in the '90s, I have a healthy distrust of the stock market -- and everyone associated with it. I don't believe brokers have my interests at heart; I think they're watching out for their own. Including the one who tried to buy my apartment overlooking Central Park with money he had made in the market -- that morning. Somehow, I think his focus was on looking out for himself, not his clients.
Now we're told that private accounts with brokerage firms, one for each and every working American who opts in, are a good way for people to fund their retirements. Looks to me like a great way to fund a lot of brokers' new apartments, yachts and contributions to politicians. And most alarming of all, to create a citizenry that looks the other way as huge corporations run roughshod over the rules.
I'm not denying the need to reform Social Security. Some Democrats now tell us all is well with it, when clearly something has to be done. I trust the numbers Republican Pete Peterson offers in Running On Empty: How the Democrats and Republicans Are Bankrupting the Country and What Americans Can Do About It.
Some Republicans tell us they're doing the responsible thing by stopping the train now, before it races over the cliff, but the ideas they advance don't entail realistic sacrifices, the kind of challenges this nation has risen to before and can rise to do again.
Real ideas abound for funding Americans' retirements safely through the long years ahead.
There's taking the cap off everyone's contributions to Social Security -- under the current rules, no matter how much people earn in a year they only contribute to the Social Security Fund on the first $90,000. It's an arbitrary number, and it can be changed Ã¢â‚¬â€� or removed entirely.
The age at which we can retire can change as well. If you're doing a job that wears your body out, that's one thing, but many of us are working with our heads, not our muscles: We could keep on earning our way in the world for a few more years. (Full disclosure again: I didn't accept Social Security until I was 70. I work in an office; it's not that hard to do.)
There's restoring the tax rates that were in place in 2001 for the high earners among us; rates deemed modest by other industrialized countries.
There's getting rid of the absurd restriction that keeps Medicare from negotiating for lower prices on medications.
There's cracking down on institutions and practitioners that are gaming the Medicare system, sending its costs out of sight.
I'm sure you have your own list of insanely wasteful federal expenditures that could be stopped. If we insisted, we could see the wasted dollars redirected, put to work saving the most successful national social program our government has ever created.
Standing up for the tough choices that must be made if we really are to save that program requires a level of truth-telling and courage we don't often see in elected officials. It means no pandering to our worst instincts, instead rallying us to be at our best. It means giving up next-election thinking and attending to the long-term well-being of our people. It means telling the commercial forces that fund our demented elections that the peoples' needs are more important than the corporations' profits.
I'm not holding my breath. But my practical ancestors and yours are calling to us to demand that our legislators be this brave, that they indeed stick their necks out for the common good -- that they see us as strong, sensible, brave people who can handle the truth and stand tall when sacrifices must be made.
This piece was originally published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.