Setting Grandma's Hair on Fire

September 13, 2011 - 5:04 AM
Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme for these young people," said Gov. Rick Perry in his first debate as a presidential candidate. "The idea ... that the current program is going to be there for them is a lie."

Pressed by the moderator, Perry did not back down. He doubled down, calling Social Security a "monstrous lie to our kids."

Is not such language provocative, Perry was asked. Retort: "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country."

Since Barry Goldwater suggested the program be privatized and LBJ ran an ad of a Social Security card being scissored in half, the issue has been "the third rail of American politics." Touch it -- and it kills you.

Apparently, the Mitt Romney campaign thinks it is still the third rail.

Falling on Perry's perceived fumble, Mitt declared that Social Security "is working for millions of Americans, and I will keep it working for millions of Americans. ... Our nominee must not be someone who is committed to abolishing Social Security but ... to saving Social Security.

Yet Perry never said he was going to abolish Social Security. He said, "We need to be focused on how we are going to change this program."

Karl Rove, however, piled on, as did ex-Romney aide Alex Castellanos:

"Rick Perry may have reassured the base with some very fiery rhetoric, but what he didn't do last night was prove in any way that he could win independents or seniors or soccer moms. And ... he shot an arrow into the heart of seniors. He set grandma's hair on fire."

Well, perhaps.

Yet, on the merits, Perry has more than a small point. For the Social Security program has been relentlessly looted by a Beltway political class that has used it for decades as the piggy bank of last resort.

Social Security was originally designed in the 1930s to be a program where all workers would contribute during their years of employment into a trust fund, from which they would receive a small annual stipend to help with retirement, should they live to 65.

In the 1930s, not everyone lived to 65. Indeed, from 1950 to 1955, life expectancy for the average American male was 66 years.

In 1972, when Richard Nixon proposed a 10-percent increase in Social Security benefits, plus indexation -- automatic annual increases to cover inflation -- the Democratic Congress raised it to 20 percent.

Fearing a congressional override if he vetoed, Nixon signed, then claimed credit for the most generous Social Security benefit increase in history, and went on to win 49 states.

But the 1970s became a decade of soaring inflation, and Social Security payments, now indexed, soared along with it.

By 1982, Social Security was nearly bankrupt. A commission led by Alan Greenspan was appointed to save the system. This was done by raising the Social Security tax rate and tax base, and modestly increasing the age of full retirement. Americans were living longer.

However, something else had been happening to the Social Security trust fund. The hundreds of billions that poured into government coffers in Social Security taxes each year had been borrowed by the U.S. Treasury and used for operating expenses -- fighting wars, funding food stamps, etc.

Thus today the Social Security trust fund consists not of gold, sliver or tradable commodities and securities, but of special-issue government bonds, IOUs, a promise by the Federal Government to pay back what it has taken out and spent.

If Ford Motor did what the U.S. Government has done -- borrowed and spent all the cash the company, its employees and workers had contributed to their pension fund, and used it for wages, salaries and expenses, leaving IOUs in the vault -- the executives would go to prison.

What is Social Security today?

Basically, it has become an inter-generational income-transfer program where working people contribute 6.2 percent of all wages, and their employers match it, and the money is then sent to the Treasury, which sends it out in monthly checks to the 50 million on Social Security.

If incoming funds don't match what Social Security recipients are entitled to, the Feds borrow the money from China or somewhere else. If incoming funds exceed what has to go out in Social Security checks, the Feds use the surplus to cover the deficits, and leave an IOU.

And there are other and serious questions raised by the Ponzi scheme controversy. Is grandma's generation, which fought World War II, Korea and the Cold War, more alarmed by Rick Perry's red-meat rhetoric than by President Obama's refusal to address the entitlement crisis threatening the fiscal and financial future of the republic?

Is political correctness more important to Americans than hearing the unvarnished truth about the condition of their country?  If so, the country is in trouble, not just Rick Perry.

Another Texan from another time, "Cactus Jack" Garner, once said, "Sometimes you have to give it to 'em with the bark on."

For an America going steadily downhill, such a time is now.