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The *Social* in Social Security


I find it hard to follow the national “debate” on social security. There is something like a discussion ongoing, but it all seems to be about “solvency” of the system, with great disagreements on whether there really is a crisis.

Some, like Paul Krugman, believe that this is largely a manufactured event that will allow the GOP Troglodytes to further “starve the beast.” From the 1970s onward, the two branches of the oligarchy have been committed to the curtailment of government’s role in the reconfiguration of social inequality. If the Republicans are enthusiastic about a “small government” for social programs and a “big government” for state repression, the main-line Democrats are only half an emotion behind. Whether on welfare or on prisons, the convergence between them is stunning (even as a bloc of elected Democratic representatives, such as most of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, remain out of step with the leadership in their party). On social security the distinctions are meaningful in public policy terms, but not so stark in the realm of ideology. Bush and Co. wants to privatize social security, whereas the Boxer team wants to hold onto a more fiscally stable collective pot to which we pay and from which we draw. One wants to nix it, the other wants to fix it. This is a sizable disagreement.

Nonetheless, the two sides share an ideological terrain: both see the social security in individualistic terms, and in this cultivation of the individualism the GOP Troglodytes will always have the upper hand. The only way to promote a true cultural change is to nurture the collective value of social security, not the benefit for an individual based on his/her payments into a retirement system. Such a collective (dare one say, socialist) value will provide a fundamental cultural challenge to the dog-eat-dog world of market individualism. No need to belabor the point about the Bush plan. It is plainly individualistic, eager to turn over the responsibility of care and concern from the state and from its citizens to that of the individuals (and their families, which, in our sexist society, often means that women pick up the burden). If families cannot make it, the Bush-Gingrich approach asks the indigent to turn themselves in to faith-based charity homes. In addition, the Bush approach will free up vast amounts of money to be invested in a stock market that is ravenous for more funds. The new “progressive plan” from Bush, to limit the benefits to the rich, has all the flavor of a political squeeze: the Democrats will like the “progressive” aspect of it, it will allow both the parties to celebrate the solvency of the system (because of the lowered outlay), and it will set up the Republicans to vilify it in a few years as just another welfare system for the indolent. Even with so little support for his plan, Bush still seems to have one or two tricks up his sleeve to set the debate’s agenda. The mainline Democrats have been forthright in their criticisms of the Bush agenda on social security. They see the system as one in which a worker pays in for old age, and then gets that money back in some form when he or she retires. The Democrats defend the system as one where the workers allow their money to be held back on their behalf so that they might enjoy it when they are older. The way the system works, they aver, is that one generation’s workers pay for another generation’s retirement. That said, the Democrats still depict the system as if it were to protect the retirement pay of each worker: I pay in so that I might get mine when I retire. As the business cycle moves into recession territory, the vast society security funds allow the state to conduct all kinds of anti-cyclical measures. Our social security funds are in a “trust fund” managed by the state. The managers of this fund typically use the money to maintain the fiscal stability of the system. Being the more liberal branch of the oligarchy, the mainline Democrats are less willing to ignore widespread distress among workers when the economy contracts.

They therefore turn to this fund to maintain order in the system, something that ameliorates the problems of the workers but which ultimately benefits the oligarchy. The “trust fund” could, however, be used to build the power of the workers, and so toward the transformation of the system. The concept of the “trust fund,” the reservoir of the workers’ capital, does not have an inherent class bias. The social security debate provides the Left with an excellent opportunity to clarify and broadcast our values, in sharp contradistinction to the bankruptcy of both liberalism and the GOP Troglodytes. The first point to emphasize is the origins of social security. It does not come to us because of noblesse oblige. Rather it is driven by the demands of the trade unions in the 19th Century.

The idea of social insurance pushed for by workers’ organizations is simple; rather than seek an individual return on withheld income in case of injury, sickness or old age, the workers demanded the creation of a fund to which they would all contribute and from which they could all draw. This fund exemplified the slogan, “from each according to her/his abilities, to each according to her/his needs” Since the totality of the population, the wage workers and the plutocracy, pay into the system, it functions as an instrument for the redistribution of income. And, given that the totality of society participates in the program, it allows for the creation of social solidarity. But “social security” or “social insurance” cannot stand alone. The concept of “social insurance” makes far more sense if it is paired with that of the “social wage.” The “social wage” is that amount of the deferred wages that goes toward the creation of various publicly-available goods such as public transportation, public health services, public schools, public parks, public postal delivery, public safety, and what not. Public services are available to all, regardless of income and social standing, even as they are paid for by a progressive tax. Social insurance schemes are part of the social wage.

The provision of a social wage is an objective condition that could produce a collective social consciousness out of the egotistic individualism of our horrid times. Let us return to the question of social security. You have an elderly parent who lives rather far from you. Consumed by work and by bills, you cannot afford to uproot yourself to take care of your parent nor can you hire someone to do so for you. In addition, your parent might not want to leave behind their friends and their familiar town to move to you.

The small social security check is useful, and so is the government medical assistance, but it is largely insufficient. The parent can no longer drive, and the co-pay for medicines and for visits to the doctor, is burdensome. A genuinely produced social wage could provide for the parent: public transport would allow the elderly parent to continue to be mobile and independent, while public health (and controls on pharmaceutical firms) would make healing affordable.

The social wage (and social security) does not only provide for one’s own distant future, but it already provides peace of mind for one’s parents, for the elderly, and for their children. The debate on social security should allow us to expand the imagination of our friends and neighbors, those who, like me, are bored to tears by the narrow frame of reference used by the ‘experts.’ The idea of the social wage allows us to articulate our values in this public policy dialogue on social security.

The social wage is no substitute for the necessary struggles to increase the actual wages of the workers: we don’t want to demand more benefits in exchange for no raises. That bargain is false. The demand for an expanded social wage allows us to describe our vision for the future. It also affords us the opportunity to fight for the creation of public institutions that will be the building-blocks for the future. For us, social insurance schemes are not about our own future alone. They are about the creation of a healthy and just social world.

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