Friday, February 04, 2005

And Now, Something Completely Different

BushCheney recently conceded that his proposal for private retirement accounts for Social Security will not address the financial issues of that program. Previous to this admission (see William Saletan in Slate ), personal accounts were part of the solution to the Dire Crisis. Now the Washington Post reports that persons choosing to create a personal account may only keep part of their earnings that exceed three percent, the remainder is retained by the government to augment a guaranteed Social Security benefit that would be reduced by a still-undetermined amount from the currently promised benefit.

(Update: A new Washington Post article reports that the story cited above incorrectly understated the amount a worker could earn in a personal account. However, the original story is still correct in stating that workers would not retain all of the earnings and that the benefit structure is less private than commonly understood.)

A worker whose personal account doesn’t beat the inflation rate has little beyond a pile of cash that will vary considerably depending on the market and the worker’s retirement horizon. reduced Social Security benefit. Benefits are far less certain. This doesn’t sound like an improvement in the nation’s retirement security program. And, we’ve just learned that personal accounts are not a solution to Social Security’s financial problems. So...why is BushCheney pushing this policy?

Some analysts describe BushCheney’s Social Security proposals as the culmination of an ideological battle that began in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration: BushCheney attempting to redeem the Republican Party from its greatest failure. True, traditional Republicans have always hated Social Security (even as many of them collected their benefits). But that hatred is part of the greater hostility to government expressed by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Justice and other Republican ideologues. What this tells me is that BushCheney’s plans for Social Security are a convenient battle in the ongoing war against government’s ability to restrain the actions of private capital and private interests on behalf of the larger community.

This battle is one that has been long planned. One of the justifications for the Social Security “crisis” is that benefits exceed revenues after 2018. When analysts point out that the system also holds Treasury bonds sufficient to finance benefits 20 to 30 years beyond 2018, Republicans are now saying that those bonds are “worthless IOU’s,” “accounting devices,” that redeeming these bonds would cause disruptive, disastrous tax increases. In fact, these bonds are the time bomb planted by the Grover Norquists of the Republican Party during Reagan-Bush I years. Surplus Social Security funds were used to minimize the deficits accumulated in those years. Now that the time is coming to repay those debts, the Grover Norquists are hoping that government will be hopelessly discredited and weaked. At that point, Norquist can, as he has famously stated, “strangle” what little remains of the common weal. Maybe that’s why Reagan and Bush I were willing to sign tax increases for Social Security.

No other explanation for BushCheney’s social security proposal makes sense. Why else would they take on a huge political fight for a policy that does not address the problem and does not provide the benefits they promise? They must be true believers.

Whatever the cause, the results will be at America’s expense. One of the few kernels of truth in the current discussion about Social Security is that the system faces financial challenges arising from changing demographics and lifestyles. The changing world economy and the growing dependence of the US on foreign investors also affect how this nation can promote economic security for all citizens during and after their working years. Yet no one is debating these critical issues. Instead, BushCheney’s proposal has sucked all the oxygen from the debate. It’s the 800 pound gorilla that monopolizes all attention.

This non-debate is an opportunity for Democrats. More than just opposing BushCheney on Social Security, the Democrats should propose alternatives that present a more humane view of retirement security, of which Social Security is an important part, along with private savings and investment. The Democratic view should present retirement security in the context of lifetime economic security. (And, no, I am not talking about a super welfare state that seeks to eliminate all risk and provide guarantees. I am talking about public policy to promote and encourage opportunity, minimize economic discrimination and provide a reasonably fair economy that enables workers to meet their own and their families’ essential needs.) Fighting BushCheney’s flawed proposals doesn’t seem very risky when based on a genuine concern for economic justice. It’s called fighting for the common good.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Rest of the Story

Jubilant Iraqis streaming to the polls on election day had much to celebrate. This election, whatever its flaws, was an open one. Iraqis could not only choose among different candidates but they could even choose not to vote, a liberty not enjoyed under Saddam Hussein’s one party state. The celebration demonstrated the sheer joy of newly exercised freedom. Coming as it did, against a backdrop of violence and terror, Iraqi joy on election day was a welcome reminder that the human spirit can never be extinguished.

In those celebrations, however, lies danger for America. The celebrations carry a warning: the United States is not welcome to stay in Iraq. Most Iraqis voting on Sunday were voting for a government to take full sovereignty and end the occupation. Soon. Juan Cole quotes leaders of the Shi’ite coalition and Interim Prime Minister’s coalition on the need for the occupation to end.
"Abdul Aziz al-Hakim claimed victory in the Sunday elections for the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of religious Shiite parties he leads. And this is what the winners, if they are winners, think of the US: 'No one welcomes the foreign troops in Iraq. We believe in the ability of Iraqis to run their own issues, including the security issue,' Mr Hakim said. 'Of course this issue could be brought up by the new government.'...."

"...Interim President Ghazi al-Yawir expressed hope that a substantial withdrawal of Coalition troops could be effected by the end of 2005, and this hope seems widely shared in Iraq...."

Dahr Jamail also reports on Iraqi voter expectations and notes that the American media have ignored the key issue for most voters.

"What ...[the media]...didn’t tell you was that of those who voted, whether they be 35% or even 60% of registered voters, [sic] were not voting in support of an ongoing US occupation of their country. In fact, they were voting for precisely the opposite reason. Every Iraqi I have spoken with who voted explained that they believe the National Assembly which will be formed soon will signal an end to the occupation. And they expect the call for a withdrawing of foreign forces in their country to come sooner rather than later. This causes one to view the footage of cheering, jubilant Iraqis in a different light now, doesn’t it?"

"...Now the question remains, what happens when the National Assembly is formed and over 100,000 US soldiers remain on the ground in Iraq with the Bush Administration continuing in its refusal to provide a timetable for their removal? What happens when Iraqis see that while there are already four permanent US military bases in their country, rather than beginning to disassemble them, more bases are being constructed, as they are, by Cheney’s old company Halliburton, right now?"

US policy plans on permanent military bases in Iraq. Of course, these troops will not be foreign occupiers but rather “forward assets” to ensure stability in the region. Dahr Jamail further quotes a scholar on US strategic interests in the region wherein Iraq is a key element. The scholar describes initiatives launched by the US to open Iraq’s economy to foreign investment, oversee Iraqi government decisions for an extended period, and a possible “corrupt bargain” between the US and a major Shi’ite party.

Iraq and the world had much to celebrate on January 30. And still much to fear in the days ahead.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

How Sweet It Is

The world is awash with excitement at the Iraqi election on this Monday morning. Reports show a good turnout for Kurds and Shi’ites and not so good for Sunnis. Only 44 people were killed on election day, relative calm for Iraq these days. For the first time since the fall of Baghdad, American policy is able to demonstrate some accomplishment. The real accomplishment was, however, an Iraqi one. Iraqis turned out to vote in the face of violence and death. Voting was a proud moment in their history and Iraqis took the opportunity to show their willingness to take risks on behalf of their nation.

Americans can be proud of our contribution to this achievement, although it comes as much in spite of American policy as in result of that policy. These elections were forced on the US by Grand Ayotollah Sistani. BushCheney wanted elections later in 2005. His plan would have given the insurgency another six months to fester and further undermine US political and military position in Iraq. BushCheney should thank his lucky stars that Sistani forced the earlier date. The situation has looked grim for a long time now. The election is a welcome antidote.

Today brings the euphoria of success. New hope for Iraq. A new beginning. But the election is a solitary event, it solves nothing by itself. The same problems remain. What the election does, however, is to bring the Iraqi people into the process. Their turnout demonstrates a political will that cannot and should not be ignored. If the new leadership can harness that will and restrain the animosities that have plagued the various tribes, clans and sects, then perhaps democracy has a chance in that country. It would be a welcome first in the region. A stable, lasting democracy would give real meaning to the American and Iraqi lives that have been sacrificed since March 2003.

Reading Iraqi history and contemporary Iraqi writers shows them to be intensely proud of their nation and their accomplishments. They see themselves as heirs to the great civilizations that flourished in Mesopotamia. And despite the tragedy and brutality of the Saddam Hussein years, Iraqis take pride in their development as a modern nation. Building a democratic society after decades of dictatorship would be another grand achievement for their culture This national pride and ambition are strong bases for building a new polity if Iraqis can reconcile the religious and ethnic differences that have divided them for centuries.

But regardless of the difficulties to come, the sight of Iraqis, dressed in their best clothes, children at their side, queuing up to vote is immensely heartening. The turnout may add a new dynamic to Iraqi politics. Sunnis may hesitate to attack their many countrymen who have chosen to participate in the political process, however flawed or tainted by the presence of foreign occupiers. Perhaps the relatively low violence of election day resulted from Sunni unwillingness to attack the Iraqi people so directly. If so, and combined with previous statements by Sunni leaders of their interest and willingness to participate in writing a new Iraqi constitution, Iraqis can find ways to live together in harmony. Maybe there is an exit, if not exactly a strategy, after all.

The sweet smell of success is a powerful drug. So is hope. America and BushCheney are flushed with that success today, able to show the world that we were right, after all. But, the election is only one step. Many more must follow to make today’s hope into reality. That is still a daunting task. Americans would do well to remember our last great success in Iraq, the one that BushCheney declared with the boastful claim of “Mission Accomplished.’ It didn’t turn out quite the way we expected.