Don't privatize Social Security.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 2 2005 4:27 PM

The Hassle Factor

But I don't want to manage my own Social Security account!

Of the Bush plan to establish individual Social Security accounts, a lawyer friend of mine complains: It's one more damned thing I'd have to manage. I've got enough to handle already.

Isn't that the real issue? Let's forget the funding problem. Or even the risk of ending up with a lower benefit for retirement. Under the Bush plan, we'd be partly responsible. We'd have to hatch our own nest eggs. It's one more job the Republicans would give to us.

This is my gripe against the Bush plan: I've already got enough to do.

Millions of Americans, I'm convinced, are against it for only that reason. We don't want to have to think about Social Security. "But people worry about it now," you might say. Oh, sure, at these presidential drop-in discussions in Fargo, N.D., a cop or cook will say, "I worry Social Security won't be there for me." But come on, they don't really worry. If they did, they'd open a damned savings account.

In real life, we ignore our Social Security. That's the glory of it. We have the freedom not to think about it. With all the time I have not to think about my "private" account, I can turn on the Cubs game. Or open up Kafka.

I can even pray, if I want.

Privatization is one more damn thing to distract and upset me. I read a bit less (as Laura Bush reads more). I volunteer a bit less (as her husband lauds us for volunteering more). In one way or another, I spend less time being responsible for other people because I'm more responsible for me.

I don't like it.

I hate to personalize things, but since Mr. Bush's reform is his personal obsession, I think I will. It galls me that a president who has never had to dig is handing us a shovel. Look at all the freedom that George W. Bush had because Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mercer Reynolds handled all his investments. Early on, they told him, "You just worry about coming up with funny nicknames, and you will never have to worry about money." And he came into the White House with his brow unlined.

Social Security is our little taste of this freedom. The world adds and adds. Social Security subtracts. It simplifies life. Social Security is "Social" and "Secure" instead of "Individual" and "At Risk." That's what is so maddening to people on the right, the Ayn Randers, the libertarians.

They look down on the rest of us. They think of us as slugs. We aren't living authentically until we worry as much as they do.

It's not so bad when privatization flops in places like Chile or the United Kingdom. At least in those countries there is a strong social bond. In Chile, the government has stepped in to make sure people get a little. In the Bush era, we're too atomized to do anything like that. In the United Kingdom, people have more time and freedom, since they don't have to think about their health care. They have single payer. Everything is free. In the United States, even when it's free, we have paperwork. As another friend says, "It's a full-time job for a lot of people to manage their health bills." Now we have to manage our Social Security, too?

And these extra tasks are being heaped on us as we work longer and longer hours, with longer commutes. I'm exhausted. Please: no more privatization. Unless it's something I can take care of while I drive.

But what if the existing system is doomed? Of course, being a liberal, I don't believe it. Raise the amount of payroll tax that Bill DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds have to pay, and the crisis goes away. At any rate, at this point no one knows the extent to which we may or may not be in trouble in the future. That's also the glory of Social Security: not to know.

But if Bush has his way, you and I will know, early on, whether we are in trouble. Our accounts may tank. Indeed, the full-blown libertarian version of Bush's plan would create winners and losers. For some of us there will be a sickening feeling, at age 42 or 45 or 48, that we already have blown it. We picked the wrong stock. We didn't put enough in bonds. The worst part will be that we'll know.

This is the pleasure that the winners will take: to bring home to the losers what a bunch of bunglers we are. In a life in which you or I may have failed over and over, here's another way we get to learn that yes, we've failed again.