Stop terrorizing my grandmother Featured

10:09am EDT July 22, 2002

Stop terrorizing my grandmother

For all its flaws, Social Security can be fixed without jacking up taxes, slashing benefits or turning the whole thing into one big game of Retirement Roulette.

Commentary by William Hoffman

Her voice, never very strong and lately not too steady either, now took on an edge of panic. I had never seen her cry, but was certain I'd know it over the phone, though it's nothing a grandson ever wants to hear. "I just don't know what I'm going to do," she said, "if they really start fooling with Social Security."

I didn't know how to tell her she was in part a victim of my profession. Since editors started emphasizing active verbs in headlines over probing content in stories, I'd noticed a detachment between the two, to the extent that I could read a headline or hear a broadcast news teaser and know I was being fed an inflated invitation to see the sponsors' commercials. My wife and I actually made a game out of how often we heard "You won't believe..." and "You'll be shocked..." leading up to the evening newscasts. I should've known that not everyone plays this game for laughs.

My 92-year-old grandmother served as a career assistant in the Department of the Treasury before retiring in the late 1960s to her hometown in Iowa. She was one of those faceless bureaucrats who late-night talk-show hosts get so much mileage out of these days, and we all laugh, though to her the jokes still hurt. Back then, working for the government was an honorable profession, and though the pay wasn't good, the civil servants could count on a subsistence pension in addition to their Social Security checks. But my grandmother now has too much time on her hands, and instead of playing canasta or rotting away in a home, she reads. And what she reads scares the wits out of her.

Maybe it should. At least a half-dozen bills are pending in Congress that would partially or wholly privatize Social Security, which for all of its faults is the only retirement plan most Americans have ever known. Republicans and Democrats alike have been ringing the alarms over the last 20 years, warning of a looming cataclysm for a dangerously depleted Social Security trust fund. No wonder. It's Republican and Democrat congresses that have looted the trust fund over the last 20 years, to expand Social Security for non-retirement benefits, to paper over the deficit, treating our elders' national pension account like a giant bottomless cookie jar.

Now the opportunists and speculators have arrived, exploiting public excitement about the legitimate Social Security crisis their own agents created, in hopes of lining their pockets with what's left.

Privatizing Social Security is one of the goofiest ideas since Reagan turned the savings-and-loan industry into a floating craps game. Social Security was created precisely to keep Grandma's retirement nest egg out of the hands of gamblers. Social Security privateers promise that their profiteering won't endanger seniors' basic social safety net, though my grandmother and I suspect they have in mind the orphanages and soup kitchens that constituted the "safety net" of the 1930s.

Privatization proponents point out that interest on Social Security funds compares dismally to equity market returns. They neglect to mention that Social Security was never designed to make one rich.

Proponents want to let participants opt out of the system to invest their withholdings in more profitable ventures. They know this would lead the wealthiest contributors simply to go private, leaving the poorest to share the crumbs among themselves, and defeating the sole original purpose of Social Security as a national retirement insurance program.

The privateers preach that individuals should take responsibility for their own retirement plans. Their advice to the weak, the gullible and the deceived: Caveat emptor. You won't believe the wrath of the deceived if Social Security privatization turns into another S&L craps shoot.

William Hoffman is the national correspondent for Small Business News. He welcomes your comments, via e-mail: whoffman@erols.com.