Reform it to death

November 27, 2006

Sometimes I think the surviving members of the Monty Python troupe have assumed secret editorship of The Economist as a kind of retirement-age hobby. This editorial about the Democrats needing to strike “a Grand Bargain” with the Bush administration on what we in the colonies laughingly refer to as “Social Security reform” reminds of the skit in which a pet store customer asks for a goldfish; the proprietor, finding goldfish out of stock, offers instead to cut the legs off a puppy, tape a snorkel to its snout, glue finds to its head and drop it into a tank of water.

Richard Posner, a man whose views normally don’t impress me much, recently had an amusing line about the late economist Milton Friedman. He said Friedman’s ideological fixation on “free” markets and hatred of any taxation was such that he took it as a personal affront that the Scandinavian nations managed such a high standard of living and productvity despite their high levels of taxation.

Wingers likewise toss and turn all night about the continued success of Social Security, cooking up phony dilemmas for the program and advocating Rube Goldberg contraptions that convert part of the program into a glorified mutual fund that is riskier and less efficient, but uses that old private market voodoo instead of being a — shudder! scream! — government program. They want to “reform” Social Security in the worst way — and, given half a shot, they’ll do it in the worst way imaginable.

Despite an all-out propaganda blitz orchestrated by Bush in the months following his second-term victory, American voters realized that the GOP wanted to complete the transformation of the New Deal into the Bum Deal by turning Social Security into one more game room in the big casino that is the modern Republican idea of capitalism. One in which the average citizen is (as Milton Friedman would put it) “free to choose” from a number of unattractive options that would reduce benefits while perverting the nature of Social Security, which is meant to provide people with a subsistence fallback position even if they aren’t Wall Street sharpies.

The Bush administration has nothing to offer anyone beyond a well-earned reputation for lying and double-crossing, and a set of policies that amount to a toxic waste dump of discredited conservative notions. Only a blinkered fool or a Washington pundit (if I may risk redundancy) would suggest the Democrats have anything to gain by entering into any kind of bargain with these mountebanks. Or a bunch of retired comedians, looking to give us all one last chuckle on the sly.

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