People Before Profits

Most Americans do not read The New York Times. But ideas expressed by its columnists make their way into mainstream discussions. Recently, two columnists weighed in with arguments related to Social Security.

Whom do you trust?

John Tierney, in his opinion column April 21, argued for privatizing Social Security. He praised the privatized pension system in Chile, implemented by the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1981.

Tierney writes of a Chilean economist who apparently prospered under the dictatorship. The economist says he has done very well in the privatized system. In Tierney’s May 7 column, he reports that the Chilean “workers” he talked to “knew they might lose some of [their retirement funds] in the stock market, but they preferred that to watching it all disappear into politicians’ hands.”

That’s a clever argument: Instead of relying on the goodwill of future politicians, let’s put our money into private accounts that we will control. But will we really control them?

Tierney thinks we can trust big business more than politicians. But if we invest in the stock market, Wall Street fund managers and corporate CEOs control our money. Insiders in investment houses and corporate boardrooms have long experience in enriching themselves while stiffing pension funds and small stockholders.

We can’t trust corporations like United Airlines or Enron with our pensions or anything else. And we can’t trust politicians like George Bush and Tom DeLay with our pensions or anything else.

But we can trust the American people, and particularly the working class. For 70 years, workers have paid the payroll taxes necessary to provide a minimum pension to retirees, survivors and disabled workers. The Social Security Administration has been a model of honest and efficient management. American workers, with the help of some politicians, have turned back all efforts by other politicians to destroy Social Security. And we can turn back this and any future raids on Social Security — if we stay united. Which brings me to another New York Times columnist.

Generation war or class war?

Nicholas Kristof has a reputation as a liberal. But his May 1 column plays into the hands of the Bush administration’s attack on Social Security.

Kristof accuses the baby boomers of being “the greediest generation.” He charges that boomers (roughly, those between ages 45 and 60) are selfishly concerned with Social Security, prescription drug benefits and Viagra. As they retire, boomers will have even more political clout. All this spending on greedy seniors will bankrupt the country and shortchange children. “We’re running up [our children’s] debts, both by creating new entitlements and by running budget deficits today.” He accuses boomers of “fiscal child abuse.”

Kristof is wrong in his facts and wrong in his analysis.

The new prescription drug “benefit” rammed through by the Bush administration is more a welfare program for drug companies than an entitlement for seniors. Viagra and its imitators were not developed at the insistence of boomers, but by private drug monopolies who put their huge profits ahead of the nation’s health. The federal budget deficits are already being used to cut benefits for children, as well as students, veterans, mothers and almost everyone else. But these deficits are caused by tax cuts for the rich and the corporations, and by the war in Iraq and the drive for military domination over the entire world. None of these disastrous policies came from baby boomers or existing retirees. They came from the Bush administration on behalf of its corporate backers.

Workers, both young and old, are facing the new capitalist reality: Wal-Mart jobs, economic insecurity, lack of health care, unaffordable education and bankrupt retirement plans. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This country could easily provide quality education, health care, housing and retirement security for all, along with decent and useful jobs. Previous generations of workers made significant gains in this direction in the 1930s and 1960s, against the fierce opposition of big business. More than anything else, these gains were the result of unity.

Young people are not threatened by a generation war waged by older workers. Young and old, workers are threatened by a class war, waged by the corporate class and their political lackeys. By pitting the interests of children and young workers against older and retired workers, Kristof is playing into Bush’s hands.


Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.