Monday, September 22, 2008

Hitting the Third Rail

Social Security has been called the "third rail" of American politics, because if you touch it you're supposed to get electrocuted and die. No one told this to George W. Bush, however, who fairly danced on the topic and won the 2000 election anyway, and no one seems to have told John McCain.

On Sunday, McCain actually reiterated his plan to privatize social security, a ballsy move given that the stock market had spent a week setting itself on fire.

Barack Obama of course decided to point this out. He went to Florida, where he was sure to find lots of old people, and told them McCain's plan entailed "risking social security on the stock market."

But here's an unusual curveball for you: McCain's plan is good and Obama is lying.

Yes! I know! You am not believing this. McCain is right and Obama is lying? Is the sky still up? Do clocks still turn clockwise? My friends, it's true, and to commemorate this rare occasion, I will use the phrase "my friends" an inordinate amount in this post.

My friends, if you are like me, which is to say, not old, then you should love McCain's plan. And since it's only supposed to affect us young, that makes it a pretty good thing.

My friends, it's not often a politician advocates a policy that will be good for young Americans.Yet low and behold what John McCain actually said on CNBC last night:

"I still believe that young Americans ought to ... be able to, in a voluntary fashion ... put some of their money into accounts with their name on it."

And here is what Saint Obama said:

"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week. Millions would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."
So let me get this straight. McCain's plan is that I can take some of the money I'm currently throwing at an overburdened, doomed entitlement system and put it in a profitable money market account with my name on it? Well, I have just one thing to say to that: Yes, please!

My friends, our entitlement programs are vast unwieldy beasts that are bound to collapse under their own weight eventually. Quick number jaunt: According to the latest Congressional Budget Office outlook report, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are currently costing us a combined $1.25 trillion per year, a whopping 40% of the federal budget. That number is expected to jump significantly over the next decade as a flood of baby boomers retire. "Over the long term, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path," the report concludes.

My friends, forty percent is a lot of fucking percents. Social Security was conceived back when people just didn't live as long as they do now. Sooner or later simple math has got to catch up with us and we're going to have to scale back these programs, right? I'm not at all confident Social Security will exist in its current form when my generation retires in 40 years, and that makes me more than a little chagrined to continue paying into it. I would love to have the money go to an account with my name on it. I'd feel a lot better about that.

As for the whole "risk" of investing it in the stock market, my friends for people our age, that risk is pretty damn low. Yes, the market is volatile, but over a 40-year period, history indicates that it's not only going to go up, but outperform just about everything else. And again, it's all voluntary. You ain't happy about it? Don't do it. And while you're at it, don't invest in your 401k, because that's equally "risky."

Now, I don't know the specifics of McCain's plan, I don't know if the details work, I'm sure there's an evil bugaboo hidden in there somewhere. All I know is that it's a courageous, non-mainstream position. The guy is touching the third rail for the sake of young people, and that's pretty great.

And what was Obama doing? Using this to strike fear into the hearts of old people. Let's run that quote one more time:

"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week. Millions would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."
My friends, that's misleading at best. McCain's plan specifically targets only young Americans. There may be many young people in Florida, but they're pretty clearly not the "millions of Floridians" Obama was hoping to suggest. In this case "Floridians" is code for "Old people."

Retirees care desperately about social security. It is, after all, a major source of income for them. And any hint of screwing with it fills them with fear, and that's dangerous, because they always vote. That, my friends, is why Social Security has such an electrifying reputation.

Now, I do not believe my friends that John McCain could ever get this passed, even if he were elected. Please, don't mistake this for an endorsement. But my friends we must speak out and let the country know that we don't think Mr. McCain made a gaffe here. We must tell them that we would like to be pandered to as well.

But most importantly, my friends, we must vote this year. We must vote a lot. We must announce ourselves as the new demographic to court, and make our common issues known. Then, my friends, we could have some third rails of our own.

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