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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Putting the Social back in Social Security


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CNN's Allan Chernoff on Social Security debate.

CNN's Dana Bash on Bush's renewed push for change.
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One barbed line making the political rounds addresses the administration's plan to pay for its proposed reform of the nation's public retirement system by cutting future benefits: "President Bush's reform means taking the security out of Social Security." One corollary of the proposed Social Security overhaul seems to read: "Remember, we're all in this alone."

Mostly overlooked in the emerging debate is the question as to whether the proposed revamping will in fact take the "social" out of Social Security. Social Security is fundamentally a continuing commitment between generations, but Social Security also embodies a profound collective value -- that in the just, humane country we are dedicated to building, the elderly and the disabled ought not to be forced to scratch out a bare existence in poverty.

For 70 years, the enduring premise of the program has been that the publicly financed insurance and pension system intended to preserve the economic security and human dignity to which all of us contribute is consistent with the highest Judeo-Christian ethic and American values.

Social Security is about much more than building individual wealth. It is about the common good and the responsibilities we all owe to each other.

President George W. Bush has solemnly pledged that, "We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, other generations."

Let us be fair and give Bush credit for confronting the funding problems in the decades ahead for Social Security caused by fewer workers being required to provide for more retirees. The budget surpluses inherited from the prosperous Clinton years are now irretrievably gone. Bush, remember, lectured us: "It is your money," and, "It's important to cut taxes so that Washington does not spend the surplus." The administration of George W. Bush managed to do both. Forget the tax-and-spend Democrats of an earlier era. America is now governed by tax-cut-and-spend Republicans.

The honoring of family values is regularly invoked by the leaders of this administration. But all such language rings brutally hollow when we consider the uninterrupted budget deficits, which means that the price for the fiscal responsibility of the Bush years will be paid by the children and the grandchildren we so allegedly love.

To review the bidding and put this in some perspective, the total of all individual federal income taxes paid by the working families in the following 31 states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming -- will not be enough to cover just the interest owed this year on the U.S. debt to foreign and domestic bondholders.

Those tax dollars will not put a single book in a schoolchild's hand, not pay an army sergeant on patrol and at risk tonight in Baghdad, not build a bridge, a playground or a dream. It is simply -- and will be for well beyond the next decade -- a transfer of income and wealth from the man -- cops, waitresses, truck drivers and secretaries -- to the fortunate few who have Treasury bonds in their portfolio.

The common good goes beyond Social Security and makes us ask how we feel about our national ranking among the advanced democracies. Yes, the United States is first in gross domestic product, but also first in the incidence of poverty; first in productivity, and last in economic equality; first in health care expenditures, and last in health care coverage; first in spending on research and development, and yet highest in infant mortality; first in expenditures on education, but at the bottom in the testing scores of students in math and science.

In the final analysis, Social Security is about the common good.


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