Saturday, September 03, 2005

Saturday Morning with Uncle Ben: What Happens if Your Ideas are Taken Seriously

We talked about Social Security a great deal last night. The conversation started because I asked Ben to give me a concrete example of the kind of social program that he perceives as government waste. In his comments to last Saturday's post, he wrote: "Our govt has thrown away millions on programs that don't work. all they do is increase the size of the govt."

So, in the short time we had to talk about this, he illustrated to me what he meant with Social Security. So, first I will render, as faithfully as possible, what he said. And, then, of course, I have my own reflections to offer.

Ben explained to me that Social Security, as it is now, is a waste of money (and while he was saying this, someone else at the table said "the government is horrible at making money"). SS started as a simple plan, according to Ben, to give workers back some money monthly, based on their contributions over the years. In that form, Ben was, I believe, less concerned with SS.

However, Ben then went on to explain to me what went wrong and the factors that have lead to it becoming an insolvent program. SS started paying out to widows and their children for the duration of their lives. I asked, incidentally, if SS also paid out to widowers and their children. Ben agreed that probably is the case. Nonetheless, Ben disagrees with these added benefits that bloat this program.

Then, Ben asserted that the widow/widower benefit has made Social Security a socialist program. In his view, this means that it takes money from those who have and gives it to the have nots.

Here is where my commentary on Ben's views begin. First of all, I am not sure that I consider "widows" or "widowers" to have been "have nots." Many folks, especially on the right, see marriage as an important economic unit. Traditional marriages require women to be dependent on their husband's income. Now, if children are involved, the wife is working. Her labor, however, is not paid. If her husband dies, and his income is no longer supporting the family, then that family threatens to sink below the poverty line. (Obviously my test case here is not a uber-rich family with lots of stocks, mutual funds, bonds, real estate, etc., but a working class or middle class family).

To this retort, I imagine Ben would say that the government shouldn't have to take care of people who didn't plan ahead. I have a couple of things for me. First of all, I want to think about how Ben would concretely be affected by the political views he upholds if they were to be taken seriously by the populace or put in place by the powers that be. As a retired elementary school teacher, who lives off of two pensions (teacher's and military) and Social Security, Ben would be in a tough spot if we abolished social security.

I have been teaching the Handmaid's Tale, a science fiction dystopia that depicts a society that has implemented all of the right wing views, particularly religious views. What strikes me in that book is how trapped one of the main character's is (Serena Joy) now that the world has taken her ideas of traditional roles of women seriously. She spends her days knitting scarves for soilders, that she unravels at night in order to knit again in the morning (a nice allusion to the Odyssey). I wonder how Ben would reassess his political views if they were all taken seriously and implemented.

Lastly, when I hear critics call government programs aimed at reducing poverty as socialism, I will simply point to victims of Katrina. Many, many folks are now wiped out. They have no home, no job, no food, no means of transportation, no sense of security. If we didn't have government programs to assist these people and to help rebuild these towns destroyed by Katrina, then what point is there for a government? Why not just create tribal life again, or cells of rugged individuals?

Here is a fascinating entry from Balkinization on the whether the Federal Government has the power to pay for disaster relief.