The Truth, Mainly - 02/14/2005

Social Security: an English major response
by Leon Satterfield

If you're looking for a cerebral argument, stop reading now. What follows is from the heart. Or maybe from the liver or the spleen.

It comes from having majored in English. One of the important things you get out of majoring in English is an irrational identification with the underdogs of the world.

Had I majored in something practical like, say, business administration, I probably could have put forth a coherent argument either for or against the president's plan to privatize Social Security. But with an English major, about all I can do is to quote somebody else, in this case from a story by Ring Lardner called "The Young Immigrunts."

In it, the boy narrator and his father are traveling cross-country by car when they lose their way. The result is this wonderful passage:

"Are you lost, daddy?" I asked tenderly. "Shut up," he explained.

I think of that quotation every time I get confused over what our president is trying to do with Social Security. As I think I understand it, Social Security as we know it is about to be tinkered with in ways that will make us ask tenderly, "Are you lost, Mr. President?" "Shut up," I expect he'll explain.

I know, I know. The new deal with Social Security is not supposed to do anyone any harm. Geezers like me won't have to worry our senile little heads over it because we'll be allowed to continue to have the same benefits we have now.

And our kids will have a choice of continuing with something like we have. Or they can privatize their Social Security by investing their retirement funds in whatever capitalist scheme they want to invest them in. "Personal Retirement Accounts," the president calls them.

As an English major, that gives me the fantods.

I don't know diddly-squat about investing and I'm blissful in my ignorance. I figure that to be a successful investor (unless you're Warren Buffet) you have to make a pact with Satan. I'd rather not.

My investment phobia is probably a delayed response to having been born in 1934, the year before the Social Security Act was passed to make up for all those personal retirement accounts that went blooey in 1929. So I've experienced life both with Social Security and without it. Believe me, things have been much more pleasant since its passage in 1935. I was a real mess before then, and in ways I can't even mention in a family newspaper. But I've come around wonderfully since.

And I've taught John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," and I've listened to Woody Guthrie's Great Depression songs. I remember in the late 30s, early 40s, grizzled old guys who got kicked off the Rock Island freight trains when they stopped in the little town in southwest Kansas where I grew up. They'd come knocking at our back door asking my mother if there were any odd jobs they might do in exchange for something to eat.

When I later learned about Social Security, it seemed a lot more efficient and dignified way of getting something in your stomach.

But I really got attached to Social Security five years ago when—after 45 years of paying into it—I started drawing monthly retirement payments out of it.

Suddenly I had an even warmer spot in my heart for that part of the New Deal.

Here's a true story, not about Social Security but about private investment. A guy I knew—a year older than me—took out a second mortgage on his house so he could invest the money in a company a broker told him was a sure thing. Within a year, the company went bankrupt, the guy I knew died, and his widow was left with a mortgage about four times as big as it should have been.

So I'm not favorably impressed by the president's proposal to let us shift our money from Social Security to private investments. I'm much more impressed with what we've already got: all of us putting our regular Social Security payments into a common pot we all can draw from in our dotage.

And that's why (to lapse into English teacher talk) my heart leaped up when I beheld the photo on page 8A of last Wednesday's Journal-Star. You remember it: a picture of union members standing in a snow storm in front of a local brokerage office and carrying signs saying "HANDS OFF MY SOCIAL SECURITY!"

My irrational English-major sentiments exactly.

If you want to see a more coherent argument against privatization, take a look at the February issue of the AARP Bulletin.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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