Morning in America

WAS EVER AN inaugural address more swelled by the empty rhetorical flourish than Clinton's howdy-do to the nation on Monday? In its stilted vagueness and its annoying reliance on parallel construction, it was clearly meant to mimic JFK's 1961 address--itself a pretty noxious document in retrospect, pointing as it did to the brinksmanship over Cuba and onward to the jungles of Vietnam. The most painful, and telling, thing about the Clinton speech was the perfunctory formalism of its call to civic values in a country and an age where everyone has learned that market values are the only ones that count for official purposes. Then there were all the lies, express and implicit: with regard to protection of the environment, which the past four years have done more to erode than the past three Republican administrations combined; with regard to basic democratic freedoms, which Clinton-backed initiatives on crime and domestic terrorism have undermined mightily; and in the matter of racial division, which all along has been the not-so-hidden predicate of Clinton's crime and welfare measures and his ceaseless talk about "personal responsibility." And through it all, there beamed the taut rictus of Hillary, smiling so broadly one could have sworn that an aide stuck a coat hanger in her mouth just before the proceedings began. Don't! Worry! Be! Happy!

HERE IS ONE distinctly American achievement that the president neglected to mention: According to a Justice Department report released on the eve of the inaugural gala, the population of U.S. prisons and jails has doubled since 1985. The figure currently exceeds 1.6 million. It was also reported recently that the great state of Texas now incarcerates a higher proportion of its citizenry than any other government on earth. No one need wonder why there is such enthusiasm for privatizing parts of the prison system; there's no other growth market like it.

ON MONDAY IT was impossible to turn on the car radio without hearing some media eminence fret over what the president would do with his second term, as if there were any great mystery. His main objective in the beginning will be to launch the dismantling of Social Security, a program far too popular to take apart in a single stroke. But the arc of the debate already tells the tale: We have passed from questioning whether to privatize Social Security into a discussion of how and how much to privatize. The "traditionalists" on the recent presidential commission were the ones who want to put only 40 percent of the fund in the stock market.

This falsifies the terms of debate and forestalls a lot of useful discussion not just about Social Security, but about where federal entitlement moneys really go. For the sake of perspective, it's often useful to go to the foreign press's coverage of America, which is not so ridden with cant as ours. As the very conservative British weekly The Economist put it recently, "The big problem with the American welfare state is not that the old get too much, but that the rich do."

It goes on:

"Americans suppose that social welfare programs are about helping the poor. This is not true. More than 85 percent of all benefits go to the middle and upper classes, both old and young. Households with incomes above $100,000 get slightly more federal money each year than those earning a tenth of that. Programs that require some evidence of need make up less than a quarter of federal entitlement dollars. And of these means-tested benefits, twice as much went to households making $50,000 or more than to the poor.

"Even leaving aside helpful tax breaks (such as the mortgage-interest tax deduction, which even Bill Gates can claim for the building of his cyber-house, and which costs the government, all told, $55 billion a year), middle- and upper-class Americans get the lion's share of benefits. Much of this is unjustified. Although farm-price supports were reconfigured in the last Congress, Phillip Longman, a welfare-state analyst, has estimated that America's 30,000 wealthiest farmers take in $50,000 a head each year....

"If there is widespread resentment about Social Security, it is for the same reason. Too many people receive it who do not need it, while spending on everyone else is squeezed--including on the 4 million elderly who are officially poor. In 1997, an estimated $48.1 billion in Social Security benefits will go to households with income between $50,000 and $100,000. Another $15.5 billion--almost exactly what the government spends on income support for families on welfare--will be sent to households with incomes of more than $100,000."

Social Security "reform" is another step in the ideological war against the state's involvement in helping to safeguard people from the depredations of the market; it is the last major obstacle on the road to a more Dickensian future. Mending the system, if any of the players wanted to do that, would not be a terribly complicated proposition. First of all, the projections that have the system going broke in 32 years are politically manipulated to exaggerate the inflation rate. Second, most Americans do not realize that there is a regressive cap on Social Security taxes: In 1996, one stopped paying after the first $62,700 in income. Merely removing that cap would by itself make up two-thirds of the projected shortfall in the SS fund. And that's without applying any means testing as to who receives Social Security. A combination of those two measures could work very well. But that's not the object. Wherever government is concerned, the word "reform" now always means tearing something down and throwing it away.

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