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Social Security "Reform":
What It Isn't; What It Really Is


By Marilyn N. Shaw

February 22, 2005

I am a child of the Depression. I was marked and shaped by that fact, and my social conscience developed from it, a constant reminder of the great progress that came from those dark days and the exciting, creative responses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his followers.

We my widowed father, my baby sister and I lived with my my maternal grandmother in a small mid-western town, on a transcontinental rail line, amid lush farmlands. Even after my father remarried, my sister and I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother. A somewhat older cousin lived with her full time.

I do not know how my grandmother managed. There were certainly no government programs to help her: no general assistance, no Aid to Dependent Children, no Social Security. I can only assume that my father and her large family of grown children did what they could to support her.

I also know that there was a steady stream of unemployed, homeless, hopeless men, knocking on the back door of the modest frame house in which we lived, hat in hand, embarrassed at asking for help. None of them went away empty-handed.

There is a sculpture in the Roosevelt Memorial in our nation's capital, depicting a line of such men, in shabby coats and ties, wearing shabby hats, waiting patiently. I wept.


It is important that we remember what it was like in the early part of the 20th Century. If your family was wealthy or even moderately well off, you were fine. If you were working class, and bad luck or illness or accident befell you, there was no safety net of any kind.

We cannot mount a coherent, effective campaign against the lies and dissembling and outright virulent dishonesty of the Right Wing without first understanding where they are and how they got there. No matter who we are trying to deal with, we must first make sure what the battle really is, understand their terms, define what they want and what the problem really is.

Otherwise, we waste valuable time and energy and leave the field of battle strewn with our blood and corpses and our questions about what we did wrong, even as they smirk and prepare another campaign in which they will again make the rules, determine the battleground and lay out the vocabulary.

If we want to wage an effective battle with Mr. Bush over Social Security, and we must, it behooves us to start by peeling back the onion and making sure what it is that Mr. Bush and his friends really have in mind. The goal is much larger and more basic than Social Security itself.

Start by reading the first 10 or 12 pages of "Don't Think of an Elephant" by George Lakoff. You'll want to read the whole 119 pages, but the first few pages will get you started on the analysis and the understanding we all need if we are to get the job done.


Then, if you don't already know about Grover Norquist, go to the Web and read some of his credentials and "credits". He is one of the most important political movers and shakers in the Republican Party, one of the chief architects of the philosophy on which the Bush Administration leaders and neocon theorists rely in developing their comprehensive goals and strategies.

And be prepared: the goals are huge and all-embracing and interlocking. So are the strategies. They are all coordinated, all of a piece.

Briefly: as president of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist has stated frequently and publicly that his goal is to turn back the clock to the year 1900, before Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressives started to develop and implement programs to improve the lives of ordinary un-wealthy citizens.

Why do Norquist and his rightwing cohorts want to return to 1900 social policy? Because Teddy Roosevelt's programs laid the groundwork for truly progressive developments under Franklin Roosevelt 30 years later: child labor laws, protection for the burgeoning labor movement, paid vacations, 40 hour weeks, unemployment insurance, banking and other financial institution regulations, workplace safety measures, government welfare to replace haphazard Lady Bountiful relief, and . . . Social Security!

Social Security was conceived as a universal benefit, paid for by workers and bosses alike, so that every person could have a minimum income in old age.

More than that: the plan included provision for the disabled, and the widows and dependent children left behind when the breadwinner was killed or died.


The goal of all this undoing of social programs, insists Mr. Norquist, is to "cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Note that Social Security is administered by the government, but it is paid for by private citizens and their employers. It is NOT taxpayer money, except in the sense that the people who pay it are taxpayers. It IS private money, paid into a common pool for the specific purpose of being paid back out to the same people who put it in. Not the same as Mr. Bush's private accounts, but certainly paid in by private citizens as insurance premiums to provide for their own and their fellow citizens' old age.

Again, remember the important steps we need always to keep in mind: 1. Let us be sure we understand what Bush and his cohorts have in mind; 2. Let us be sure we define what we mean, rather than accepting their definition; 3. Let us be sure we set our own terms for the fight, that we all adopt those terms and that vocabulary and that we adhere to a unified strategy. The right-wingers are single-minded and disciplined; so must we be.

But open the book and pay careful attention to Mr. Lakoff as he lays out: "basic principles of framing"; defines the "strict father model of the family" that utilizes an absolutist definition of right and wrong; explains the right-wing theory of the morality of pursuing self-interest and how do-gooders screw up the system; explains how social programs are regarded by the right-wingers as immoral because they make people dependent, so you must reward people who operate in their own self-interest and prosper and punish those who can't (or won't) be self-reliant. No such thing as the "deserving poor."

Therefore: Norquist and his rightist co-conspirators approve of government programs such as the military, homeland security, the courts, Treasury and Commerce, subsidies of all kinds for businesses and corporations, and disapprove of programs that take care of people.


They DO believe that this is a moral stance. They believe what fits their frame; they vote against their own self-interest when it fits their frame; they cannot be confused by facts that do not fit their frame.

All of us are familiar with and disdainful of - the Orwellian language used so freely and fluently by Bush and Rove and the rest of them. We all know how skillfully and effectively they have defined the terms and the vocabulary and the framework when they speak their lies and dissembling -- and how unskillful and ineffective we have been in our futile attempts to counter them. So?

We have to define the terms and make our case. In our terms. Using our language. Carefully avoiding their language, because if we make any reference to their terms and their language, we invoke their frame and fall into their trap. Sound like the Kerry campaign? Well, duhhhhh.

But recognizing how organized their thinking is - the millions of dollars available to their think tanks with no restrictions so that they can build their case and promote their agenda, and how all-encompassing and integrated that agenda is - we need to be aware of the tip-of-the-iceberg nature of their Social Security "reform" campaign.

1. They do not want to reform Social Security. They mean to destroy it. They want to destroy it because it is a keystone in the whole New Deal network. It may be the most difficult piece to deal with, but it is key.

2. They reward their Wall Street friends at the same time.

3. They strike a blow at the middle class as well as the poorest among us (think women left to bring up children alone after the husband and father has died in Iraq or the breadwinner disabled in an industrial accident).

4. In concert with the dismantling of Social Security, other social programs can be starved or dismantled so that lower middle class people are deprived of a safety net. Not at all hard to do. It has already started. It will become easier to do and can be done faster with the weakening of Social Security. As middle-class families drop down into the poor class, more people will become desperate and hopeless and with cuts in unemployment programs, will become willing to take menial jobs now filled by illegal immigrants.

5. Importantly, this strategy not only wages an effective war against an increasingly large segment of our population, but takes a major step toward solving the country's perceived illegal immigrant problem.

This is not a far-fetched conspiracy scenario. This is how our ultra-right fellow citizens do things: Think ahead. Think strategically. Make every move count. Coordinate every effort, every idea. It is happening. It will continue to happen, unless we recognize how unprincipled and cunning they are, and do a much more savvy job of analyzing what we can and must do to reclaim the battle.


We must make the case that justice for all our people is a moral value; that it is a moral value to make sure that all our people have adequate shelter, adequate diets, a decent standard of living; that preserving our rivers and forests and clean air is a moral value, along with all the other values that we hold dear, including readily accessible medical care, the right to make our own individual choices about our private lives. Including religion.

We must learn relearn how to fight. We must reclaim our principles as progressives.

We must remember the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. And we must swear allegiance to our heritage as Americans, as keepers of the faith, as defenders of the rights of man (and woman).

And we must say loudly and clearly to those who want to abandon all that: This is our country. You will not despoil it. You will not undo all that so many have fought and died for. We will go forward together as free men and free women, and once again stand as the bright shining hope of the world.

Marilyn Shaw is a retired fund-raiser, publicist and administrator, in social work and the performing arts, living in San Francisco and being an active volunteer. A 1944 graduate of UCLA, she is grateful to the New Deal and Social Security.


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances