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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Grown-up honesty

Campaign 2010 | Will the new Congress end the pretense that Americans can have it all regardless of cost?

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

May I be a bit transparent with you about my personal finances? I wasn't born rich, and over seven decades still haven't become a really wealthy person. So since my not-so-rich uncle arranged a couple of years ago to send me a check every month for something over $2,000, I've come to appreciate his regular stipend. It has become, I should probably admit, habit-forming.

I bring this up in a fairly public way-in these days right after a truly remarkable shift in American politics-because if the shift is to produce any meaningful change for our society, I will almost certainly have to say goodbye to at least part of my uncle's monthly check.

My not-so-rich uncle, of course, is Uncle Sam. The monthly check is my Social Security "benefit." And while Social Security is by no means the only fiscal challenge confronting our newly elected political class, it remains a close-to-home symbol of the enormous assignments now smack-dab in front of us.

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Like every social welfare program, Social Security is a symbol both of what's right about our society and of what's wrong. In terms of what's right, it speaks of our humane commitment not to let any folks among us come to the end of their productive years and then have to live out their lives in total and abject nothingness. In terms of what's wrong, it speaks of political chicanery that regularly promises more than it can actuarially deliver.

It's that combination that has been so ultimately deadly. We've wanted to believe a promise that something deep inside us says is unbelievable. Social Security, from its very beginning 75 years ago, has had its skeptics-but so long as Uncle Sam sent his monthly checks, nobody wanted to miss a good thing. If, along the way, more and more of those who were paying in said they never expected to see a single benefit, others had vague hopes that the experts could fix things before the day of reckoning arrived.

What happened in the 2010 election cycle is that the bluff got called. The American public rose up to say: "Quit lying to us. Quit pretending that we can afford everything we want. When you talk that way, we don't trust you anymore."

And they weren't speaking only to the incumbent Democrats, or primarily about Social Security. Democrats suffered voters' ire partly because they have been so egregious at making hollow promises, but maybe this time mostly because they had the misfortune of holding office just as voters were waking up. Social Security probably wasn't even on most voters' minds in this particular cycle. I mention it here because it was historically the first and biggest of the social welfare programs that prompted us as a nation to pretend we could have it all-and that we didn't have to be realistic about the costs.

It seems now to have taken the excesses of the last two or three years-the multi-trillion-dollar borrowing, the takeover of GM, the bank bail-outs, and certainly Obamacare-to shake us from our slumber and prompt that "we-don't-trust-you-anymore" response.

Which brings me back to that monthly check from my not-so-rich uncle. Do I appreciate it? Yes, of course-and especially because I paid into the system for more than 50 years! Will I be surprised if my check gets seriously chopped or even disappears over the next few years? Hardly. In fact, if properly structured, a benefit reduction might be one of the best things Washington could do right now to restore trust. It would suggest that our leaders are ready to quit snookering us and treat us with a little grown-up honesty.

They did it in France a couple of weeks ago, telling the people there they'll have to wait two years longer to retire. If the government of France can tell its people that such cutbacks are needed, the new leadership in Washington should take heart. A credible offer of 80 cents on the dollar? I'd take it in a heartbeat. Who knows? Even at an honest 60 cents, if it meant the survival of the republic were assured, it might be a very good deal.
Email Joel Belz
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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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