Capital Letters: Intergenerational Work

In which our man in Washington engages Social Security, searches for interns, and contemplates incriminating stains

Subj: Social Security on the Potomac
Date: Thu, Jul 30, 1998 3:35 PM EDT

While much of D.C. and America was focused on Friday's shooting at the Capitol, your humble correspondent and his summer sidekick stuck to our more mundane policy beat Monday. After meeting in the office and fueling up on Au Bon Pain (oh what a pain) Guatemalan-blend coffee, which strives for the burnt taste of Starbucks but, like its price, falls a little shy, and a sourdough (hey, it's not New York) sesame-seed bagel, we hopped in a cab to the FDR Memorial.

We weren't sightseeing on company time. (One of the advantages of Washington is all the history and Americana one can absorb in the course of a daily routine. I play softball by the Vietnam Memorial; jog past Theodore Roosevelt Island, voted most underappreciated monument by The Weekly Standard's editorial staff; and lunch in Lafayette Park across from the White House, where my mind's eye speculates on what actually happens at intern central, and then recoils at the sight.) We were headed to a Save Social Security rally sponsored by the National Council for Senior Citizens, a group which, last I heard, was 96 percent funded by the U.S. government, with the other 4 percent rumored to come from
the Kremlin. The world hasn't gone their way of late: They've suffered a 4 percent budget cut.

It's no secret that supporters of the current Social Security system are worried that they got caught flatfooted as right-wing think tanks, a Harvard professor, and their own Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan started to seduce the public with the prospect of actually amassing wealth, rather than promises from government, with investment-based Social Security. Catch-up requires a massive miseducation campaign aimed at captive audiences, meaning editorial boards and union members. We were about to witness an event featuring the latter.

The rally was underway by the time we arrived (the bagel took longer to eat than I expected). I took my last swill of coffee and headed into the center of the crowd with my notebook and tape recorder--the tools of ignorance, as my old man used to call my catcher's gear--ready to record the events. A gray-topped lady appeared to be kicking off the rally. She assured the audience, which was composed of people who didn't need to take vacation days to pursue their political activism, that all the speakers were screened for certain criteria. "They have to know what life was like before Social Security, and they have to have fire in the belly," I think I heard her read rather quietly.

The AFL-CIO's John Sweeney was up next. Now here's a man who cares about Social Security. He cares about it enough to launch directly into class warfare with Jesse Jacksonesque rhyme, if not cadences. The theme of the day, expressed appropriately on just about everyone's head, was "Raise the Cap, Close the Gap," which is an allusion to the fact that Americans pay FICA taxes--yes, Sweeney called them "taxes," not contributions--only on the first $64,000 or so of their income. Privatization, according to Sweeney, is the "greedy few attempting to take from the deserving many." And the greedy few don't confine their malevolent avarice to destroying Social Security, nor does Sweeney confine his rhymes to retirement themes. According to Sweeney, the right wing--which may mean anyone with a nonunion job--wants to "voucherize, privatize, and pauperize education."

I bounced around the crowd, seeking shade, distance from the speaker blaring Sweeney's wisdom, and people to interview. Sweeney's exhortations to action weren't eliciting much passion. Part of the problem was the location. The FDR Memorial, like your humble correspondent's abode, is in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's landing path. So every few minutes, Sweeney would stop ranting as the welcome sound of jet engines displaced his wisdom in my ears.

There weren't enough landing clearances, as far as I was concerned, to adequately disrupt the next speaker, introduced to the crowd as the Independent--but known to REASON editors as the socialist--congressman from Vermont: Bernie Sanders. Bernie, happy to be in front of an audience that shared his pre-World War II view of the world, blathered on for quite some time. He inveighed against the injustice of forcing people to shell out a $5.00 co-payment for home health visits and assured the audience that the Social Security Administration, if nothing is changed, could write checks for another 34 years, which extended further than the planning horizons of most people in the audience.

By this time, your humble correspondent was working the crowd, attempting to figure out where people came from, what they did, and why they were here. A retired nurse from Philadelphia knew what she wanted: "no privatization." Don and Dot Davis, recently transplanted from Michigan to South Carolina, said the "fat cats on Wall Street have enough money." They were especially concerned about their "fat cat" representative, Mark Sanford, who they claimed is one of the people who pay no taxes and are pushing for privatizing Social Security. They were planning to discuss it with him later in his office, although they didn't expect it to help.

George W. Banks, a retired international representative of the United Steel Workers, hit on an ingenious theme for why we need Social Security: It's not, in REASON Contributing Editor Jack Pitney's formulation, about gray socialism; it's about baby blue socialism. [See "The Colors of Socialism," June 1997.] Said Banks, "We have many children who are sick and injured who would be dropped out of the system if it was privatized." He shared a bus with 40 Ohio citizens who shared his concern for children.

The crowd wasn't all elderly. Three students--Logan Jones (ninth grade), Lakia Rutherford (12th grade), and Elan Fenderson (eighth grade), were down from Boston, where they were spending the summer doing "intergenerational" work funded by a private grant secured through their church. "Intergenerational work," I thought to myself. "Hell, pick up a phone and call your grandma. If you want to be an activist, go visit her."

Now your humble correspondent has always had an interest in both the old and young, thinking there is much to be learned from both, which is why this event interested me. We didn't confine our conversation to Social Security. Logan wants to attend Florida State University, where he plans to run track. I was concerned about the humidity, but it doesn't seem to worry him. Lakia, eschewing Harvard because "there's too much pressure," plans to head to Atlanta for college at the urging of her mother. It's too early for Elan to pick a school. They planned to visit the White House, for which Lakia said her friends called her "crazy." And despite Friday's tragedy, they were counting on heading over to the Hill before boarding a bus back to Boston on Wednesday.

These kids take Social Security seriously. Lakia, the triumvirate's oldest and most articulate, analogized the stock market to gambling, although that's were she plans to put her extra money. And she understands Social Security isn't perfect. She complained that her grandmother, who's on Social Security and needs the money, is shorted by the system because "they take out so much money that she really doesn't have much money to do with it at the end." Lakia told me, "I want to get more money."

Well, Lakia, the "they" is the government, and the money it takes we call "taxes." She's well on her way to being a libertarian.

Speaking of intergenerational work, while I headed back to REASON's D.C. headquarters just a block away from the White House, my summer sidekick followed the rally to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the NCSC was holding another rally before turning its 44 busloads of seniors loose to lobby the Hill. He filed a report for Citings.

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    It sounds like Lakia is there to protect Social Security for her grandma. Where do we get the money for Social Security? Taxes. Of course, she wants those checks to have less taxes taken out. But we need the taxes that "they" collect to make Social Security happen. I doubt she would take a libertarian anti-tax stance in order to somehow increase the benefits that her grandma reaps from taxes.

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