The Fate’s Lieutenant

Last week the proposal by the co-chairs of the president’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform reverberated on down the mass media echo chamber. They called for substantial cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, among other things that would undermine our basic standard of living.

The media saturation was intense. Even for casual news-watchers it was like being herded into a “captive audience meeting,” one of those smarmy PR jobs that company bosses hire out to consultants, who tell the workers through a microphone why they don’t need a union.

The proposals of the co-chairs are ambitious. They would re-make the United States of America as a place not only without unions, but largely without a middle class: leaving on one side low-wage workers (who foot the bill for their own benefits), and on the other side the super-rich, with precious few in the middle.

The editors at our local paper, the Albany Times Union went ahead and amplified the message, accepting it rather than holding it up to scrutiny. Starting with the premise that “the country needs to confront what it would take to stabilize the accumulation of the federal debt,” they uncritically embraced the co-chairs’ proposal, concluding that “Every one of its provisions deserves serious consideration.” They even supported the messenger, although in a backhanded way:

Hardly an unreasonable plan, even as it’s advanced by the likes of Mr. Simpson, who’s previously likened Social Security to a giant mammary gland and called its recipients “greedy geezers.”

Republican co-chair of the president’s commission, Alan Simpson is a conservative Republican fossil. His counterpart, Erskine Bowles, is a conservative Democratic Party dinosaur. What they share, besides being millionaires whose “public service” helped to enhance their immense personal fortunes, are failed ideas that ought to remain extinct. But here they are, the president’s appointees.

What to say? Well, if you want fossilized, vengeful and smarmy at center stage, then Alan Simpson is your man, Mr. President.

*

Back in June Mr. Simpson unhinged upon Alex Lawson of Social Security Works with an expletive-laced rant. Simpson was full of personal insults yet vacant of facts, rambling on.

When economist James K. Galbraith, professor of government at The University of Texas, gave his must-read testimony to the deficit commission, he cited that rant as evidence of Simpson’s incompetence. Galbraith questioned the legitimacy of the commission and demanded that the body advance no proposals.

Then in September Simpson stuck his foot into his mouth again with the line the Times Union editors mentioned, calling Social Security – “a milk cow with 310 million -” … udders. (You can figure out the profanity Simpson used.)

The National Organization for Women immediately responded, saying that Simpson’s quip amounted to a crass insult “to those who depend on Social Security – many of them older women, children and people with disabilities.” Soon afterward NOW President Terry O’Neill delivered over 1,500 baby bottle nipples, sent by NOW members from across the country, to Mr. Simpson.

I love Terry O’Neill. She is so courageous and unflappable. You can see her with Simpson on YouTube. As she hands her “gift” to Mr. Simpson, she smiles and says it is given “in the spirit of hoping that you’ll have the decency to resign.” She then presses Simpson for a pledge not to cut Social Security benefits. He acquits himself badly. As he tries to dodge and dismiss Ms. O’Neill, Simpson seems ever more cadaveric and sarcastic and ultimately furious.

Last week as the media echoed Bowles and Simpson’s proposals, particular delight focused on Alan Simpson’s rhetoric. The Times Union editors joined in. Here’s their lead:

Leave it to Alan Simpson, so blunt and irreverent, to set the tone for the debate that America has avoided for far too long.

A particularly illuminating Simpson quote was noted in the Wall Street Journal (and elsewhere):

“We have harpooned every whale in the ocean and some of the minnows,” said co-chairman Alan Simpson, a retired Wyoming Republican senator. “No one has ever done that before.”

Who does Alan Simpson think he is? Captain Ahab?

Like the captain of The Pequod, the ship in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, the retired Wyoming senator lusts after a monomaniacal purpose – in this case, to send the middle class to the bottom, by raising the retirement age, slashing social spending, further privatizing Medicare, privatizing Social Security, taxing health insurance benefits and lowering the tax rate for corporations.

With unemployment at nearly 10% officially – and unofficially twice that – with health care costs sinking us all, with two-income households the norm and two, even three jobs for many workers a necessity, an alternative vision stands in plain sight yet scarcely makes the news. Nicholas Kristof proved this rule with an exceptional column last week titled “A Hedge Fund Republic?” He reminded us that the poorer 90 percent of people in the United States own only 29 percent of the wealth, while the wealthiest 1 percent own an even greater share, 34 percent of the total.

When the top 10 percent possess more than two-thirds of total holdings, it is time to increase taxes on the rich. We could easily afford to shorten the workweek with no cut in pay and also lower the retirement age – and each of these would put millions of people to work. We can also extend and improve Medicare to cover all necessary care for everyone, from birth, something that would save hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan would not only save trillions of dollars, but human lives.

As for Social Security, only the first $106,800 of income is taxed for the Social Security fund. Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson point out that if this cap were scrapped, and all income was taxed at the present rate, benefits could be raised across the board and Social Security would be assured solvency for 75 years to come. As it is, there is no immediate crisis in Social Security funding. Well, then, let’s scrap the cap!

*

At the end of Moby Dick only the young sailor Ishmael survives, afloat on a coffin. But along the way the first mate, Starbuck, suggests to the revenge-crazed captain that he has got the great whale all wrong. Ironically, today “Starbucks” (named for Melville’s tragic character) has become a designer coffee-shop that symbolizes a middle-class lifestyle rich with lattes and car payments, i-Pods and consumer credit debts.

Although partisan differences loudly dominate when it comes to the TV, we have seen a bipartisan commitment to privatize profit and socialize risk, as President Bush and then President Obama both rushed to rescue Wall Street’s financiers and their insurers and bankers, instead of the debtors.

Now Alan Simpson, Mr. Obama’s appointee, wants “to harpoon every whale in the ocean” even if it means we all go down with the ship. For the co-captains of the deficit commission the credo is no longer E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”), but “I’ve got mine – you swim for it!”

Isn’t it simply absurd to hear retired millionaires like Simpson and Bowles, whose families grew wealthy at taxpayer expense, telling the people of the United States that they live too long to be allowed to retire at age 65? The very idea should be laughed off the stage, not championed and not echoed.

There is still hope, for in reality they have not harpooned any whales. All they’ve really done is issue a report and attend some press events. Yet as the media, including this newspaper, chooses to parrot Simpson’s maniacal ravings, we find ourselves like Starbuck and Ishmael, captive audience aboard The Pequod.

*
*

Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries; —aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office,— to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I it. Yet is there hope. Time and tide flow wide.

– Starbuck, in Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851).