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Print view: When conservatives say the trust fund ain't real, you should just name Ronald Reagan
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FIRST, NAME RONALD REAGAN! When conservatives say the trust fund ain’t real, you should just name Ronald Reagan: // link // print // previous // next //

No R-, X- or I-bombs for Dean: However a person may choose to proceed, we thought Howard Dean’s statement about Park51 made perfect sense. Other positions make sense too—though some make less sense than others. (We refer to Dean’s written response to Glenn Greenwald, which can be read here. Scroll down to Update IV.)

That said, we’ve been struck by the lack of R-, X-, I-, N-, H- or B-bombs directed at Dean and Harry Reid—each of whom has said that the Park51 project might do well at a different address. A new, softer bomb has been thrown at these men—who are, after all, in the tribe.

Before we consider the things Dean said, let’s consider a front-page report from today’s New York Times.

Paul Vitello interviewed New York City Muslims, seeking their views on the project. On balance, we think the views expressed by these average people are more sophisticated than the loud, screeching views being voiced by us bomb-wielding “liberals.”

What do Vitello’s subjects think about the project? Different people think different things. But as he opened, Vitello quoted one these Gotham Muslims employing a strange word—“compromise:”

VITELLO (8/20/10): In the storm of anger and accusation over an Islamic center and mosque planned near ground zero, one thing seems clear to Laique Khan: His fellow Muslims have a right to build the project. “If this really is a free country,” said Mr. Khan, 56, the manager of a trucking company in Brooklyn, “then, by all rights you must, you must, allow it.”

The same holds true for Pervaz Akhtar, a tailor who keeps a shop a few blocks from the center’s site—and who lost his first shop and nearly his life in the Sept. 11 attacks. “There is a principle involved,” Mr. Akhtar, 58, said. “We believe in the American Constitution.”

Yet with equal confidence, both men…embrace a seemingly contradictory conviction about the center: It does not have to be two blocks from the site of the attacks.

“If they want to put it 10 blocks away, that’s fine,” Mr. Akhtar said. “I believe in compromise, too.”

Khan and Akhtar are willing to move the site! Perhaps we white liberals can unsheathe our newest bomb, bombing these fellows as Reid and Dean have been bombed, deriding the pair as “cowards.”

In our judgment, and we quote Richard Nixon: We could do it—but it would be wrong.

Different people will think different things about the best way to proceed in this matter—although it turns out that this project has no funding, no architect and no discernible game plan. (This doesn’t make its backers bad people. It may mean they aren’t super-savvy.) But throughout his article, Vitello speaks to Gotham Muslims who understand something we white liberals don’t—they understand that, inevitably, projects like this have political dimensions.

From redoubts in South America, white liberals drop B-bombs all over the land, though they won’t have to live with the consequences of a high-profile project which is handled poorly on a political basis. In New York City, with nowhere to hide, others seem more savvy. Some even said they understood the other side’s feelings—an approach which is forbidden within the war councils of our high-minded liberal tribe:

VITELLO (continuing directly): The debate over building a Muslim community center so close to where terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed more than 2,700 people has attracted the intense views of political and religious leaders, victims’ families and pundits. But the outcome could have its most lasting impact on the estimated 600,000 Muslim residents in New York and its suburbs.

Many of them expressed a welter of mixed feelings in interviews this week on street corners, in stores and in mosques: Some said they felt embittered or hurt by criticism of the project, and of Islam in general, yet understood opponents’ misgivings. Others said Muslim-Americans should continue to push for the center’s construction as a means of asserting their full citizenship rights—but not too hard, lest they draw even more resentment. A few said they wished the project had never been proposed in the first place.

Unlike us lofty white liberals, these are the people who will live with the consequences if this project “draws even more resentment.” According to Vitello, some of these Muslims said they “understood opponents’ misgivings,” a bit of wisdom which will never intrude on white liberals’ self-impressed musings. Some said the project shouldn’t be pushed too hard; they worried about possible blowback. Others, reviewing the ongoing turmoil, “wished the project had never been proposed in the first place”—wished the project had never been born.

Shall we get our C-bombs out and drop them on these miscreants’ heads? As Vitello continued, he quoted a man who has more understanding than most of the aggressive liberals whose musings we’ve read this week:

VITELLO (continuing directly): Malik Nadeem Abid, an insurance agent whose storefront window on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn framed a steady stream of men walking to pray at the mosque next door, said he was “not a big fan” of the decision by the Cordoba Initiative, a Muslim group that promotes interfaith cooperation, to build the center near ground zero.

“It was not a politically smart move, from my perspective,” said Mr. Abid, 45. “No one wants a center in downtown Manhattan that stands as a permanent fixture of this terrible tension.”

Yet the decision has been made, he said, “and we can’t let the loudest voices dictate what happens.” Still, he added, if the center were built 5 or 10 blocks away, as some people have proposed, “I don’t think it would matter very much.”

This is not unlike what Howard Dean said. Let’s consider what Abid means when he says this project, as it has unfolded, “was not a politically smart move.”

We assume that Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Rauf, is a good, well-intentioned person. Back in December, she appeared on the O’Reilly Factor and explained her view of the project, including her view of its proposed site. Why locate so close to ground zero? Khan explained to guest host Laura Ingraham:

INGRAHAM (12/21/09): Let's talk about the Islamic center at Ground Zero. Questions—I can't find many people who really have a problem with it. Bloomberg, for it. Rabbis in New York saying they don't have a problem with it. Why near Ground Zero? Why did you choose that space?

KHAN: Well, I think the closeness of the center to Ground Zero, first and foremost, is a blow to the extremists. And you know, we Muslims are really fed up, Laura, with having to be defined by the actions of the extremists. You know, we are law-abiding citizens. We are faithful people. We are very good Americans. And we need to project a different message of Islam, one of tolerance, love and the kind of commonalities we have with different faith communities.

And the center will be dedicated to promoting what it needs to be Muslim and what it also means to be Americans, and that is the real message that needs to get out.

Khan missed the chance to establish a point—the project isn’t “at” ground zero. Despite this, Ingraham was buying. “I know your group takes a moderate approach to Americanizing people, assimilating people, which I applaud. I think that's fantastic,” she said in reply. Asked about the views of some Muslims in other parts of the world, Khan again explained the location:

KHAN: Well, once again, our faith has been defined by people who have political agendas. And what they do is they use religion as a veneer to mobilize people. And what we have to do is talk about what is the central core of all faiths, which is the love of God. And this is a message, and this is why we want to create a center so close to Ground Zero: to promote a different message, one that most—a majority of Muslims live.

In our view, that’s a great idea—except when it isn’t, which may include the current instance.

Khan said the site’s propinquity to ground zero would help promote a message of inclusion and common values. So far, something quite different has occurred. A gang of crackpots has roamed the land, dissembling about Khan and her husband and spreading ugly messages about Islam and Muslims. They have misstated the project’s location; they have misstated the views of its backers. They have engaged in notably ugly conduct, indiscriminately comparing Muslims to Nazis and engaging in rank forms of hate speech. In a city with a savvier mayor, this problem might have been foreseen—even before the Ingraham interview, when Bloomberg was already on board. Savvy steps might have been taken to pave the way for this project—or to move it to a different location before the demagoguery started. This is what is typically done in projects all over the country—indeed, all over the world. Such foresight can even be found on Long Island, as Vitello reports:

VITELLO: [The possibility of misunderstandings] was exactly the concern of Ahmed Habeeb, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island, in Westbury. He recently reached out to neighbors and the police through the local news media with a special appeal: Because the festivities marking the end of Ramadan this year will occur close to Sept. 11, Mr. Habeeb asked that residents not misinterpret the party atmosphere at the mosque on that final evening, when more than 1,000 people are expected to share a meal and exchange gifts.

“It will not mean that we are celebrating the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “It sounds strange to have to say this, I know. But in this climate you can’t be too careful.”

Like many Muslims asked about the center near ground zero, Mr. Habeeb said he was tired of talking about it, and would be happier if it had never been conceived. “If I were in charge, I would probably rethink the whole thing for the sake of communal harmony,” he said. “But there are risks in backing off.”

Habeeb, who must be a very bad man, “would probably rethink the whole thing for the sake of communal harmony.” But in his own case, he has tried to head off misunderstandings by taking pre-emptive measures. Unfortunately, New York City didn’t have a mayor who foresaw the potential problems with the Park51 (nee Cordoba House) project; Gotham’s mayor may be a decent person, but he isn’t especially savvy. All next week, we’ll be writing about this mayor’s blunders with his city’s public schools, a subject you’ll never see discussed by your liberal news orgs, whose editors and producers wouldn’t stoop to discussing black and brown kids if you kidnapped their grandmothers and began to murder them one at a time. (Quick news flash: Professional liberals don’t care about the interests of black and brown kids. They’re too busy name-calling bigots.) Mayor Bloomberg may be extremely well-intentioned in this matter; we grew up one town away from his home town of Medford, Mass.; though we are a bit younger than Bloomberg, we well recall the open anti-Semitism described in this fascinating report. But Bloomberg didn’t lay the groundwork which might have helped this project proceed in the way its sponsors intended. As a result, the demagogues seized control of the day, as they usually do when we liberals are involved. Khan and Rauf have had their vision turned upside down and dumped down hard on their heads.

To borrow a word from President Obama, where does the “wisdom” lie at this juncture? Howard Dean said the wisdom may lie in finding a different location. Thundering from Seattle and Rio, the Kinsleys and the Greenwalds can see nothing but “bigotry” here.

The childishness of the “liberal world” is stamped all over the sad discussion which has emerged from this mess. According to Vitello, some Muslims in New York City “understand opponents’ misgivings,” but this approach is forbidden to us, who are mainly skilled at naming bigots, and putting everyone in that group who doesn’t see things exactly like us. (In the real world, feelings of victims are often deferred to, even when such feelings don’t perfectly parse. But we white liberals aren’t in the real world, we muse from the campus of the world’s richest man, where we’ve been kept all these years.) And as always, we liberals fail to catalog our own massive failures of insight and wisdom; we turn instead to our various bombs. Even Dean, suggesting compromise, played this predictable, ham-handed game. He doesn’t seem to leave home without it:

DEAN (8/17/10): Here is my case. First, no one who understands the American Constitution can reasonably doubt the right of the builders to build. Secondly, the building site is very close to the site of a violent tragedy that seared the soul of every American including Muslim Americans. Thirdly, the builders of the proposed Islamic Center say they want to help heal the nation and there is a preponderance of evidence that that is true, based not least on the fact that the last administration viewed the leadership of this group as a. pro American bridge to the Muslim world.

Fourth, there are many Americans, about 65 or 70 percent, including many family members of the victims, who have very strong emotional resistance to building on this site. Some of them may have other feelings such as hate, fear, etc. but the vast majority of these people are not right wing hate mongers.

As a general matter, we would agree with Dean; we would assume that the vast majority of those who oppose this project are not “hate mongers.” But in the world of this upper-class Yankee, you can’t talk about “hate-mongers” without saying “right-wing” first. It’s a ham-handed, ludicrous tribal imperative—by definition, hate only comes from the other tribe! Thus expressing his own brand of hate, Dean helps define the world of the liberal hater and bigot.

Many very pious liberals say the sponsors should stand and fight. These are always matters of judgment, of course—though we liberals show few signs of knowing. We will only note this point: These extremely high-minded people won’t be the ones who pay the price when the demagogues overwhelm us feckless liberals, as they inevitably do, given our lack of skill.

It feels very good to throw B-bombs around, often from a distant preserve. By way of contrast, Vitello spoke to people on the ground. He spoke to the people who will be at ground zero if we liberals fail in our politics, as we always do.

In Vitello’s report, those average people express a range of views about the best way to proceed in this matter. In the main, they display a vastly more complex understanding than white liberals have been displaying—a much more advanced set of viewpoints about the real work of the world.

Special report: The thirty-year itch!

PART 4—FIRST, NAME RONALD REAGAN (permalink): For the past thirty years, all discussion of Social Security has taken place within a hall of mirrors. This hall has had two primary builders: Pseudo-conservative disinformation, and sprawling “liberal” incompetence.

The hall of mirrors still exists; this recent Gallup survey bears tribute to its massive distortions. According to Gallup’s report, “Six in 10 Americans who have not yet retired believe they will get no Social Security benefits when they retire.” This means that voters are “more pessimistic than at any time since Gallup began asking this question in 1989.”

How powerful is our hall of mirrors—the one our “liberal intellectual leaders” helped build? Incredibly, Americans voiced those unfortunate views in the face of what Paul Krugman recently wrote. As a basic point of departure, let’s recall his (unremarkable) words:

KRUGMAN (8/16/10): Social Security has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, banking those surpluses in a special account, the so-called trust fund. The program won’t have to turn to Congress for help or cut benefits until or unless the trust fund is exhausted, which the program’s actuaries don’t expect to happen until 2037—and there’s a significant chance, according to their estimates, that that day will never come.

Say what? Benefit cuts won’t be needed for twenty-seven years—and such cuts may never be needed? Read Krugman, then ponder that Gallup survey. In the combination of those documents, you see the shape of “liberal” failure over the past thirty years. By the tens of millions, voters have been skillfully conned into thinking this program may go “bankrupt.” Our loveable losers—the Dionnes, the Kinsleys, the Riches—have snored, dozed, gamboled and lived the good life all through this thirty-year scam.

Cuts to this program are back on the table, as Krugman notes in his recent column. It’s highly unlikely that we liberals will bother trying to educate the rubes; in the liberal scheme, the rubes exist for the purpose of being called bigots. That said, if you want to know how to help a friend scratch this thirty-year itch, we’ll make a few more suggestions:

Long-term outlook: Remember—barring national meltdown or nuclear war, Social Security will never “go broke” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/17/10). Payroll taxes will always roll in; benefit checks will always go out. At some point in the future, it may be necessary to reduce promised benefits by some amount, or to direct new revenue to the program. But even given the trustees’ conservative economic forecasts, this won’t happen until 2037. And once again, here’s the key idea: The program will never “go broke.”

In the past thirty years, this key idea has rarely been voiced by liberals, producing those Gallup results.

The function of the trust fund: Alas! While it’s easy to explain the long-term situation, the short-term situation has long been confused by claims about Social Security’s trust fund. People have heard, for many years, that the trust fund is “just an accounting fiction.” (The money isn’t there—it’s already been spent!) In a recent interview, Sharron Angle blamed this scam on Harry Reid, repeatedly claiming that Reid has “raided and pillaged the trust fund.” Confusing, skilled claims about the trust fund have been recited for years.

Such claims produce a problem. If the trust fund is a fiction—if the money has already been spent—it can’t supplement payroll taxes through 2037, maintaining promised benefits. Our suggestion on the logic: In explaining this matter, liberals should start with Ronald Reagan. Our first, second, third and fourth explanations should all go something like this:

The system has been working exactly the way Ronald Reagan designed it!

What role does Reagan play in this? To all intents and purposes, the trust fund was established in 1983, as part of the Social Security reform created under Reagan. (These reforms were devised by a commission chaired by Alan Greenspan. The commission was loaded with Democrats.) From that day right up to this, the trust fund has been used exactly as Reagan and Greenspan designed it—with the help of major Democrats, like Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Wikipedia’s account of this matter is close enough for government work. In the following passages, you read about a program which has been executed exactly as it was planned in 1983. No subsequent pillage or scam has occurred; there was no later nefarious conduct. Despite decades of conservative disinformation, no subsequent tricks were ever played with the Gipper’s quite sensible plan:

WIKIPEDIA: In 1982, projections indicated that the Social Security Trust Fund would run out of money by 1983, and there was talk of the system being unable to pay benefits. The National Commission on Social Security Reform [NCSSR], chaired by Alan Greenspan, was created to address the crisis.


The [Greenspan commission] recommended enacting a six-month delay in the COLA and changing the tax-rate schedules for the years between 1984 and 1990. It also proposed an income tax on the Social Security benefits of higher-income individuals. This meant that benefits in excess of a household income threshold, generally $25,000 for singles and $32,000 for couples (the precise formula computes and compares three different measures) became taxable. These changes were important for generating revenue in the short term.

Also of concern was the long-term prospect for Social Security because of demographic considerations. Of particular concern was the issue of what would happen when people born during the post-World War II baby boom retired. The NCSSR made several recommendations for addressing the issue. Under the 1983 amendments to Social Security, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, a previously-enacted increase in the payroll tax rate was accelerated, additional employees were added to the system, the full-benefit retirement age was slowly increased, and up to one-half of the value of the Social Security benefit was made potentially taxable income.


As a result of these changes, particularly the tax increases, the Social Security system began to generate a large short-term surplus of funds, intended to cover the added retirement costs of the "baby boomers." Congress invested these surpluses into special series, non-marketable U.S. Treasury securities held by the Social Security Trust Fund. Under the law, the government bonds held by Social Security are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government…There has been significant disagreement over whether the Social Security Trust Fund has been saved, or has been used to finance other government programs and other tax cuts.

In that last sentence, Wikipedia refers to the endless, hopelessly muddled discussions about whether the trust fund is “real” or just an “accounting fiction.” Ignore those questions for the moment. Whenever people start suggesting that the trust has been “looted,” “raided” or “already spent,” liberals should start at the beginning:

The use of the trust find (the use of those annual surpluses) has proceeded just as Reagan directed.

Claims that the trust fund “doesn’t exist” normally come from the right. When conservatives make these claims, they routinely suggest that some sort of nefarious conduct has occurred in the years since 1983, when Reagan (and Greenspan) passed tax increases, thus “generat[ing] a large short-term surplus of funds, intended to cover the added retirement costs of the baby boomers.”

Bamboozled respondents to Gallup’s survey have heard such claims for decades—but such claims or insinuations are false. And so, before other words are said, such critics should be brought back to the start: The use of the trust find has proceeded exactly as Reagan directed. No one came along after the fact and pulled any tricks. Congress has “invested these surpluses into…U.S. Treasury securities,” in precisely the way the program was designed.

If you don’t like the way those surplus funds have been used, you simply don’t like Ronald Reagan.

This is just the start of a response to the trust fund bamboozle. Tremendous energy has been invested in making Americans voters believe that there is something odd about the process which created this so-called fund. In fact, the story is simple, and here it is: In the past three decades, the United States government has borrowed lots of money, from many different sources. It has borrowed money from the Social Security trustees (those pre-planned over-payments). It has borrowed money from big Chinese banks, and from many other sources.

You may not like the fact of this borrowing, but this borrowing has occurred. And guess what? The money all gets paid back! No one will ever tell those Chinese banks, “Sorry, we can’t pay you back. The money isn’t there –it’s already been spent!” But the loans from those payroll tax over-payments are no different from the loans from the Chinese. The money was borrowed, just as Reagan designed. And now, it will all be paid back.

Decades of aggressive, skilled effort have gone into that Gallup result. The conservative world invented a series of slick, slippery scams—and the liberal world slept in the sun. The fruit of that pairing can be seen in the numbers who think they won’t ever see any benefits. It may also be seen, in coming months, in new cuts to the program.

Sixty percent of Gallup respondents said they would never get any benefits! People like that are ripe for the slaughter—and decades of skilled, unrebutted disinformation went into preparing the feast. That said, we liberals have remarkable skill at failing to see how things really work. Nothing to look at, Digby said. The young people always say that!