‘Every man for himself’ leaves poor stranded

Keith Urbahn’s “Putting the torch to a culture of entitlement” (3/23) rejects Social Security as providing “license for mediocrity” and attempts to paint privatization-minded conservatives as the next generation of Che Guevaras. But in advocating the creation of a euphemistically termed “ownership society,” Urbahn implicitly condones greater inequality in the division of wealth, as well as a culture of selfish individualism.

President Bush’s privatization proposals, championed by Urbahn, are a shameful charade that even the White House admits will do nothing to improve the legendary program’s finances (Associated Press, Feb. 4). Exploiting Social Security’s legitimate need for reform, President Bush is campaigning for the enrichment of this country’s establishment and a culture of every-man-for-himself — while trying to pass it off as “individual responsibility.”

The United States has the most unequal division of wealth of any industrialized society in the world. As articulated by prominent NYU economist Edward Wolff in 2001, the top 1 percent of Americans own about a third of the nation’s wealth, and the top 5 percent own almost 60 percent. On the reverse side, 95 percent of the American people are living on just 40 percent of the wealth — and, in fact, even this is concentrated in the middle class: The bottom 60 percent of Americans own only 4.3 percent of the wealth. Conservatives might suggest that this is simply because the rich work harder than the poor, or even that the rich are just more “responsible.” In fact, it is because American conservatives are consciously pushing to enrich the country’s wealthy, the Republican Party’s only logical base and the source of its political war chests.

In his column, Urbahn blames the poor exclusively for their own situation, comparing poverty to a “personal indiscretion” like obesity or smoking. Dismissing programs like affirmative action, Medicaid and Medicare with, “The government hands out, and predictably, the people take,” Urbahn claims such programs bleed the budget and foster feelings of undue entitlement in the greedy general population. Instead, he hopes to transform “those with little stake in society into the motivated owners of Wall Street stocks, health insurance accounts and homes.” Such elitist logic associates ownership with motivation, and by implication, lack of ownership with laziness and weak moral character. This is typical of the self-interested and shortsighted outlook which renders the Republican Party’s claims to national moral leadership astoundingly hollow. Unless those on the right are willing to remove all the privileges of birth that rich people feel entitled to — like consideration of alumni status in admission decisions, or even job connections — they should be quiet about the “entitlement” of the disadvantaged. Republicans claim to want “equal opportunity” — well, that’s exactly what federally guaranteed entitlement programs work toward.

Allowing citizens to divert some of their Social Security funds into private stock and bond accounts will only accelerate the wealth divide and speed up the final collapse of the great pension program. If there’s not enough money for current retirees, how will the vast divergence of funds from the system help? In addition, it is the wealthy — those least in need of Social Security — who will be the primary beneficiaries of these “reforms.” The input of billions of dollars into the stock market will inflate the value of the market, profiting the wealthy, who already own the majority of the stocks. The educated and the wealthy are the ones with the knowledge and resources necessary to maximize these stock market funds. The vast majority of Americans will need financial help to invest and manage this money; it’s practically a criminal payout to Wall Street.

Urbahn suggests that “everyone should be afforded the dignity of investment and the rights that wealthier citizens have long enjoyed.” Well, I’m a capitalist too, but I do not share this zealous belief in the healing power of the almighty dollar, nor do I trust vast corporate conglomerates with guaranteeing my retirement. When push comes to shove, Wall Street and the Fortune 500 have consistently shown that they have their own interests at heart (remember Enron?). We need to preserve the intrinsic and equitable nature of Social Security; namely, government-managed and -guaranteed mandatory savings for every American. Bush’s reforms are a first step toward dismantling the entirety of Social Security and replacing it with a government-sponsored lining for the pockets of America’s wealthiest citizens. President Bush and hard-line conservatives have never liked Social Security and its “socialist” overtones, so why would anyone believe this insincere rhetoric now?

If President Bush were interested in improving the fortunes of the average American, he would invest in real education and real health care, the building blocks of legitimate and sustainable economic growth. The privatization of Social Security, on the other hand, is self-interested, iniquitous legislation, and it should be realized as such.



Peter Hamilton is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

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