(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)
“The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two.” Mark Twain
Today’s mail brought my annual report from the Lord High Chamberlain of the Exchequer informing me that unless I get hyper busy and super lucky, too, and start making gobs of money so the government can tax those gobs and dump loads of loot into my Social Security account, my later years, so-called, will be mean ones, as in Not Fun. True, the scribes toiling for SS (how Naziesque that acronym) are quick to point out that no reasonable human can hope to survive on SS payments alone, that such payments are merely intended to supplement the vast sums they seem to assume we have tucked away in other income-producing niches impervious to downturns in interest rates, stock markets, housing markets, and all other known markets currently falling like lead weights dropped from leaning towers everywhere.
Indeed, the verbiage attached to the SS notice trumpeting the diminutive stipend awaiting me when I crest sixty-six, puts me in mind of the surreal fiction of Calvino and Ionesco and Pinter, their ironic humor barely softening the horror of being eaten alive by the bureaucratic mouths of our overlords. For instance, here is a badly written but highly revealing passage of SS doggerel. “If you retire early, you may not have enough income to enjoy the years ahead of you. Likewise, if you retire late, you’ll have a larger income, but fewer years to enjoy it. Everyone needs to try to find the right balance, based on his or her own circumstances.”
Try. Did you hear them? Try to find the right balance. Let me see. I know I left the right balance around here somewhere. Darn. Where did I put it? I so want to enjoy it, and by “it” I think the SS copywriter means the larger income, but (likewise) he may mean the years ahead, while I mean the right balance. Based on my circumstances. And just what are my circumstances? Well, I’m not sure. They keep changing. How strange. Are they supposed to? Keep changing? My circumstances?
Hey, maybe I could get a high-paying job writing SS brochures, a job with comprehensive government-subsidized healthcare and automatic contributions to my SS account. Here’s a sample of what I could write for them. “Life isn’t fair, you pathetic pauper. Likewise, you’d better figure out how to beat this crooked system or you’re gonna end up in deep doo doo.” Catchy, no?
When I was in my teens and twenties I knew several elderly people living adequately on no other income but the money they received from the Social Security Administration. True, those were the days when a visit to the doctor might cost you fifteen dollars, and drugs, the few we had, were cheap, food was inexpensive, rent was low, and gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon. Five per cent was about as low as interest rates on a regular savings account ever went, so if you banked some of your money, you could earn a little extra, kids were encouraged to save, to learn about saving, property taxes were reasonably high to pay for things like schools and police and fire departments; and health insurance, for those who bothered to buy it, was inexpensive. That’s how things were. Honestly.
But then things were not like that. And they are not like that now. I wonder why we and our leaders don’t go back and study, say, 1959, and see how things were structured then in terms of taxes, all the taxes, and expenditures, all the expenditures, and draw up plans to revert to some or all of that kind of taxing and spending. I don’t really wonder why. I know why. Because in 1959, corporations paid much higher taxes than they do now, and wealthy people who owned expensive houses in ritzy neighborhood paid reasonably high property taxes and were not allowed to entirely avoid paying taxes through all sorts of shelters and dodges, and a good many of the things we bought were made in America by Americans. How could we go back to that? Oh, and they had these funny things called government regulations that made it illegal for banks to lie and cheat and steal, so we wouldn’t have a repeat of the Great Depression. Imagine.
I got my first savings account in 1959 when I was ten. I got it, the savings account, because for Christmas my grandparents gave me a check for ten dollars. This was the first check I’d ever received, and it, the check, was for such a vast sum my parents thought I would be wise to open a savings account at Wells Fargo. So I did. And the very friendly woman who helped me open my account gave me a brochure written especially for children, possibly written by the father or mother of the writer who today writes the Pinteresque SS doggerel, but probably not. I remember the brochure had blue ink on glossy white paper and included a chart showing how much money I would earn if I left my ten dollars in the bank for ten years at seven per cent interest compounded daily. Are you sitting down? One hundred and sixty-five dollars.
I wrote about my new savings account and my nifty passbook and the glossy brochure and my awesome earning power in a Thank You letter to my grandparents, and my grandmother wrote back, “Imagine how much you will have if you add ten dollars a year to your account and that earns interest, too?”
Lest these memories seem maudlin and uselessly sentimental or even stupid, my point is that most of us so-called Baby Boomers grew up thinking that money saved became more money to be used later on when we needed it. The money. And that’s how we imagined Social Security operated, too. Money we put into the system would mature over the years for our eventual use. Yet here on the front page of the SS doggerel sheet accompanying the proclamation of the teensy monthly sum the government proposes to send me when I retire is the following vague and scary and infuriating statement.
“In 2016 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2037 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 76 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits. We need to resolve these issues soon to make sure Social Security continues to provide a foundation of protection for future generations.”
I’m not making this crap up. Somebody, possibly a college graduate, was paid good swiftly deflating money to write that vague and scary crap, and it, the crap, was sent to every sucker in America with a Social Security number. And who exactly is the We who needs to resolve these issues? And what are those issues? Let’s see, I may have a list of them, the issues that need resolving, wherever I misplaced my right balance based on my ever-changing circumstances.
Could SS be implying that you and I have wasted trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that you and I have spent several other trillions bailing out banks that won’t pay even one per cent interest on my savings, let alone seven per cent? Are they suggesting that you and I have given untold trillions in subsidies to big earth-gobbling corporations? I think they are. I think they are implying that we, you and I, are the cause of all those unresolved issues they neglected to be more specific about. And that’s why my puny little stipend is in danger of declining and disappearing before I even get any of it. The stipend. Because I can’t find the right balance.
Maybe I should see a doctor (though if I do they’ll almost certainly raise my already usurious health insurance rates.) But maybe it, going to a doctor, would be worth it (the certain increase in my insurance rates) because the obscenely profitable pharmaceutical cartel may have developed a drug for it. Our imbalance. Something to instill equilibrium in the corpus and stimulate the memory so we can remember where we left the right balance and the list of issues we (you and I) need to resolve to keep SS from going belly up, but likewise not so stimulating a drug that we remember to tax the b’jeezus out of the super wealthy.
Todd’s taxable creations are on display at UnderTheTableBooks.com.