Monday, February 21, 2005

Peter Newton: The S.S. Scam Sinks

A Report on Kolbe's Social Security Town Hall prepared for the Concord Coalition:


The meeting was an effort to inform the public of the reform, not yet enacted, of Social Security. The fact that law hasn't enacted did not seem to matter; it was a fait accomplis. Any questions challenging this supposition were dismissed as the product of disgruntled Democrats who are not willing to accept the fact that President Bush won and thus has a right to pass the legislation he wants, regardless of the opposition. Congressman Kolbe alluded to this sentiment in his comments to KVOA Channel 4 in an interview following the meeting (a link has been included below). It was a sales job and nothing more, and this rankled many feathers of attendees.

This dialectic does not bode well on the future of political discourse. If there is any means to program a less partisan forum to discuss Social Security, I believe that this option should be taken. Currently, we have two sides hell-bent on a fight, where the spoils hurt everyone and help no one. Neither side seems interested in a solution, just notches on the belt. It is terribly discouraging and disappointing that in an advanced nation such as ours, we still act like children fighting in the sandbox. If there is a problem with Social Security, we should come to together and look for a solution; more heads are better than none to solve this issue. I hope that such a forum may be arranged for Tucson in the near future.

I spoke with Representative Kolbe about participation in any upcoming events that the Concord Coalition might be involved with in Tucson. He was very receptive to the idea. I inquired about access to the simulator when speaking with the Deputy Administrator. He stated that the simulator is not available for public use, only for demonstration purpose at meetings. However, they are working on making it available.

Narrative Report

On Saturday, February 19, 2005, Congressman Jim Kolbe of Tucson held a Town Hall Meeting at the Pima Community College Administrative Office Complex, in the Board Room. The room was rated to hold 164 people, but more than 180 attended the meeting. Mr. Kolbe brought with him Deputy Social Security Commissioner Lockhardt to speak on Strengthening Social Security. Commissioner Lockhardt brought with him a booklet produced by the Social Security Administration (Publication No. 05-10055) to describe The Future of Social Security.

Representative Kolbe opened the meeting with introductions of his Washington and Tucson office staff, as well as the Tucson staff, of the Social Security Administration. A short discussion of the Congressman's Social Security bill before Congress followed. His comments pertained to the process of how he has worked to create a bipartisan bill. It is the only bill at the moment before Congress and is slightly different from the plan being discussed by the President, however it too includes private accounts. A few "under the breath" comments were made as the Congressman spoke, but few disrupted the meeting. These comments took about 10 minutes.

Commissioner Lockhardt followed the Congressman. He introduced himself as a member of the Presidents team to "preserve Social Security for our children." He described why he took the position, and has campaigned for the President to address this issue. A few audible remarks were heard as the Commissioner mentioned the President's name. What followed was a Power Point Presentation; not much different from that in the Publication produced by the Social Security Administration. Much of the information was designed to show why private accounts are the best way to "fix" Social Security "permanently."

At this point, the audience interrupted the Commissioner. Both the commissioner and Representative Kolbe asked that ALL questions be held to the end of the presentation. The questioner, who continued to persist his question about the presentation's methodology, did not honor this request. This changed the tenure of the room from attentiveness to gamesmanship. The audience and the speakers began testing each other to see how each could make their point. After order was restored, the Commissioner continued with his prepared comments.

A series of graphics and graphs were displayed to describe "the Social Security problem," and what would happen if we did nothing. This was followed with a light discussion of a similar proposal to previous Social Security adjustments, to show how such attempts would not be able to resolve the issue. Then, the commissioner unveiled the President's Personal Accounts proposal and how it would affect Social Security. This was met with more vocal opposition from the audience. At times, a few people seemed ready to carry others out of the room.

Little of the discussion revolved around the numbers that went into the modeling for expected growth in the economy, other than to mention that they were expected conservative investment returns. Nor was there much discussion of how we would pay for the transition. It was assumed that it was better to solve the $3.7 trillion benefit pay out issue through personal accounts, rather than deal with how to pay for the $1-2 trillion transition. At one point, Commissioner Lockhardt compared the benefit deficit as equal to the current Debt held by the United States Treasury. However, I believe that the current debt load is almost double ($7 trillion). The $1-2 trillion was considered a small cost to pay to preserve Social Security "for our kids," rather than saddling them with the $3.7 trillion in 2042. The issue of intergenerational responsibility arose many times from the panel. Each speaker believed that it was more important to preserve their legacy by providing for their children, stating that anyone near 55 would not have to worry about changes. However, it was dissuasively mentioned that benefits would be re-indexed to prices, not wages, which would put benefits in line with inflation.

Next, Commissioner Lockhardt revealed an internal agency simulator to model various Social Security reform inputs and their outcomes. This simulator was developed with AARP to model the various reforms of Social Security that AARP and the SSA believed would lead to the best outcome for this government program. Again, they modeled the current system, a few proposed changes, and their preferred modifications. The simulator produced the desired results to prove the point of the presentation. Many asked for the simulator to be used to model various proposals that the audience wished to have modeled. This was performed once, as a prominent local citizen asked about raising the cap to $140,000, the limit imposed within the simulator. The result produced silence in the room. Both Representative Kolbe and Commissioner Lockhardt stuttered to respond. Eventually, Mr. Lockhardt claimed that such a reform would, "…limit benefits."

Congressman Kolbe than took over the meeting and opened it to questions. As he was doing this, the computer equipment containing the simulator was packed for the return trip to Washington. The room was then open for questions.

Questions and comments came from all corners of the room. Few were positive of the proposed reform. Early comments were about the definition of TSPs, IRAs, Social Security and 401Ks. Many felt that their Congressmen about the format of the meeting misled them. They felt that he had brought them a "dog and pony show" by the people that would administer the program before the law was even passed. This was not well received. They did not think that a bureaucrat should be making sales calls to lobby the electorate to support legislation that has not yet been presented to Congress. Many derided the Congressman for not doing his job of representing them and their views. Little response was given to these comments.

Most believed that the cap should be removed, leading to a very interesting exchange between Kolbe and his constituents. The Congressman felt it was "unfair" to raise taxes on "Bill Gates" without raising his benefits as well. Congressman Kolbe took a poll of the room with concern towards the cap. The poll was 4 to 1 to remove the cap. The Congressman then dismissed the crowd as out of step with the district, claiming that he is "…getting far more positive responses from High School Students…" so no one in the room knew what they were talking about. Much loud discussion ensued. This debate went back and forth for half an hour with no resolution.

To Kolbe's comment about demographics, those in the room were a fairly representative grouping of the Congressional District. CD-8 is a fast growing district with its main growth industry being retirement communities and winter vacation homes. CD-8 has an older population that votes more frequently most districts. Only CD-2 has a similar demographic in Arizona, except that the gap between the parties is 3 times as much. Only CD-2 has more registered Voters than CD-8. However, the forum was held within the Democratic stronghold of CD-8, hence there would have been far more opposition to the Personal Account plan than in other parts of the district. However, the general sense within the district is that the opposition to this bill is more widespread than the Congressman would let on.

Much of the concerns about the effects of reform on the deficit, comparisons to other countries that attempted similar reforms, or whom would profit from such reforms were simply dismissed out of hand. Any reports, articles or figures to argue an audience member's point were derided and ignored, claiming that were simply partisan attacks on the President. At one point Commissioner Lockhardt asked the audience to "think of their kids" for without these reforms they wouldn't be able to collect Social Security. This did not help the tenor of the room.

The meeting ended when Congressman Kolbe felt that he had reached an impasse. Many in the room went down to speak with the Congressman and the Deputy Commissioner. KVOA Channel 4, the Tucson NBC affiliate, asked others to grant interviews for the evening news. (KVOA was the only news outlet to send a reporter to the meeting. KGUN 9, the local ABC affiliate sent a camera). Many attendees spoke with the staff of the various offices represented. Others continued their own separate conversations. One Republican was dismayed that the Democrats had packed the room to heckle. This assessment is far from the truth. Congressman Kolbe informed many of his constituents of the meeting by sending them postcards. Others read about the meeting in a local paper. Although, the Democrats did send out information about the event to their activists, most of the attendees were not Democratic Activists. Partisanship aside, many of the harshest comments came from registered Republicans who were collecting Social Security.


We look to leaders to lead, but too often they our led by their drive for self-relevance. It is no wonder we have the problems we have: we created them, because we wanted them. We needed some form of self-affirmation, and the most direct means to this end is to create conflict for self-interest. That IS the true American way. I am not sure that it matters all that much what opposition is mounted, since the reforms will occur beyond legislation regardless. I went to this meeting to listen, but found few others willing to do the same. I do not agree with the proposed reforms, but I believe that I will have to accept them, even if the salesmanship around them never explains the true program or intent. It was a terrible discouragement to speak with the Congressman and the Administrator as they left the room to sense that they were not phased by the conversation of the Town Hall Meeting. Once again, I felt that my government has let me down by simply going through the motions, while never engaging the public in any other manner than to talk down to them. I guess it is true: Power corrupts, and infinite power corrupts infinitely.

This weekend's Town Hall was a sham. It was a dog and pony show to sell a program before law has enacted it. Not to enact the law, but to force our acceptance of the law as Gospel. This did not go over well at all. The meeting was extremely contentious, but Congressman Kolbe would have none of it. It didn't matter what we thought, he didn't care, and how could we know? We don't live in Washington; therefore, we don't understand the problem at hand. Or, we were simply tilting at windmills that did not exist.

Nothing they had to say had anything to do with public discourse. Their role was to present this wonderful program that they have devised for us. Our role was to accept it and take it compliantly, asking only adoring questions of the program. It was no different from any other 401K program I have sat through. Some accounting wizard presents their proposal for how the company's retirement plan will benefit you by you benefiting the company, then scolds about how we don't work enough to invest enough to make enough money for the brokers managing the account.

Essentially, we are to work to benefit others, and they make the profit off our benefits. With Social Security, the plan is to have us work for our children to invest in their own retirement with their government money. If they don't get the returns promised, well, sorry Charlie. And we are to sacrifice whatever we might claim from Social Security for the children. Sorry, but I'm not falling for that one Mr. Jackson.

Though I went to listen, I can't help but be a partisan. I believe that we need to have a social ethic in how we interact with one another and not be all about self-interest. Their is no 'I' in 'US', though 'I' starts 'IndUStry', with the 'US' in the middle (Carlin 1972). I agreed with Jen Prelison's comments, as did the audience, but it didn't matter to the speakers. The show and tell was all about them and what they do for us. So we are stuck with the disaster they are bringing to us, but we knew that and 50% voted for it anyway.

Toto, what's behind the curtain?

And lift your leg on it while you're at it.


KVOA story

Arizona Daily Star:
No mention in Sunday's paper, however there was a series of articles about Social Security.

There will soon be a published transcript of a roundtable about Social Security online at the Star.


At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Gail said...

Are you saying that Democrats should offer to negotiate, thus accepting the Bush phantasy that SS is bankrupt and its collapse is immanent?

How would that help? You are asking for reasoned debate when the premise is false and as you saw in the Kolbe meeting we don't get to question the premise. We are supposed to say Yea and that's supposed to be our only role.

Why in the world would be cooperate in our own destruction? That's what Democrats have been doing for four years now. And that's what you want them to do with SS?

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Peter said...

That is EXACTLY what I am saying, and it is exactly NOT what I am saying.

In other words, when we, as a society, are face with a dilema, we should work together to resolve the issue, not demogauge it for personal accounts of victory. But, we should not negotiate from a position at the wrong end of a loaded gun.

Politics is the art of negotiating, what I described is NOT politics, but business. I am arguing for politics, which is what a Town Hall is SUPPOSED to be about. Instead it was business, a sales call, a product luncheon, without the free lunch. And I objected to this in my report.

As I stated, this posting was a non-partisian report about what happened. I argued at the end of my disappointment with the process. We need to discuss the question of whether this is a dilema or whether it is simply something else. And if it is a dilema, than I expect my representatives to listen to my concerns and to make poicy based on the comments made at the meeting. This is not going to happen, and this is why I am not hopeful for the future of Social Security.

As I mentioned, I don't think that we get anywhere from approaching the issue from polar opposites. When this happens, one side is always railroaded by the other, and it is EXACTLY what Bush wants. If we simply just rail against his plan, it will pass, by a close vote, but it will pass, and we will be stuck with it. It is the classic Rove strategy, force your opponents into a defensive position and NEVER let them out of it.

To defeat this effort, we have to create our own plan, and ADVANCE IT! If we don't we are simply pissing in the desert wind. Complaining doesn't work, people will pick strong and wrong over weak and right because it is something to choose. We mus make policy, if we want to enact programs. Claiming for and against is counter productive.

What I am arguing for is a calm, collective discussion, where we can discuss our alternatives and then press forward on policy. Government is not willing to listen to us any more, if it ever was. Surrounded in their islands of power and security, they have forgotten where they come from. We must take it back for ourselves, and force the leaders to follow the people, the only leaders reserved with rights to grant priviledges to the elected.


At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Gail said...

Peter wrote: "What I am arguing for is a calm, collective discussion, where we can discuss our alternatives and then press forward on policy. Government is not willing to listen to us any more, if it ever was. Surrounded in their islands of power and security, they have forgotten where they come from. We must take it back for ourselves, and force the leaders to follow the people, the only leaders reserved with rights to grant priviledges to the elected."

Who is the 'we' in the paragraph above? Why would we discuss alternative before we agree on the premise. SS is not on the brink of bankruptcy. Until we can agree that we are not headed for an imminent disaster and do not need to implement major and drastic changes why would be 'discuss' drastically changing and probably destroying the SS insurance system.

You are exactly RIGHT and you are exactly WRONG. We don't live in the real world anymore since Bush is president and apparently even was elected this time. We live in a world where right is wrong, black is white, up is down.

Accepting a premise that we have something to negotiate with the current GOP stance would effectively destroy SS. Haven't we had enough experience with this GOP Congress to understand that nothing we agreed to but everything they want would end up in any legistlation. Why would we agree to such a process again?

So I guess I understand that you are stating how 'it should be' and I think I am stating how 'it is.' But I'm also proposing that proceeding from how 'it should be' with the current GOP leadership is certain failure.

We, as Americans, have done a very poor job in electing our public servants who definitely do not view themselves as representing us, but as vasals of political and corporate power.

Well, that cheered me up at this fine start of a new day!


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