Bush's "Reform" Program Smells Like a Con Jobmu
To anyone who has observed professionals working a con, the high-pressure sales pitch for Social Security privatization seems suspiciously familiar. Come to think of it, so does George W. Bush's back-slapping style, which is well suited to promoting his vague, wildly expensive "reform" proposal to the nation's teeming rubes.
Like a grifter conjuring visions of wealth if only we trust him, Mr. Bush spouts promises that evaporate upon closer inspection. First he predicts that we will earn far higher future returns on our "personal" accounts, the name he prefers to "private" accounts, which doesn't poll well. (He never mentions the substantial risks, or the management fees that would drain away income.) Then he promises that we will each control every dollar diverted from Social Security. (He actually knows that your investment choices would be strictly limited.) He says we will be able to leave the privatized accounts to our heirs. (He neglects to explain, of course, why his plan would make that virtually impossible.)
Meanwhile, directing our attention away from all this fine print, he warns repeatedly that should we decline his amazing offer, all the taxes we've paid toward Social Security during our working lives will disappear when the system suddenly goes "bankrupt." (That alarming assertion contradicts his confident prediction of burgeoning equity growth, but he's betting we won't figure that out, either.)
So if we listen to him, we really have no choice. We must hurry—and not worry about borrowing another few trillion bucks to finance his scheme.
With such dubious hucksterism emanating from the office of the president, it's hardly surprising that less distinguished pitchmen are eager to get in on the game. Everyone in Washington knows that the corporate interests backing privatization are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That kind of money usually finds its way into the most dishonest hands.
Among the grabbiest, grubbiest groups inside the Beltway is an outfit called U.S.A. Next, until lately known as the United Seniors Association, which has long pretended to defend the interests of elderly Americans. It protects seniors as diligently as the colonel protects chickens.
United Seniors was created by ultra-right direct-mail impresario Richard Viguerie, who has yearned to abolish Social Security ever since he joined the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Under the United Seniors letterhead, he would mail out ominous, official-looking letters to the elderly, telling them that politicians have "spent all the money" in the Social Security trust fund. To rescue their retirement, he urged the jittery seniors to send checks immediately to his post-office box. He churned out these mailings by the millions while pocketing a hefty proportion of the profits and prompting investigations by state and federal agencies.
Aside from swelling his own fortune, Mr. Viguerie's true purpose was to finance conservative propaganda. A classic gambit was to scare old people into sending him money and then use their donations to promote Republican cutbacks in their Medicare benefits. The man always had an ironic sense of humor.
These days, U.S.A. Next relies less on small contributions from suckers and more on funding from major corporate interests such as drug and oil companies. It is run by Charles Jarvis, a religious-right activist and fervent advocate of privatization, and represented by Curtis J. Herge, whose previous clients include a fake Holocaust-survivors group and a bogus anti-gambling organization that fronted for casino mogul Donald Trump.
Lately, Mr. Jarvis has launched a campaign against the American Association of Retired Persons—an authentic organization with about 33 million members—because the AARP has dared to oppose the president's scheme. Echoing the tired old clichés from the Clinton era, when United Seniors regularly targeted AARP, he accuses the bipartisan seniors' lobby of "liberalism."
For a Christian, Mr. Jarvis seems to have no fear of bearing false witness against his neighbors. He boasts of hiring the same consultants who devised the Swift Boat advertising that smeared John Kerry. In a demonstration of the weapons they will use to "dynamite" the AARP, Mr. Jarvis recently posted an Internet ad insinuating that this traditional, utterly mainstream organization disdains American soldiers and supports gay marriage.
That sensational lie must have surprised longtime AARP members, but the ad had a momentary media impact. No doubt Mr. Jarvis and his advisors are busily concocting more of the same.
Mr. Jarvis has never abandoned the business ethic established by Mr. Viguerie, according to the researchers at BlogPAC, a new investigative association. In August 2003, the federal government fined United Seniors more than $500,000 for sending out "misleading" mail designed to look like "some sort of official mailing containing information from the Social Security administration."
The Bush "reform" campaign increasingly resembles a typical consumer fraud in both style and substance. Should it succeed, the most likely result is a historic national case of buyer's remorse.
Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer.