Let me first lay my conservative political credentials on the table: My pre-teen idol was Ronald Reagan. I cast my first vote in 1988 -- rather grudgingly -- for the Great Communicator's pale and wan successor, George Bush. I've debated Dukakis campaign manager and bold-"D" Democrat Susan Estrich on the radical feminist agenda propagated by "Take Your Daughter to Work Day." And over the past two years as a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, I ridiculed recycling, touted tort reform, rapped "gangsta" rap, cheered school choice, and lashed out at the left wing's erstwhile chokehold on our nation's Capitol, courts, culture and schools.
For what it's worth -- and I believe it ought to be of no small value to the subject I will address momentarily -- I have even had the rare honor of being mentioned favorably by the nation's torchbearer of the Right, Rush Limbaugh, on his radio and television shows (he read aloud excerpts of a column I had written that was critical of the Oprah Winfrey Show-like atmosphere surrounding the Menendez murder trial).
So it is not as a Big Government, small-minded, femi-Nazi -- but rather as a stalwart Republican ally -- that I now broach that well-worn topic of heated discussion among less well-meaning lefty pundits, "What's Wrong with Rush?"
For someone so attuned to the way things ought to be, for someone so committed to fiscal conservatism, for someone whose spectacular success derives from being so unabashedly politically incorrect, it is disappointing -- no, downright painful -- to hear Rush Limbaugh defend one of the most potentially ruinous and politically correct causes of our time: Social Security.
Here's Rush on television pooh-poohing the current system's imminent collapse ("Social Security pays for itself," he prattles). And there's Rush calling Mario Cuomo "nuts" for talking about Social Security and Medicare cuts. And here's Rush grumbling over the airwaves about the twentysomething generation's incessant and unreasonable "whining" on its dim fiscal prospects. And there's Rush lambasting modest cuts in Social Security benefits for well-to-do retirees. And here's Rush expounding disingenuously on how the Republicans can slash and balance the budget without touching the so-called third rail of politics. Here, there and nowhere is Rush to be seen on the side of tough reform.
"Touch it and you die," goes the apocalyptic Beltway saying in reference to Social Security programs that now consume $319 billion a year. For jaded career incumbents, for the short-sighted and self-delusional in elected office, it makes perfect political sense to steer clear of these explosive entitlements. Senior citizens and the Social Security preservationists wield insurmountable clout. Better to leave the fiscal crisis to someone else, some other time, goes the conventional folly.
Both the Left and the Right are guilty of such cowardly political calculations and malicious neglect:
*President Clinton summons up every last ounce of his famous resolve to state boldly that both Social Security and Medicare are off the table. (At last, a promise he'll regrettably keep.)
*Rep. John Kasich, the Great Young Republican Hope from Ohio, won't take his ten-foot pole near Social Security, either -- though he will use it to scratch the surface of Medicare reform.
*Paul Begala, man of the people, scoffs at the "ivory tower elitists" who are calling bravely for immediate reform and eventual privatization of Social Security.
*Newt Gingrich brushes off the impending bankruptcy of the Social Security system as an "abstraction that is 25 years away."
*And the recently dismantled 32-member Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform can barely bring itself to send a timidly worded letter to Clinton recommending that he merely "consider" vague cuts in guaranteed benefits that eat up a whopping 49 percent of the federal budget. (Heck, the commission members couldn't even use the word "crisis" without getting the willies.)
Such girlie-men all!
I can understand the Beltway creatures' fear and unwillingness well enough. But what does Rush have to lose, I wonder, by exposing the truth about Social Security?
By the year 2003, discretionary spending on these entitlements will account for 58 percent of all federal spending. By the year 2030, one out of five Americans will be 65 or older. There will be but two workers to support every one retiree (compared to a ratio of 42-to- ne when Social Security was first implemented). It doesn't take an ivory tower elitist to figure out that it will take dramatically increased taxes or dramatically reduced benefits -- or both -- to keep Social Security afloat when the demographic tide shifts just so.
As for the government's purported ability to invest more wisely than private citizens, the average group Social Security rates of real return will be about 2 percent for those born after 1960. Other government studies show that the return may be less than 1.5 percent -- or worse, negative. By contrast, the S&P posted an average real rate of return of about 7 percent for the last 75 years (or a 10 percent nominal rate of return).
Rush's researchers have a wealth of evidence and expertise at their fingertips to prove the emperor naked -- from investment banker and sixtysomething Pete Peterson's well-documented call for generational responsibility, Facing Up, to recent op-ed pieces by Newsweek economist Robert J. Samuelson, to the grim reports of approaching insolvency issued by the Social Security Administration's own board of trustees.
With "talent on loan from God," and millions of listeners across the fruited plain lending their ears every day, Rush Limbaugh has it within his power to put the "célèbre" in the just cause of Social Security reform. It would take so little -- a weekly reminder of just how much taxpayers shell out in Social Security taxes (and how little they may get back), a short discourse on the success of privatization efforts in Chile, an encouraging word on raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits -- to facilitate a desperately needed change in the entitlement ethos. Bob Kerrey and John Danforth tried and failed. They can't inspire enough mega-dittos or mega-urgency. Rush Limbaugh can.
To this media giant and champion of conservative thought, I humbly offer a small piece of advice: It's not enough to be Right-thinking. You must be forward-thinking. For the sake of my generation and your reputation, let's hope in 30 years from now that I never have occasion to use five words with which you are all too familiar: "See, I told you so."
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