Highlights of This Page
Bush plans to privatize Social Security.
See my Update Information page for an explanation of why this and other pages between September 2004 and September 2006 are not yet complete.
- December: The FBI raids Israeli lobbying organization AIPAC once more, hunting for proof that Bush administration officials illegally disclosed classified intelligence to Israel via AIPAC. Grand jury subpoenas are issued to four top staffers: Howard Kohr, executive director; Richard Fishman, managing director; Renee Rothstein, communications director; and Raphael Danziger, research director. In the following months, several of the above AIPAC officials will testify before a federal grand jury convened by US Attorney Paul McNulty. (Jerusalem Post/Daily Kos)
- December 3: Bush calls in his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, to discuss his second inaugural address, a grandiose speech he intends to give that will alter the mindset of American foreign policy as dramatically as it had been changed at the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s with the US's commitments to containment and deterrence. Bush has already laid the groundwork with his June 2002 speech at West Point. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, who despises Bush, marveled then that he could change American foreign policy so significantly into a doctrine of what amounted to preventative war -- war to stop a war. "To do this without igniting a national debate shows remarkable leadership skills," Schlesinger wrote. The core idea of the speech is, in Bush's words, "The future of America and the security of America depends on the spread of liberty." He wants his inauguration speech to center on the twin ideas of liberty and freedom, and it is Gerson's job to write an uplifiting, inspiring speech that will ram these ideas into the minds of the American electorate. The fight against global terrorism centers, for now, in Iraq, but will inevitably spread throughout the world, Bush says. "[The terrorists] know the stakes," he says, "and we should, too." Gerson is exhilirated, and apprehensive, at the task before him. Rarely has a speechwriter ever been given the opportunity to define an age. He studies a variety of speeches, focusing on the inaugural speeches by Democrats Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. Gerson wants to make Bush's idea of spreading freedom to ensure America's security plain, without going to what he considers Kennedy's excess: "Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty," as Kennedy said so memorably in 1961. Such a statement today would herald the inevitability of open-ended conflict and the possibility of opposing even such friendly but undemocratic regimes as Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, and Gerson doesn't want to go that far. Gerson wants to find a middle ground between "indifference to the fate of others and constant war," he tells a colleague.
- Done properly, the speech will thematically bring together everything Bush has done since 9/11, the defining moment of his presidency. Clinton had failed to respond aggressively and decisively to a series of attacks during his presidency; Bush wants to be seen as the diametric opposite. Once again, the Bush presidency will be defined as a contrast to Clinton's. More to the point, the 9/11 attacks are a warning about the kind of strategic circumstance every president will face for the next fifty years. Gerson sees Bush as abandoning, or perhaps transcending, the traditional role of the American conservative, who, as William F. Buckley wrote, "stand athwart history yelling 'Stop!'" Bush is clearly saying "Go!" In that regard, Gerson believes, Bush is more like Franklin Roosevelt by using government to expand freedom.
- Gerson works so hard and enthusiastically on the speech that he drives himself to have a heart attack. The doctors say the heart attack is brought on by stress and his genetic makeup; he comes back to work in a few weeks on a reduced schedule, focusing on the speech. (Bob Woodward)
Bush plans to privatize Social Security
- December 11: As part of his "mandate" for a second term, Bush announces that he will "save" Social Security. According to the information Bush provides, Social Security will be "bankrupt...flat broke" by the year 2042, and will have to begin trimming future benefits by 27% in that year. Bush's solution is, predictably, to privatize Social Security, allowing workers to put their retirement money into private accounts instead of into Social Security. Of course, Social Security is a "pay as you go" system, with today's workers paying the benefits for today's retirees, and their own benefits to be paid by future generations of workers. So what would be the impact on the Social Security Trust Fund if Bush's plan is implemented today? According to economist Peter Orszag of the centrist Brookings Institute, "[O]utflows from the Trust Fund would exceed inflow starting in 2006." Bush's plan to "save" Social Security, in response to the possible reversal of outflow and inflow to the SSTF by 2018, as he says will happen, will reverse that flow starting in 2006.
- Two days before, Bush told reporters that the size of the impending problem is huge -- "a present value of unfunded liabilities of about $11 trillion." Others, from Dick Cheney to Treasury Secretary John Snow and the usual right-wing pundits, endlessly repeat that $11 trillion figure. Unfortunately, the administration is unable to defend the reality of that figure. The $11 trillion figure is based on the total estimated shortfall of Social Security between now and infinity, a hysterically meaningless figure. The American Academy of Actuaries, with great restraint, terms the figure "misleading." Worse, to get that figure, the Bush administration worked the numbers with the assumption that American workers would reture at age 67, and live until the age of 150, figuring for an average retirement of 83 years. Snow later blames the figure on the Social Security Administration actuary who had been told to work with these assumptions for the outrageously fraudulent estimate.
- Though the projected shortfall by 2042 (estimated by the Social Security Administration) or 2052 (estimated by the Congressional Budget Office) is real, Social Security is not in any dire straits. Economist Mark Weisbrot writes, "social Security is currently more financially sound than it has been throughout most of its entire history. To cover any shortfalls that may occur over the next 75 years would require less than we came up with in each of the decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s." Even projecting a dismal 1.8% rate of annual economic growth, as the Social Security Administration figures, Social Security will require only minimal reworking over the foreseeable future to remain solvent. Slightly higher projections of economic growth show that Social Security will remain perfectly solvent without any major tweaking. Other proposals including raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax (FICA), forcing higher-income Americans to pay more into Social Security and shifting the burden somewhat from lower-income workers, or to reinstate the estate tax on the wealthiest of Americans to help fund Social Security. Another proposal is to shift some of the Trust Fund to the stock market, where it would hopefully create profits for the Fund.
- Private accounts, as proposed by Bush, would do nothing except lead to the destruction of Social Security. Even Bush officials admit it, though off the record and cautiously, as when in February 2005, an anonymous official tells reporters, "In a long-term sense, the personal accounts would have a net neutral effect on the fiscal sutiation of Social Security and on the federal government." If the Bush plan were adopted, the federal treasury would have to borrow an extra $5.3 trillion over the next twenty years to cover the costs of private accounts, all of that borrowed money subject to compound interest. Political pundit Al Franken writes, "Bush's plan was for your children, your children's children, and probably their children and children's children to pay down all of that interest." Democrats unify against private accounts, though they repeatedly tell Bush that they are happy to discuss revamping Social Security if private accounts are off the table; Bush refuses and attempts to paint Democrats as obstructionists.
- But Bush's story just gets more unbelievable. On April 2, 2005, Bush journeys to the Bureau of Public Debt in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where a tour guide shows him a filing cabinet filled with paper notes representing the bonds in which the Social Security Trust Fund is invested. The SSTF currently holds $1.64 trillion in secured monies for payouts to Social Security recipients. But Bush, not seeing those greenbacks stashed in the filing cabinet, tells reporters outside the bureau, "There is no 'trust fund,' just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay -- will pay for either in higher taxes, or reduced benefits, or cuts to other critical government programs. ...They're stacked in a filing cabinet. Imagine -- the retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet." Of course, Bush wasn't looking at IOUs scrawled on notebook paper, he was looking at Trearury bonds, widely regarded as the safest investment in the world. Bush seems unaware that he is violating the 14th Amendment by questioning the validity of the public debt of the US. The Chinese and Japanese investors who have bought hundreds of billions of dollars of US Treasury bonds must have also been a bit uneasy. But none of this impacts the right-wing punditry, who takes to the airwaves to join in on Bush's slander of the US Treasury. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer writes, "These pieces of paper might be useful for rolling cigars. They will not fund your retirement." Such claims are amazing to generations of American and global economists.
- Bush didn't just go off the deep end in Parkersburg. The idea that the Trust Fund is insolvent has been around since at least 1999, when the Heritage Foundation wrote that the fund "contains no genuine assets, only government bonds." Inexplicably, three weeks later, Bush announces more details of his privatization plan, which he says should include one investment option entirely of US Treasury bonds, "which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government." Three weeks before, those bonds were worthless IOUs; now, they are solid and secure.
- In January 2005, Bush holds a staged "Conversation on Social Security Reform" with health care consultant Bob McFadden and a select audience. He tells McFadden, who is black, that Social Security is inherently unfair to black people. Why? "African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. And that needs to be fixed." McFadden parrots a line from the 1998 Heritage Foundation study, which cites that African-American males die, on average, two years earlier than white American males. Unfortunately, the study has long been discredited, having been cited by the Social Security Administration as suffering from "major errors in the methodology" and "incorrect or inappropriate assumptions." The SSA points out that, on average, non-whites in America actually gain the same or even more benefits from Social Security than do whites. The Heritage Foundation study assumed that every African-American male would die at age 69 -- none before, and none after. No children would die in drive-by shootings or car accidents, no young worker would die in an industrial accident or from a heart attack. No black man would live past 69, period. As explained by political satirist Al Franken, "It was work work work, pay into Social Security, retire at age sixty-seven, collect benefits for two years, and then keel over. No exceptions." When Franken showed the report to 81-year old black celebrity and poetaster Nipsey Russell, Russell replied with the following verse: "It shocked us both / My wife and me / That I've been dead / Since '93." The fact is that black males who reach age 67 live, on average, to age 79, thereby earning Social Security benefits for twelve years, not two. The study also fails to note that Social Security also pays disability and survivor benefits; because of the racial inequality inherent in the US, black families receive a disparately larger amount of these benefits than white families, 47% to 28%. Moreover, since African-American males earn far less, on average, than white males, their benefits are subsequently higher. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office found that "in the aggregate, blacks and Hispanics have higher disability rates and lower lifetime earnings, and thus receive greater benefits relative to taxes than whites." In other words, Bush is flat-out lying.
- It seems the real reason for Bush's push for privatization can be traced to conservatives' general hatred of government. Many conservatives push the concept of the "Ownership Society," which Franken calls the "On-Your-Own Society." He writes, "social Security is the biggest and most successful example of how public policy can provide a safety net where everyone shares the risk and everyone shares the reward. If they could unravel that, then anything was possible." In January 2005, the press publishes a leaked memo from Karl Rove's deputy, Peter Wehner, which reads, "For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country. ...I don't need to tell you that this will be one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times. If we succeed in reforming Social Security, it will rank as one of the most significant conservative governing achievements ever. The scope and scale of this endeavor are hard to overestimate." Conservatives have been advocating the privatization and destruction of Social Security since at least 1964, when Barry Goldwater suggested that "Perhaps Social Security should be abolished" during his presidential campaign. In 1978, Texas congressional candidate George W. Bush, running at a time when Social Security was facing a much more critical shortfall than it is now, advocated the privatization of the program, telling a local reporter that Social Security would go bust in ten years unless the program were privatized. (It didn't.) In 1980, Reagan's budget director David Stockman called Social Security a "giant Ponzi scheme," said disability benefits were "a powerful temptation to the shiftless," and attempted to slash the program with Reagan's approval. The Senate refused to pass Stockman's legislative proposal on a 96-0 vote, and in the House, Speaker Tip O'Neill accused Reagan of "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly." Instead, the government adopted a program of reforms advocated by a commission headed by Alan Greenspan that preserved the basic structure of Social Security while ensuring its continued viability; part of the plan was the creation of the Social Security Trust Fund.
- Amazingly, the Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute looked to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin for inspiration on how to gut Social Security. In a joint report released in 1983, they wrote that "Lenin recognized that fundamental change is contingent both upon a movement's ability to create a focused political coalition and upon its success in isolating and weakening its opponents. As we contemplate basic reform of the Social Security system, we would do well to draw a few lessons from the Leninist strategy." Their idea for basic reform was, again, privatization. Bush will directly use both the Cato/Heritage plan, and its ideas for mobilizing coalitions for "reform," 21 years later. He continues to tout the plan, focusing on his intention to ensure that the elderly receive their benefits, to the point where, on May 24, 2005, he tells a Rochester, New York audience, "see, in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."
- Unfortunately for Bush, the longer he talks about the "propaganda," the less Americans are convinced. Only 37% of Americans over 65 believe in private retirement accounts, with most agreeing with the 69-year old Republican mayor of Coldwater, Michigan, who says that Bush's proposal for Social Security "is all wet." But, according to the Bush plan as detailed by the Cato/Heritage report, the American people aren't the ones needed to back the plan. "What we must do," the report reads, "is construct a coalition that will gain directly from its implementation. That coalition should not only consist of those who will reap benefits from the IRA-based private system [economist Peter] Ferrara has proposed but also the banks, insurance companies, and other institutions that will gain from providing such plans to the public." So it's the banks and insurance companies who need to get on board, because they are the ones who will profit from such a privatization program. Bush's plan, according to the Wall Street Journal, will have only two or three huge corporations managing "the tens of billions of dollars that will pour into private accounts each year." One of those designated firms is the State Street Corporation, which has been a major financial backer of the Cato Institute.
- Karl Rove, meanwhile, has worked to build a "coalition" to fight for privatization, including the United Seniors Association, a GOP front group who once boasted lobbyist Jack Abramoff as a board member. The group also calls itself "USA Next." In February 2005, USA Next, having hired the same advertising moguls who produced ads for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, release an ad attacking the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), who has come out against the Bush plan. According to the plan, the AARP wants to take money away from US troops in Iraq and instead use that money to support gay marriage. They use the following image in their online ads:
- The consternation, and outcry over such an inflammatory and slanderous ad, is immense.
- In February 2005, Cato's Michael Tanner tells the Los Angeles Times, "I'm stunned at the level at which they're treating this. They're pulling out all the stops. It's going to be virtually like a presidential campaign." Unfortunately, Tanner's enthusiasm runs ahead of his need to keep silent about some issues: "In the end, this isn't a debate about the system's solvency in 2015 or 2042. It's about whether you think the government should be in control of your retirement or people should take ownership and responsibility. That's why the debate is so intense -- why would anyone get so excited about transition costs? This is about whether we redefine a relationship between individuals and government that we've had since 1935. We say that what was done was wrong then, and it was wrong now. Our position is that people need to be responsible for their own lives."
- Democrats refuse to buy into the shuck and jive. Congressional Republicans, reeling from the outcry among Americans, seek in vain to find Democrats to join them in their push for privatization; they find exactly one, Representative Allen Boyd, who signs on to a Republican bill called "The Bipartisan Retirement Security Act." Bipartisan in that one Democrat out of 245 is behind it.
- Since Republicans can't find many Americans to actually support their privatization plan, they simply rewrite what Americans are actually saying to indicate a support that isn't there. An RNC report from Missouri announces the support of retiree Cliff Smith, saying that Smith told the Joplin Globe, "I think Social Security Needs Improved [sic]." Smith actually said, on March 24, 2005, "I believe it needs improved. But nothing of the nature of what is being talked about in Washington." The Globe article goes on to say Smith opposes private accounts. In Wyoming, the RNC annouces the support of Kimberly Holloway, who told the Casper Star Tribune on the same day that she "sees advantages in personal accounts in that it would encourage more savings and financial responsibility." What the RNC doesn't report was that Holloway opposes the Bush privatization plan, and adds, "Don't fiddle with the social safety net." And from North Dakota, the RNC announces that Scott Savelkoi says, "Doing nothing is not an option." True, he says that to the Associated Press on March 23, but he also opposes private accounts, and wants Congress to lift a $90,000 cap on wages taxed for Social Security: "doing nothing [about wage caps] is not an option."
- On November 8, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, in a letter to his brother Edgar, "should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is neglible and they are stupid." (Hunt was described in 1948 as the richest man in America, and was a major founder of the extremist, racist John Birch Society, which supported the abolition of Social Security and called Eisenhower a Communist.) Apparently Bush hasn't read Eisenhower's letter. (Crooks and Liars, Washington Post/Center on Economic and Policy Research/Talking Points Memo/Wall Street Journal/Al Franken)
- December 14: Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three of the people most responsible for the Iraq disaster: former US commander General Tommy Franks, former CPA administrator Paul Bremer, and former CIA director George Tenet. After kidding Tenet about having the "demeanor of a longshoreman," Bush praises Tenet for being "one of the first to recognize and address the threat to America from radical terrorist networks." He praises the CIA's role in the war in Afghanistan and for its efforts to crush the leadership of al-Qaeda, but refuses to talk about the CIA's role -- or the White House's role -- in cherrypicking and falsifying prewar intelligence on Iraq. Days before, the news broke that Tenet had signed a $4 million deal to write a "candid" account of his tenure as CIA director, provoking fears in the White House that his book will blame the White House for the WMD debacle. Shortly thereafter, Tenet decides to postpone the book for the foreseeable future, saying he needs more time to do research and "gain the necessary perspective." Tenet's book, At the Center of the Storm, is slated to appear in April 2007. (Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Amazon)
- December 26: A huge undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggers a tsunami that killed 150,000 in Indonesia and other island nations. Many of the victims might have survived had they received adequate warning of the approaching tsunami, but during the second Clinton term, congressional Republicans had blocked funding for Al Gore's proposed Global Disaster Information Network, which was to include ocean-bottom earthquake detectors and an international alarm system that could have warned people in the strike zone of the impending calamity. "Tens of thousands of people might have been able to flee to higher ground," says Gore's national security advisor Leon Fuerth. The Republicans blocked the modest funding required to implement the GDIN because they did not want Gore to be able to claim credit for it in the 2000 elections.
- As with August 2005's Hurricane Katrina, Bush refuses to cut short his vacation on his Crawford, Texas ranch to coordinate any US response to the calamity for days, instead leaving it to private agencies and other countries, including an international aid effort coordinated by Clinton and the elder Bush. The White House's response to the disaster is to attack Bill Clinton for supposedly parading in front of the TV cameras after a disaster, with a spokesman saying that Bush "didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'" (Washington Post/New York Times/Al Franken)
- Late December: Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, planning to leave office behind his boss Colin Powell, visits Iraq and comes back with the sobering conclusion, "We're not winning," as he tells Bush. Armitage softpedals his words: "We're not losing. Not winning over a long period of time works for the insurgents." The campaign of intimidation against Iraqi citizens by the insurgents is unbelievable, he says. Bush doesn't argue; neither does US ambassador John Negroponte or General George Casey, the commander of US military forces in Iraq. Armitage is surprised that none of them dispute his findings. He also reports that, as the CIA and DIA have already assessed, the insurgency is largely homegrown. Al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters, and the influences of Syria and Iran, are having their effect, but none of them are central to the insurgency. Incoming national security advisor Stephen Hadley listens to Armitage and concludes that it is all a matter of execution and implementation. The US just isn't getting it right. NSC official Frank Miller is concerned that the training program of Iraqi security forces is missing the point. "We're training beat policemen," he complains, when the focus needs to be on elite combat and paramilitary power. Miller is also unsuccessful in getting Negroponte to take even the simplest actions to protect Iraq's oil pipelines and other actions.
- Negroponte has had enough of Iraq and wants to come home. Miller and Condoleezza Rice begin discussing replacing Negroponte with Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghani-born American who had spearheaded the NSC's program to work with the Iraqi opposition and had later been the first postwar US ambassador to Afghanistan, where he had been successful in putting the embassy on a war footing. Before long, the press reports that Khalilzad is due to replace Negroponte, but an intelligence report of Khalilzad making an indelicate remark to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi about "slipping" the date of the January 30 Iraqi national elections upsets the White House and delays Khalilzad's naming to the post. (Bob Woodward)