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Social Security: False Consciousness and Crisis

Social Security: False Consciousness and Crisis

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Despite two decades of warnings about Social Security's projected bankruptcy, nothing is being done. The saying that Social Security is the third rail of American politics--touch it and you die--still holds true. This critical history argues that a majorcause of the impasse is the misleading manner in which Social Security was depicted to the public, and the beliefs about the program which prevail as a result.

Most Americans see Social Security as retirement insurance, whereby taxpayers pay premiumsor contributions which are held in trust in a trust fund to pay guaranteed benefits which will be theirs "as a matter of earned right," as America keeps a "compact between the generations." Unfortunately, the entire foregoing description is false. Attarian demonstrates that Social Security's officials and partisans deliberately fostered this false picture while downplaying the power of Congress to cut or eliminate benefits, and that the payroll tax mechanism of financing was done in order to influence beliefs. Social Security was structured and presented to the public in this manner so as to make it popular and politically invulnerable. This strategy succeeded, but its depiction of Social Security had crucial inaccuracies, which worsened as the program aged. The resulting "false consciousness" about Social Security decisively shaped the responses to the program's financial crises in the 1970s and 1980s. Attarian demolishes the Social Security myths so that debate can proceed based on facts, not fictions.

He also reveals the lethal faults of numerous reform proposals. Most refuse to cut current benefits and are thereby saddled with huge costs of transition to a new system. Many risk politicizing the stock market and promote a new "false consciousness"of painless cure and getting something for nothing. Virtually all ignore the larger economic and political context which threatens to defeat their purpose. Attarian concludes with a proposal to radically restructure the program from a universal entitlement to a floor of protection.

Treating Social Security in unusually broad perspective, Attarian is critical of both the status quo and privatization, and offers an alternative to both. The book will be of interest to policy makers as well as citizens concerned about the future of Social Security.