Monday, January 24, 2005

Social Security's hot button

There's a fury a-brewing over the recent "Meet the Press" comments of Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA). As the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Thomas is a high-profile congressman and a proponent of reforming the US tax system alongside Social Security. On Sunday, he claimed Congress should consider looking at Social Security reforms that would pay out future benefits based on factors like race and gender:

We also need to examine, frankly, Tim, the question of race in terms of how many years of retirement do you get based upon your race? And you ought not to just leave gender off the table because that would be a factor.

Later, he qualified his statement:

If we discuss it and the will is not to do it, fine. At least we discussed it. To simply raise the age and find out that you've got gender, race and occupational problems later, I would not be doing the kind of service that I think I have to do. You and I have been around quite a while.

Still, according to Drudge, the "depressed" and "determined" Democrats (dandy alliteration, Drudge) are sharpening their knives:
"Bush's Republican Party is full of ill-conceived, dangerous ideas about the future of Social Security. But no idea seems more dangerous or patently unfair than linking Social Security benefits to a person's race and gender," blasted one well-placed Dem. In another report, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "foolish isn't a strong enough description" for Thomas' idea that benefits might be based on factors like race and sex.

But Thomas's proposal doesn't strike me as such an absurd notion that it should not even be discussed. George Bush's anti-affirmative action stance was red meat for Democrats in the election campaign. (Rightly so.) Hearing about the Thomas brouhaha reminded me of the comments of one of America's leading political pundits (excuse the unedited profanity, it's a direct quote):

Social security. They should ask you if you want to take that shit. Would you like us to save money for you when you get old? No, I want to spend the shit now.

You don't get the money til you're 65... Meanwhile, the average black man dies at, like, 42. Niggas don't live that long. Niggas don't live to be no 65...Ooh, boy, 64 [makes croaking sound]. Hypertension, high blood pressure, crazy white boys -- something will get your ass.

That is from Chris Rock's genius standup show, "Bigger and Blacker", and as usual, he provokes some tough political questions through the edgy hilarity.

Acturaries determine insurance risk all the time by using race and gender as factors in a larger statistical determination of receipts and benefit payouts. And the study Rep. Thomas appears to be advocating here seems perfectly germane, especially to liberal supporters of affirmative action: if people of a certain race are disadvantaged by having to pay into Social Security while statistically not receiving the reciprocal benefits, couldn't the system be reformed to reflect that? Chris Rock is not the first person on either side of the spectrum to point out the fact that lower life expectancy makes the SS tax especially punishing to members of certain minority groups. Ask yourself this: if Barbara Boxer or Maxine Waters demanded that any reexamination of Social Security include actuarial studies of race or gender, would that have been so misplaced and misguided?
I'm no scholar on the issue (I don't even know if any of these life expectancy claims are true or myth), and I'm not advocating any reforms to SS that base taxation and payout according to race and gender. But shouldn't these ideas be discussed, even if only briefly within a committee?


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