Words Matter: 9/11 and Social Security

By MERRIE SPAETH, Special to UPI  |  July 30, 2004 at 10:58 AM
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DALLAS, July 30 (UPI) -- The Commission that investigated intelligence failures and the 9/11 attack neglected part of its job -- very similar to the problems of the Social Security issue. That is, neither has a credible communication strategy. Both are examples of long-term silence on the part of our elected officials and the utter failure of voters to hold them responsible. Short-term silence causes long-term trouble.

National Security Advisor Condeleezza Rice had it right in her testimony before the commission when she said that democracies have a very hard time focusing on problems when they're not yet full-blown crises. In 1996, Les Aspin and Harold Brown's "Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community" covered essentially the same territory and found essentially the same issues:

-- We don't control our borders

-- There is lots of duplication with little coordination

-- There are lots of turf battles

-- There are bitter philosophical differences

The U.S. had almost no "assets" (people) "on the ground" -- meaning in the countries where the bad guys are.

Their findings and recommendations were ignored.

But the short-term communication problem isn't confined to terrorist issues. Issues such as Social Security have been struggling with the same problem. Here, columnists like the Dallas Morning News' Scott Burns are the equivalent of the Hart-Rudman commission.

Burns, one of the country's leading financial columnists, has written so many columns about the problems facing Social Security that I've lost count. Despite the posturing by members of Congress in both parties, Social Security is insolvent because it's a brilliantly-but-deceptively named pay-as-you-go scheme. It worked fine in 1935 but, to coin a phrase: that was then, this is now. Americans are living longer. The ratio of workers to payees has gone from 40 to 1 to 3 to 1 (soon to be 2 to 1). Benefits have been expanded many times, and there's no "trust fund," just a figurative box with a bunch of IOUs from the U.S. government, a.k.a. the taxpayers of future generations.

The financial equivalent of 9/11 is waiting out there for us. But don't hold your breath waiting for any Republican or Democrat to tackle the problem now when it could be fixed.

Ultimately, however, our elected officials are only a reflection of what we, the people, demand of them. And we won't demand anything because the problem is so distant.

The mainstream media is failing miserably in its assignment to keep the American public informed and rally them. There has been a good deal written on Social Security in the past decade but little of the "house is falling" coverage which is needed to engage the public. Can you imagine the result if the media devoted half the space to this issue that they do to J. Lo's dating habits and weddings? It's not that the people who should know, don't know. I recently did an informal poll of business leaders, and virtually 100 percent of them could articulate the problems facing Social Security and the range of available fixes. This is a call to arms -- or at least to the ears -- of the country's CEOs, business leaders and the leadership of the other established institutions.

Whatever your issue - heart disease, your museum, your company, your university - it's going to suffer in two decades when Social Security reaches the 9/11 crisis point. If you get together and demand that Congress address the problem, they may.

This is hardly rocket science. The solutions involve raising the age of retirement and raising the amount of income on which Social Security is levied. This alone will reduce the liabilities. Other even more controversial options involve acknowledging the true welfare component of Social Security and having a means test. In other words, if you were conscientious and saved and are financially secure, sorry sucker, you don't get a penny back. Finally, as a carrot to the people who are going to be left high and dry, future generations can be allowed to keep some of their own money to invest for their own retirement, the so-called "privatization" of part of the system. Everyone knows that a final version will contain some parts of all of these elements.

What's the lesson for business in this? When it comes to long-term public policy, the business community must take a more active interest and must assume a leadership role to force Congress to address these issues, not only because it's the right thing to do for the country but because business will pay such a heavy price for long-term lack of solutions. (Imagine what could have been accomplished had the airline and related industries devoted five percent of what they lost following 9/11 to a national initiative demanding follow through on the Rudman Commission's recommendations.)

Merrie Spaeth is president of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator and writer on communication issues.

Topics: Les Aspin
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