Thursday, February 24, 2005

Report on Social Security Town Hall Meeting

So. I just got back from my representative's town hall on Social Security. Actually, this fellow – Republican Jeb Hensarling – isn't really mine anymore since I got gerrymandered out of his district, but I felt like attending, so I went anyway. This guy represents a very oddly-shaped district that takes in substantial parts of rural Texas, east of Dallas, as well as some of Dallas proper. This meeting was about 20 miles outside Dallas in Forney, a smaller town. I've been there before -- Forney is renowned for its antique shops, and at one point in my life I was compelled to purchase a Victrola there. Don't ask me why I needed a Victrola. I don't know. Anyway, Forney's a cute little place, with a paper mill, a nice-looking high school, a pocket-sized downtown with appealing shops and homey cafes, and so on. A lot like any other small Texas town.

The town hall meeting was held in the sub-courthouse, an office featuring all of the necessary government apparatus for paying traffic tickets and fines, a touch of country-kitch décor, and a medium sized conference room. There were about 35 of us. Most of the folks were older, many were from the immediate area, and everyone got coffee and chatted while we waited.

I have to confess, I was nervous. I'd never done anything like this before. Before I came, I took all the Democratic bumper stickers off my car because I knew I was going into a "red" area. I was worried I was going to be the only person asking hard questions – especially because W's Social Security townhalls are limited to "supporters only."

Well. The appointed time rolled around, Mr. Hensarling introduced himself, and we were off. He gave us a thirty minute presentation on what he saw as the Social Security basics, which was highly in favor of the President's proposal, and then it was Q&A time. The first person lobbed him a softball.

But THEN—boy! Every person in that room was on him like a duck on a junebug. It was teeth and claws and long knives all the way. I was amazed to hear person after person, armed with printouts from the internet, question the basic assumptions he'd made, mention Alan Greenspan's take on it, wonder where the extra money to make the transition would come from, and basically, trash the entire idea six ways from Sunday. I didn’t even have to ask anything. Every single question I had was asked by the people in that room. And they did NOT sound happy, either. Actually, I was a little surprised that Mr. Hensarling left that room with all of his extremities intact.

I was impressed. Everyone who spoke was well informed, came armed with facts, and had a good point to make. Several made their points with heartfelt passion. If the other constituent meetings are anything like the one I attended, our representative will be going back to Washington with a real earful and maybe not quite so much enthusiasm for the President's plan. Here's hoping.

Here's the complete play-by-play, from my notes:

The presentation led off with Rep. Hensarling showing big pictures of his parents, who are 70, and his babies, who were quite cute in their little miniature football hero and cheerleader outfits. Here, of course, were his, very personal, reasons for wanting to make sure that Social Security would be taken care of. I was both touched by the family man image and at the same time rather cynically observed the appeal to our emotions.

Then, it was on to the charts. First, a big graph with a steep downward decline and a lot of red. He said that in 2018, Social Security will go from being "in the black" to being "in the red." The bullet points: "The Cost of Doing Nothing," which according to him would be a 10.4 trillion dollar deficit, or a 30% reduction in benefits, or a 43% increase in the payroll tax. He said that the cost of fixing it would go up $600 billion every year that we didn't fix it.

He seemed to like the phrase, "The security is coming out of social security," because he used it several times. He pointed out how much people pay into the system vs. how much they get out, calling this a "rate of return." He said that his grandparents had gotten a 12% "rate of return" on what they paid in, that his parents will get a 6% "rate of return," and his children will get maybe a 1% "rate of return." I thought it was interesting that he was using this very investment-like term to refer to Social Security – indicative of the framing they're using. He's making the assumption that Social Security is an investment plan.

Then he went on to the "proposal" bit. He said that any fair Social Security plan would ensure your "right to a secure retirement," that the "current system is unsustainable," that he would not be in favor of making any changes which would impact current retirees or those just about to retire, and that younger workers should be allowed to invest in personal accounts.

Then he went off on a riff about how Congress has wasted our money, and he talked a lot about boondoggles. He pointed out that "you don't own your Social Security," and used this to hype the private accounts. He said they'd be voluntary, and would have government backing, inflation protection, and guaranteed lifetime benefits. He compared the private accounts to the "thrift savings program" they have in Congress. He claimed at one point that "there has never been a four year period in American history where the stock market has gone down." (I wrinkled my forehead at that. Really? But how far did it go over those four years, and at the end of it, was it higher than when it started?)

A general observation: He repeatedly used the phrase "personal accounts." Obviously it's the official Republican talking point. However, the people who were attending the meeting repeatedly used the phrase, "private accounts." At one point he actually corrected a gentleman, saying that the phrase "personal accounts" was more correct because they came with a government guarantee. (I must confess, I'm not entirely sure about that bit.) The guy wasn't having any of that – he kept right on using the phrase "private accounts!"

Then, Q&A:

Q1: A softball. Guy "didn't think this is a bad idea," but wanted to make sure that people couldn't borrow against it like they can their 401k's. Hensarling said no, you can't and it was off to the races.

Q2: The questioner pointed out that the government will have to borrow to change over to private accounts. He had some figures which estimated that this would be a 15 trillion cost over 40 years, and cited Alan Greenspan and the CBO.

Response: (And this is an exact quote): "I just had a chance to talk to Alan Greenspan, and he favors personal accounts." The questioner, an older, gray-haired fellow with printouts in front of him, made a face. He didn't say much the rest of the time, but he kept giving off those sighs and rolling his eyes every time Hensarling would say something questionable.

Q2.5: Then it started to get entertaining; a younger woman jumped in (she seemed REALLY huffy, and did this more than once during the Q&A) and questioned his numbers, citing a 3.5 trillion dollar shortfall over 75 years, not a 10 trillion dollar one. He pointed out that the 10 trillion dollar shortfall figure was "using an infinite horizon," that is, to fix SS for all time.

THEN, he went back to the second question and said, "I do not agree with the proposition we have to borrow money to go to personal accounts." The government, according to him, is growing faster than ordinary American's household growth (it was something like 3% vs. 4%). He stated that we should save the rest of the SS surplus that we currently have, AND curtail the growth of government, and use this money to fund the cost of privatization.

Q3: The next questioner totally told Hensarling off. He pointed out that SS would be sound until 2050 if we used the IOUs that are in the system, and said that the government is "making seniors pay for the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich." (I felt like standing up and applauding.)

Response: Basically, what's done is done, although he certainly didn't use those words. Since it's all the same government, the IOUs are like leaving IOUs from yourself, to yourself. The money has to come from somewhere. The questioner, an older fellow, made a face and said, loudly, "If you borrowed ten dollars from your kid's piggy back, you'd pay it back, wouldn't you?" He was NOT giving an inch. I believe at this point a guy in the back of the room made some remarks, and the woman from question 2.5 made some remarks about his remarks, and I honestly thought the whole thing was about to degenerate into a free-for-all. People were quite obviously upset, and they were expressing their anger in no uncertain terms. One of the hosts – there were two county commissioners there – calmed them down and it went on.

Q4: This one was a beaut. A woman used a recent bill, HR 800, as an example of Congress's willingness to grant legal immunities to certain industries, and said, how can we be sure that you won't do the same thing for the financial industry which manages these accounts.

Now, of course he wanted to know what HR 800 was. Turns out it's a bill that grants gun-makers immunity from either lawsuit or prosecution, not sure which. WELL, this got him off onto the Second Amendment gun owner's rights blah blah blah. This woman wasn't having it. She said that she was citing this as an EXAMPLE of Congressional willingness to grant immunity to a specific industry. He pointed out that there were fraud laws on the books already. She pressed him to go on record as to whether or not he would vote to give immunity to a brokerage firm. He hemmed and hawed and said he didn't really understand the question.

At that point the entire room went after him. Several different people Chimed in and said the question was perfectly clear, and said, "If you give these accounts to Merrill Lynch or some brokerage firm like that, will you favor a law that keeps them from being prosecuted if they defraud the accounts?" At this point he kind of faded out and said something like, "You have the right to create a nest egg." He never really gave her a satisfactory response, in my opinion.

Oh, and here was another meme he seemed to want to get out there: He kept saying that Congress had, recently,
- cut SS benefits 6 times
- raised taxes 20 times
- raided the SS fund 59 times.
He seemed to be trying to use this as an argument for privatization, in effect saying that "more of the same" won't work. I'm not sure anyone bought this. He was trying to sell a "government is the problem" idea, and the people in that room seemed to be saying, "Yes, and you're part OF IT."

Q5: Asked for a recap of how Hensarling thought the transition to private accounts would cost nothing (see above.)

Q6: This one was pure gold. The questioner, who I believe was actually one of the county commissioners, a well-dressed, well-spoken gentleman, got up, thanked the speaker, ornamented his question with a few more politenesses and then went for the kill. "If you're taking money out of Social Security to pay for private accounts, doesn't that just make the overall system worse?"

I was thrilled; this was exactly the question I'd wanted to ask. Honestly, I don't have anything clear written down at this point and I'm not sure if it was because I was so excited I didn't hear what he had to say or if what he had to say didn't make any sense. He certainly didn't have a nice pithy phrase to regurgitate at us, or at least, he didn't have one that stuck in my mind. He talked about a government guarantee and that the money would have to earn at least 3.3% and if for some reason a private account performed under that you'd still get the guaranteed minimum, and he also resorted to saying that these accounts would be totally voluntary and you wouldn't have to join them if you didn't want to and then he sort of trailed off.

Of course, I could be biased. Next time I go to one of these things I'll take a tape recorder so I can verify that what I remember as pathetic waffling really IS pathetic waffling.

Q7: Pointed out that no matter what the accounts did, presumably the fund managers would still get their commissions that they made from managing the accounts? (This was asked in a pointy way, and got a lot of nods.)

He responded that it would be possible to have the government contract written in such a way that the commissions were performance based.

Q8: Given that government spending was up so much, all of those stories that you have told us about today, isn't it up to Congress to stop pork barrel spending? (This person was clearly ANGRY, and seemed out to pick a bone with the Congressman, and the question got a lot more nods from the crowd.)

He responded that he had introduced the most conservative budget ever, (did this guy really introduce a budget, I wondered? I might have to check on that.) But, that not everyone in Congress agreed with his viewpoints on things. (I felt like informing him that the majority in congress is now Republican, what's up with that, all these big-government tax-and-spend conservatives? However, I refrained from editorializing.)

And the meeting was over. Rep. Hensarling attempted to flee but was obtained by an older gentleman who really, really wanted his say. Actually, he appeared to want to rip the Congressman a new one about this whole idea, and was trying to get a show of hands to see who in the room agreed or disagreed with privatization, but the meeting was pretty much over at that point. So, they had a sidebar conversation (a LOUD one), and I fled for the parking lot, where I pointed the car towards my office and had a hearty, five minute laugh.

I figure the Representative was not expecting to have the conversation that he did. And he was going to do that again five times that day. I wonder how the rest of his meetings went?


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7:54 PM  

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