Getting it almost right

Posted: Nov 13, 2002 12:00 AM
An awful problem U.S. conservatives have when their eyes stray from the heavenly paradigm to the political trough is: How to say it? If the descriptive word throws people off, then political survival requires that it be replaced or cleaned up. Artists run into that problem, and are brave enough to abide by the dictates of cultural integrity when obscenity is at bay. When that happens nowadays, on the altar of truth and courage, exactly the right word is given. Everybody with the possible exception of this newspaper will spell out, "Soprano"-style, the word that means to copulate, but not many will write the word Mark Twain used to describe the ethnic background of Huckleberry Finn's Jim.

That is the kind of thing -- the rejection of the useful word -- that has happened to economic reform. The analysts point out that to "privatize" Social Security is a devil-formulation, to be resisted by political candidates to save life and limb. For one thing, the expression -- privatizing Social Security -- takes short cuts, because it is nowhere (practically nowhere) recommended that the whole Social Security account be put in the hands of the subscriber, to be dealt with as he/she wishes.

Reforms tend not to come in complete packages, Prohibition being the great exception. Proposals being put forward by contemporary politicians deal with only one part of the Social Security package -- one-eighth of it, in typical reform talk. The idea being that one part of that accumulating sum of money should be invested by the Social Security subscriber as individually desired, though (as in Chile) only in authorized securities -- no wildcat wells, but OK in utilities, insurance, banks, whatever.

The word "privatize" seems to convey greed and risk and submission to Snidely Whiplash, the snaky character who sneeringly ties helpless damsels across the railroad track. The visionary can understand and applaud a total removal of Social Security savings from federal control, subject only to a regulated withdrawal rate to meet the requirements of pension disbursement, and providing then a capital pool that the existing system of course does not provide. But although in North Carolina under Elizabeth Dole and in New Hampshire under John Sununu the voters seemed to endorse something in the nature of liberating one part of the Social Security fund for individual economic deployment, politicians shrink from the word "privatizing," as they do from "vouchers" for private schools.

It is so also with "death duties." It is reassuring that although only 2 percent of estates pay any death duties, 60 percent of Americans favor continuing reforms of the kind adumbrated by the bill passed two years ago, which, however, is programmed to terminate in 10 years.

Here the devil-words are: Only the rich stand to benefit. The reason President Bush is nevertheless intending to persist in death-duty reforms is that there is an intuitive notion out among the public that it's wrong (wrong is different from not a good idea) to tax already taxed gains. But argument for total relief suffers, again, from the extremity of the paradigm. The same problem inheres in the flat tax. The French call it a "fausse idee claire" -- taxing everyone by the same percentage of their income is a terrific idea, but you are still left with the problem of welfare for those who cannot provide for their own.

Another reform? The elimination of any capital-gains tax. What we are hearing now is something that goes part way -- a reduction in the tax from the present level. To call for an end to it plays into the hands of those dragons who come snarling to life at any mention of privatizing Social Security, ending the capital-gains tax, and eliminating its progressive feature.

Years ago a social philosopher wrote that modern politics has become the substituting of political for economic means of acquiring wealth. That is so, and the consequences of it necessarily impinge on President Bush when he lays out his economic reforms. Those who believe in true equality, which of course denies different rates of taxation for different scales of earning, have to wince, and, for relief, direct our eyes back to the heavens, unsullied by the dross of politics.