Words, words, words

Maybe a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. If you called a rose a “thorny, prairie, invasive,”would you stop to smell it? Would it matter that the flower is pretty? Musk thistles have beautiful flowers, but I’m not sure I could tell you what one smells like. Seeing a large purple pompon lifting it’s head above my hay field makes me feel significantly different from finding a blossom on my rose bushes, prickly as they are.

The same thing happens when we boil down complex issues to a single word or phrase. What does it mean when someone refers to me as a “liberal”? How about a “socialist”? A “redneck”? A “demagogue”? A “fascist”?

One could say that “conservatives” seek to “liberally” slash spending while “liberals” look to “conserve” program funding. In the former Soviet Union the “conservatives” sought to keep the communist status quo while liberals fought to be governed in a way which favored capitalism and individual rights. The terms mean very little when it comes to describing what is really being proposed.

So what does it mean when economic policies are being debated in Washington, DC, is labelled as “liberal,” “conservative,” “socialist,” or “moderate?” Political commentator, Rachel Maddow recently shared the following quotes:

“Workers have a right to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with their employers. And a strong, free labor movement is an invigorating and necessary part of our industrial society.”

“Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice.”

“Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible and their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Who was she quoting? Barack Obama? John F. Kennedy? Bill Clinton? No. These are all quotes from Dwight D. Eisenhower, a president hardly thought of as being liberal. Yet, the position supported by these quotes seem to be “liberal” in today’s political debate.

We are told that our economic problems will be solved if we just cut “entitlements” like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Never mind that Social Security has always funded itself with payroll taxes and is not part of the nation’s deficit. We are convinced that it is necessary to “reform social security” to make the program viable into the future. Using the term “entitlement” makes the program seem as though it is unearned and unjustified.

What does it mean to “reform social security?” Reform really means cuts in benefits to your mother, your father, your grandma, and even you. Maybe you have enough 401K’s and other investments to tide you over into old age, but that is not true for everyone. Many people  have not had enough income to save in a retirement account. Even those who did saw the principle they tucked away be eaten up in the Stock Market crash a couple of years ago. Social Security, whether you think it should be different or not, is the main source of security for many older Americans. It is an essential part of what keeps many older people from living in abject poverty. It is those same Americans who spent their life making your bed in motels, serving your meals in restaurants, ringing up your sales in the grocery store and cleaning public restrooms, These are not lazy, irresponsible workers and Social Security is not a program of welfare. We all benefit from it, directly or indirectly. Recently the co-chair of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission to characterized the program that allowed my parents to live in their own home as a undeserved entitlement. In an e-mail to the executive director of the National Older Women’s League (OWL), Simpson compared Social Security to “a milk cow with 310 million  tits!” And he concluded by telling Ms. Carson to “call when you get honest work!”

There are two ways that we personally deal with economic problems like we have on a national scale. One: we cut our spending. We can spend less on things we don’t need. But we cannot spend less on everything. Some things just cost the same regardless of our income.

On the other hand, we can raise more money to pay the bills.  We can get another job or in the case of government, we can collect more taxes. We can fund Social Security into the future by increasing the amount of income that is taxed to pay for it. All of my earnings are taxed because I don’t make more than $106,000. Because I am self-employed I pay both the employer and the employee shares of FICA taxes. The more money you make over the $106,000 limit, the smaller percentage of tax you are paying on your total income. For those who get a major part of their income from investments, the percentage paid is even less because capital gains are not considered “earned income” and no FICA taxes are paid on those amounts.

We can cut spending on the so-called “entitlements” and discretionary spending. This will impact the people who would have gotten those funds, the poor needing Medicaid, the elderly receiving less Social Security and Medicare, the babies and mothers suffering from food insecurity, poor children with educational needs, the elderly needing assistance to pay their heating bills. These recipients of our tax dollars will probably not dig deeper into their trust funds to pay these bills themselves. They simply will go without something. This will not stimulate any spending and to the contrary will result in a downward spiral of the economy as more and more people do without. Those who are receiving the largest part of tax cuts will not necessarily spend any more. They have enough food, enough houses, enough heating oil. They will stash their savings into off-shore and tax sheltered accounts. They will not go without anything essential.

Am I talking about “class warfare”? “Redistribution of wealth”? Maybe. But maybe it is the wealth created by workers who have more than doubled their productivity since the 1950’s that has been redistributed to those at the top of our economic system. The difficulties we are facing on not just “liberal” or “conservative.” How our economic system works is complex and interconnected and cannot be understood by throwing around single words and sound bites.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains