I might be starting to disagree with Atrios on this one. Maybe Barack Obama has done a good thing putting Social Security back on the table for debate because...just as with S-CHIP, when the subject comes up conservatives like George Will can't resist revealing their inner Ebenzer Scrooge.
Sixty-five days from now, the first of 78 million baby boomers begun (sic) to retire. Most Americans who collect Social Security begin to collect it at age 62, which is absurd. We have the public subsidizing increasingly long and comfortable retirement of people for a third to a half of their adult lifetime. Now. That’s why one in four voters in 2004 was over 60 years old. The elderly have the biggest stake in the welfare state, which exists to transfer wealth to them. So this is, politically, a loser.
First, Ebenezer...I mean, George...let's define comfortable.
By comfortable do you mean able to live off something more than cat food and unafraid to turn the heat up in winter?
Or are a steady diet of Little Friskies and a space heater your idea of living the life of Riley and is anyone who expects more than that with help from a government program that they kicked in to for 40 or so years a shiftless cheat and a chisler?
Will is actually worse than Scrooge because Scrooge was content for the social welfare system of his day---workhouses and debtors' prisons---to continue its function and he was even willing to pay taxes to support it. He just wasn't willing to contribute more than the minimum of what he considered his fair share and---this was an even greater evil on his part in Dickens' mind, the root of all his other sins---he refused to imagine how hard life could be on his fellow men and women. Secret, solitary, and self-contained as an oyster, Scrooge made a point of not looking outside his shell.
Will gets outside his shell. He sees what's going on. He can imagine what life is like for other people, and it bothers him, because it's not hard enough.
He's like the gentlemen of the workhouse board who lecture Oliver Twist on his sin of having been born and born poor and his compounding of the sin by becoming an orphan. Men who would just as soon Oliver had never been born, they remind him to be grateful to them for allowing him not to starve to death.
The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and
when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered- the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. "Oho!" said the board, looking very knowing; "we are the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, in no time." So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors' Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.
Will, no doubt, thinks that Social Security makes old age a continual vacation on a Carnival cruise ship and he would agree with the gentlemen of the board that a better and more morally uplifting way to save people from the effects of their own misfortune is to make them frightened of becoming misfortunate.
Faced with a miserable and starved and cold old age, people will get on the stick and get busy getting rich or at least avoiding being poor. If they don't avoid it, if bad luck or bad health or bad decisions by the company you work for or out and out theft of your pension fund by that company's executives leaves you hurting for money into your seventh decade, well, that's your own doing, isn't it, and how dare you expect the public to subsidize your comfortable old age.
How dare you get old, Will says, lecturing the Boomers about to cash their first Social Security checks.
How dare you get old without having gotten rich?
How dare you stop working at an age when the economic system I otherwise cheerlead for unquestioningly has no more use for you?
How dare you keep on living, comfortably, after we have no more use for you, continuing on for decades, comfortably, through illness, increasing weakness, debility, and senescence?
How dare you not have the good sense to just die and decrease the surplus population?
I know, Scrooge's joke. But for Scrooge it is a joke. He uses it to deflect any calls upon his sympathy. He doesn't necessarily mean it.
Which is why Scrooge is given a chance and hope of redemption.
The gentlemen of the board aren't as fortunate. They turn up again in A Christmas Carol, blown about on the wind with the ghosts of all the others like them who in life had refused to use the power they had to help others:
The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took,
the window raised itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open. It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley's Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped.
Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.