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March 2005 (Volume 56, Number 10)

» Notes from the Editors
March 2005 (Volume 56, Number 10)

In the face of continuing right-wing attacks on Social Security since the Reagan era in the 1980s, MR has responded repeatedly by pointing to the phony nature of the Social Security crisis. Two articles of note are Jacob Morris, “Social Security: The Phony Crisis” in the February 1983 issue of MR and “Social Security, the Stock Market, and the Elections” in the October 2000 issue. Those wanting a thorough historical understanding of this struggle are encouraged to look back at these articles. Given the nature of the right-wing onslaught, which all along has pretended that the Social Security trust fund was threatened with “bankruptcy,” MR’s chief thrust has been to dispel such misconceptions. Our primary purpose has been to counter what has been one of the major propaganda campaigns of our time. If Social Security is in peril of “collapse” it is only because of current plans to privatize it. However, there is a great danger in this controversy of getting drawn into endless debates on the financing of the Social Security system in the United States, while losing sight of the more fundamental issues.

In order to quiet conservative criticisms and to make Social Security virtually impregnable to right-wing attacks, the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt constructed it as an autonomous function of the government, with its own regressive payroll taxes, a trust fund, and an administration to govern the system. All of this was seen by Roosevelt as the necessary means of guaranteeing that Social Security would not be dismantled by capital at the first opportunity. Referring to the payroll taxes, he stated, “Those taxes were never a problem of economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program” (quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal, 308–309).

Today Social Security is being treated as an economic problem—a system on the verge of insolvency that urgently needs to be overhauled and privatized. The particular claims made by the Bush administration and the right in general in this regard are all patently false. But what most needs to be understood is that this is a political question through and through; it has little or nothing to do with financial integrity. The social insurance programs developed in Europe and still existing in most advanced capitalist countries provide retirement benefits (and benefits associated with early death and disability) to a large extent out of the general tax revenue of the government. They do not rely exclusively on a regressive payroll tax as in the case of Social Security in the United States in order to fund their systems. Moreover, there is no fuss in such societies about social insurance “trust funds” since these benefits are allocated on a pay-as-you-go basis, which is indeed the only rational way in which such a system of social insurance can be set up. (In the convoluted U.S. system, the government borrows from Social Security when it is in surplus, depositing interest-bearing Treasury certificates in the trust fund, and must later redeem these certificates with interest when Social Security is in deficit. In practice this amounts to a pay-as-you-go system disguised as something else.)

In essence, Social Security should be viewed not as a fund but as a promise made to the workers of this country and a fundamental right of human beings. It is not a set of special privileges that can be lost or withdrawn if seen as too costly by the wealthy. Why should Social Security be forced to meet tests of financial integrity and not be allowed to draw on the general tax revenue for its funding while the massive and rapidly growing military budget is subject to no such constraints? Why should paltry Social Security benefits not be extended further to cover more amply the needs of recipients? These are the questions we should be asking. Let us hope that the working population of this country will demonstrate once again that they have not been duped into giving up their historic, hard-won gains for the false promises of the “ownership society.”

We were saddened to learn of the death on January 5, 2005, in Manhattan of Robert Heilbroner, best known as the author of the classic introduction to economic thought, The Worldly Philosophers, along with many other works. (One of us was first introduced to economics in junior high school through a reading of his Worldly Philosophers.) As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1930s Heilbroner had Paul Sweezy as his tutor. In the April 1999 issue of MR (in celebration of Paul’s ninetieth birthday) Heilbroner wrote this of his early mentor:

I did not see Paul much in those days [the years following the Second World War] but I talked with him constantly—not in person but in my head. That conversation still continues as I have turned more and more to a consideration of the growing tendency of economists to consider their work a science. Never mind the disappearance of social formations, of power and obedience, of social norms and class interests, all central to economic thought as Paul and I still silently discussed it. I rather doubt that Paul was ever aware of his voice within my head, but I am certain he knew of such a connection with many others, like himself in search of a perspective from which one could better grasp the world. Marx is no doubt indispensable for that task, but not exclusively—at least, that is what I seem to hear Paul telling me.

It is clear that this “silent discussion” had a significant impact on Heilbroner’s work, causing him, despite an orientation that was frequently guided by establishment discourse, to return again and again to the big questions. In our view his most important and radical book was The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (1985) in which the core chapter was entitled “The Regime of Capital.” Heilbroner used this term to describe Marx’s general formula for capital or M–C–M: representing capital’s drive toward endless accumulation. This prompted Sweezy to elaborate on his own understanding of this aspect of Marx’s thought and Heilbroner’s interpretation, also under the title of “The Regime of Capital” (MR, January 1986). These analyses (as well as Marx’s own earlier treatment) should be “required readings” for students of political economy today. In his work as a whole Heilbroner remained true to the need to get Beyond the Veil of Economics (the title of another major work). He was not, as he liked to observe, an “economist’s economist,” but rather an economist as critic. More of his kind are needed.

As this issue was about to go to the printer, we learned of the death of our friend and comrade Ossie Davis. Ossie was a defining force in American film and theater as well as a powerful voice in the struggles for social justice and equality. Last January we celebrated Ossie and his wife and partner Ruby Dee as they were honored at the Kennedy Center and noted their contributions both to the arts and the fight for humanely engaged social change. As actor, writer, and director Ossie put his art at the service of his politics. For more than a half-century, he demonstrated, walked picket lines, raised money for the civil rights and antiwar movements, demanded justice for the Rosenbergs, and put his body on the line against police brutality—not to mention a multitude of other causes. The scope of his engagement is evident in his eulogizing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. at their funerals as well as chairing and speaking at Paul Sweezy’s memorial meeting last spring.

Ossie once wrote “The profoundest commitment possible to a black creator in this country today—beyond all creeds, crafts, classes and ideologies whatsoever—is to bring before his people the scent of freedom.”

Perhaps that should be his epitaph.

We will miss him.

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