The War Against Social Security

The People’s Pension:
The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan

by Eric Laursen
AK Press, 2012, 818 pp.

Eric Laursen has written a highly readable, exhaustively researched history of the last thirty years of struggles over Social Security. His story about this ongoing war against Social Security is both timely and sobering.

Laursen’s masterful account is timely because it brings to light, just on the cusp of its possible victory, a well-orchestrated, richly financed, powerful effort to undo Social Security. Bipartisan discussions are currently taking place behind closed doors in Washington. It is not hyperbolic to say that the discussions could lead to legislative changes to Social Security that would gradually but inexorably result in its demise.

The People’s Pension is sobering because it provides a disturbing answer to an intriguing and paradoxical question: why are today’s political leaders on the verge of cutting, rather than expanding, the most successful and popular social/economic program in the history of the United States? Laursen reveals the forces that have led so many politicians to be ready, even eager, to reject the wishes of their constituents, notwithstanding that championing Social Security is both winning politics and policy.

Let’s start with the politics. The American public overwhelmingly supports Social Security. From those who identify with the Tea Party movement to those who have union members in the household, across virtually every demographic, the American people value the protection that Social Security provides by insuring workers and their families against the loss of wages in the event of disability, old age, or premature death. They believe that Social Security is more important than ever. They do not want its modest benefits cut.

The American people have it right. The Social Security system provides the most universal, fair, secure, and efficient source of retirement income in the nation. It provides the largest, and often only, source of middle-class families’ life insurance and disability insurance. With the decline of traditional pensions, the riskiness of 401(k) plans, and the loss of home equity, Social Security’s benefits should be increased, not decreased.

Social Security is fully affordable. Its benefits are modest by virtually any measure. They average just $13,500 a year, less than full-time, minimum wage work. In relation to the wages they are designed to replace, Social Security benefits in 2012 replace only a little more than a quarter of the wages of workers earning around $100,000; around 40 percent of the wages of workers earning around $40,000; and about 55 percent of the wages of workers earning around $20,000. Moreover, these already minimal replacement rates will be lower in the future, as the result of already enacted changes. They rank toward the bottom when measured again...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.