This is why Social Security is so important

Dry subject, I know, but the inordinate amount of interest I continue to see from the right wing, especially among young people, in privatizing Social Security concerns me, because it's clear that these young people don't really understand the purpose of the program.

The common objections to the Social Security program is that, compared to other investments, you don't get a good return on your dollar, and that's true. But Social Security gives you something else as a tradeoff--security. You'll have a defined benefit at the end, when you retire, or if you're disabled. You get security and you sacrifice a little money.

"But," these young people say, "I'm not concerned about safety, because over time, I'll do better on my own." Maybe you will, I reply. Or maybe you'll wind up like these people.

Trent Charlton knew the risks when he borrowed $10,000 from his 401(k) and cut his retirement savings in half.

But Charlton, a 40-year-old account executive at an Irvine, Calif., trucking company, said he had little choice because he and his wife could not keep up with monthly expenses after American Express reduced the limits on three credit cards.

As home prices fall and banks tighten lending standards, more people are doing the same thing: raiding their retirement savings just to get by and spending their nest eggs to gas up SUVs, pay mortgages or put food on the table.

That's right--more and more people are tapping into, not their savings (they don't have any of that any more), but their retirement accounts. They're burning their futures now, and betting on the idea that they'll get to make it up later. And the guy in that story doesn't have much of one to begin with--$20K in a 401(k) at age 40 isn't much, and it certainly isn't enough to be borrowing from at this point.

Now take this guy, and take away his Social Security backup. Now he's looking at working until he's dead, because he's eating his retirement now and there's no way he can make it up later.

That's why the first real defeat the Congressional Democrats handed King George the Lesser way back in 2005 over Social Security was so important--because it protected that safety net that will catch people like Trent Charlton if he's never able to repay his 401(K), or worse, never able to start contributing again. He'll have something--it might not be enough to maintain the lifestyle he's accustomed to, but it'll be something.

Here's the reason why any real privatization of Social Security has to fail. We're going to spend that money anyway. We've decided, as a nation, that it's a good thing to make sure seniors and disabled people don't starve to death on the street, so we provide a pension for them. It might not be enough, but it's something. So even if we privatize, when those people who made bad choices or who had the market collapse at the wrong time for them or who just had shit-bad luck are no longer able to work and the choices are let them starve or help them out, we'll help them out. We're going to pay it, one way or another. At least this way, everyone shares the burden.

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