November 07, 2004


I haven't been rabidly political all my life, you know; I don't even think I'm rabidly political now. I care, but I don't care a lot. I find politics more interesting than I used to, but I also quickly reach an overload point where I just need to tune it all out.

For some reason, one thing people who've found themselves drifting rightward over the years cannot resist doing is chronicling the drift, trying to pinpoint where it all began, laughing at where they used to be Before, before they did that thing they never, ever thought they'd do and Actually Voted for a Republican, Can You Believe It?

If you think I'm kidding, check out this old comment thread at Tim Blair's. For every one guy who posts, "Gee, I've always been conservative," (the first few comments in the thread are mainly that) there are 19 others derisively but good-naturedly recalling their days with the Green Party.

I don't really know why right-leaners find this activity so fun. I do think it shores up the assertion that people on the right are made, not born.

Here is one of my Defining Political Moments or whatever, as nearly as I can recall it. If I'm disciplined enough this next week, I'll write about more of them and make it a series.

No promises.


I am in the seventh grade at a junior high school in Cupertino, California, during an election year: 1980. I don't know anything about any of the candidates, but I do know I'm a Goldilocks sort of person who wants the bed neither too soft nor too hard, so I figure that probably if I could vote, I'd vote for John Anderson, the independent. In the addled reasoning of my 11 year-old brain, his being neither a Democrat nor a Republican must mean that he is Just Right.

Many of my classmates are very political and there's a lot of discussion going on and lots of surveys being taken on Who We'd Vote For, If We Could Vote. When I get corralled into one of these I give my stock answer of "Anderson" and it usually registers no more than "hmm, okay," in reply. This is fine with me because I'm not interested in this nearly as much as I'm interested in getting the attention of a boy in my English class.

One day a strident, obnoxious girl I'm not fond of asks me who I would vote for. You know, in case 11 year-olds ever get the vote and all.

"Anderson, I guess."

"Anderson? That's throwing your vote away."

"Well, I can't vote anyway so I guess it doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters. Why wouldn't you vote for Carter?"

"I dunno. I just like Anderson better."

"Well, who are your parents voting for, then?"

Oh, good. I actually know the answer to this one. "Reagan," I tell her.

The girl literally sprays me with spit. "REAGAN?!?"

"Man, Debbie--say it, don't spray it."

"How could they vote for Reagan? Did you know Reagan wants to take away old people's Social Security?"

"What's that?"

"It's the money they get from the government after they retire! Without it they'd all STARVE!"

"That's terrible."

"Of COURSE it's terrible! Your parents are INSANE!"

Wow. I have never actually considered that my parents might be mental before. I don't always get along with them, but this is the first time someone's suggested that might be due to insanity on their part.

It sure sounds crazy, to vote for a guy who'd be so mean to old people like this. "I don't know why they would vote for someone who'd do something awful like that," I apologize to Debbie. "But maybe they don't know about this."

"Well, TELL them. And then ask them how they could vote for a MONSTER like Reagan."

"I will. I'll ask 'em tonight."

Debbie shakes her head disgustedly and moves on to the next student.

That night I ask my mother how she could vote for a mean guy like Ronald Reagan who wants to starve old people. Old people are the very nicest people I know. My grandparents are old people and they are wonderful to me. Why does my mother want to starve them?

My mother sighs. "Who told you that?"

"This girl at school."

"A friend of yours?"

"Not really."

My mother asks, "Do you know how Social Security works?"

"No," I admit. "I didn't even know what it was."

"Social Security is like a retirement program managed by the government."

"Okay," I say, "What's wrong with that?"

"In theory, nothing's wrong with that. It's a nice idea. In theory, you put money in while you're working and take it out when you retire."

"Like a bank?"

"Not exactly. What actually happens is the government takes the money out of your paycheck as a tax and puts it into a program called Social Security."

"But you pay taxes in April."

"You do. We do. This money for Social Security comes out automatically before that, though. The money we pay in taxes on April 15 goes to other things."

"Okay." I'm still not seeing why Debbie was so upset. And what about the old people? My mother goes on:

"The problem is the way it's set up. The way it's set up, there's not enough money when you retire, when you start to collect Social Security, to make up for what you put in while you were working."

"So we should put more money in?"

"That's one . . . look, do you know what a pyramid scheme is?"


"Okay," my mother sighs again. "I'll try to explain it to you. In a pyramid scheme, there's a large base of people at the bottom who are putting just a little money into something, some investment. They're the bottom of the pyramid. And because there are so many of them, they don't have to put in very much individually to create a large sum all together. Are you following this so far?"

"Kind of . . . ."

"If you have 100 people each contributing $1, you wind up with $100 total. But if you have only 20 people contributing, they would each need to kick in $5 to get $100 total."


"At the top of the pyramid, you have a very small portion of people collecting and drawing off the money contributed by the people at the base of the pyramid. The theory of a pyramid scheme is that people start at at the base of the pyramid contributing small amounts, migrating over time to the top of the pyramid, where they take out large amounts. Or rather, that's not how a pyramid scheme actually works, but it's how the people on the bottom think it will work. In reality, the people at the top stay right where they are, collecting all the money. That's why pyramid schemes are illegal."

"But then--"

"Hold on. Don't interrupt. I'm not saying Social Security is exactly like a pyramid scheme, but the operation of it depends on something like it. It depends on a large pool of current workers putting money in, so that the relatively small pool of retired workers at the top will have plenty of money to take out."

"Why don't they just take out the money they put in? Why do they take out money put in by the other people?" I'm not following this at all. They take out other people's money?

"What happened to the money they put in?" I want to know.

"It's still there. But over time, it doesn't buy as much as it used to, because it hasn't been invested well and isn't earning enough interest to make up for inflation. It doesn't have the value that it used to and won't buy them what they need. You've heard your dad talk about what candy bars used to cost when he was little? They cost more now, don't they? They cost more, and they're smaller."

That's true, I think, although I have sometimes wondered if my dad was making this up. A nickel for a candy bar?

And I think I kind of know what inflation is. I hear about it on the news a lot. Apparently it's bad. My parents have been complaining about it.

Interest I am less sure about. "What's interest?"

"Interest is--interest is something you'll understand better when you have your own bank account. For now . . . if you put your allowance in the piggy bank, what happens to it?"

This seems like an awfully dumb question to me. "It stays there."

"Right. But if you were to put that money in a real bank, like your father and I do, it would stay there and earn interest. Interest is money the bank pays you based on how much you have in your bank account, more or less."


"We'll talk about that some other time. To get back to Social Security, what's happening is--is several things. For one thing, people aren't having as many babies as they used to, so there will eventually be fewer new workers to enter the base of the pyramid, and that base will shrink. Remember what I said about how much each worker needs to contribute to make $100?"

"Uh . . . ."

"Pay attention," she admonishes. "You're smart enough to understand this if you try. The fewer workers at the base of the pyramid, the more each worker has to pay into it for the people at the top to collect enough money. That's one problem with the Social Security system. The base is shrinking. That means more money comes out of each worker's paycheck."

"Then it gets a little complicated" my mother continues, "but basically, what with the shrinking base, the effects of inflation, and the poor interest, the people at the top are not able to collect as much as they should. Over time, they put a lot of money in while they were working. Now, the only way for them to get sufficient money out is for the workers at the base to contribute more."

"Then the workers should contribute more. It's not fair to the old people!"

"It's also not fair," my mother says gently, "to the workers. They're trying to raise families and feed their children, and they could use that money themselves. Worst of all, when they eventually reach the top of the pyramid, the very same thing is going to happen to them: There won't be enough money for them to live on. Do you think that's fair?"

"No," I admit. "But--"

"The other problem is at the top of the pyramid," my mother goes on, "The problem at the top is that people are living longer. That's a good thing, a very good thing, but it causes a problem in a pyramid scheme. When Social Security first started, it assumed people wouldn't live long after they retired, and therefore, they wouldn't spend nearly as much time at the top of the pyramid taking out, as they did lower down in the pyramid putting in. It assumed there would always be plenty of money available, that more would be going in than would be coming out."

"The reason your father and I would like to see changes made to Social Security," she continues, "is that we don't want to be hungry and poor when we retire. If we could have some of the money we put into Social Security and put some of it into our own savings, we could make sure there would be enough money for us once we quit working. But we can't do that, because the government takes that money automatically. What it amounts to is that we're paying for a service we may never receive, or that won't be much good if we do. Now your friend--"

"She's NOT my friend," I interrupt. I have never really liked Debbie.

"Well, this girl at school is right to be concerned about Social Security benefits. No one wants seniors to go hungry, to be poor after all those years of working. But she's wrong about the best way to prevent that from happening. She may not understand Social Security any better than you did," my mother concludes, "so if she asks you about this again, maybe you should try to explain it to her."


The next day at school Debbie corners me right after PE. "Well?" she sneers. "What did your parents say about Reagan?" She says "Reagan" like it's a cuss.

"They don't want to starve old people," I tell her. "But they don't think Social Security does what it's supposed to do. See, it's like a pyramid, and what's happening is--"

The forecast for Debbie today must have read, "Partly salivary with an 80% chance of spittle."

"OHHHHHH!" she says sprays, actually stamping her foot, "That is such right-wing PROPAGANDA!"

"Listen! You didn't let me finish--"

"I don't need to LET YOU FINISH!" she rages. "I've already heard this pathetic excuse and it's BULLSHIT!"

"But I'm not surprised," she sneers, before I can get a word in. "Coming from a bunch of MORMONS, I'm not surprised AT ALL."

And before I can puzzle out what my family's religion has to do with any of this, she turns around and walks away.

Eventually I quit telling classmates I would vote for Anderson. I start saying "Reagan" instead.

Sometimes I don't like my mother at all, but I think she is probably smarter than Debbie.

And she definitely spits at me less.

Posted by Ilyka at November 7, 2004 04:44 PM in navel gazing

I can't imagine trying to get my 11-year-old mind around understanding a pyramid scheme. It's hard enough as an adult sometimes, as an 11 year-old I would've given up and wound up keeping my money stuff in my matress.

But dude-your post had me giggling. Seriously.

Posted by: Helen at November 8, 2004 11:05 AM

Wow. So many years and so little has changed!

Posted by: Jim at November 8, 2004 03:34 PM

No kidding, Jim. I was thinking the same thing. But you know, the 11 year olds of 1980 are today's 35 year olds...

Posted by: caltechgirl at November 8, 2004 08:09 PM

Great post :)

I think my fate was sealed when I was 13 and we had to do a social studies report on the Ford/Carter election. I'd volunteered at the Ford HQ and was wearing a Ford button on the bus ride home (In Berkeley, no less) and a guy got up and started yelling at me telling me how stupid I was. Not a soul on the bus told the big adult man to stop screaming at a child, of course. Finally, his stop came up and he went away.

That memory was SEARED!! into my mind :) There was very little chance I'd grow up to be a Democrat after that. I cast my first Presidential vote for Reagan. That guy on the bus has only himself to blame!

Posted by: Ith at November 9, 2004 12:28 AM