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Michael Kinsley

Life as We Don't Know It

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page B07

Based on the two big domestic stories of last week -- Terri Schiavo and Social Security personoramification (or whatever they want us to call it instead of privatization) -- the Republican philosophy seems to be that people need more control over their own retirements but less control over their own deaths.

Based on recent polls, most people feel the exact opposite. They prefer the modest but certain Social Security check they get every month over the opportunity to spend their twilight years nursing their portfolios and worrying every time Alan Greenspan's successors open their mouths. On the other hand, they want to set for themselves the rules about their own final departure. Specifically, people are terrified of being kept joylessly alive, active minds trapped in shut-down bodies or lost minds mocking the dignity of a lifetime, just to prove somebody's political point.

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The Schiavo case is not exactly about anyone's right to die, since we don't know whether Schiavo would want to die in her current circumstances. But concern about being able to choose death over pain and/or extreme degradation is what has riveted people to the Schiavo story.

This is far from illogical. A Congress that has diddled for decades while a growing fraction of the populace has no health insurance, and a president who lectures us constantly about the evils of big government, managed to pass and sign a law within a day trying to keep Terri Schiavo on life support for another 15 or 30 or 45 years.

Why have they done this? There is a reflexive habit in Washington of assuming that everything Bush does is the result of opportunism. If he were to cure cancer in his spare time, people would ask, "What is Karl Rove up to?" In fact, George W. Bush is probably more motivated by principled belief than any other recent president. He enjoys the stubborn conviction of the unreflective mind. Unfortunately -- or fortunately for the Democrats -- his principled convictions are often wrong and sometimes unpopular. This leaves an opening for rival principled convictions, if only the Democrats had some to spare.

In the Schiavo case, Bush and de facto House Speaker Tom DeLay earnestly believe that human life is a gift from God that no one has the right to extinguish. "No one" includes the person whose life it is. The president and Congress probably would not swoop down and prevent a family from pulling the plug if everyone involved agreed that this was the unambiguous wish of the patient herself. But the situation is rarely so clear. Even when there are living wills, people's wishes are often thwarted. The right to die on your own terms -- and, more important, the ability to take comfort in knowing, long before you need to, that you will have that right if you wish to exercise it -- is barely alive. Clearly, if Bush and DeLay had their way, they would pull the plug on that notion.

Bush's motive for pushing so hard on Social Security reform is more mysterious. But the possibility of idealism must be entertained, because any cynical motive for threatening Social Security seems so far-fetched. The explanation can't be Bush's official one, that the system will be in crisis by 2042. Anyone worried about financial crises in 2042 should be sobbing inconsolably about a half-dozen big issues likely to explode sooner. Further, Bush has as good as admitted that privatization won't solve the trust fund crisis. Well, he has admitted that privatization "alone" won't solve the crisis, when in fact it won't solve the crisis at all, except by fiat. His "plan" -- still no details -- assumes that the trust fund will be made actuarially sound as a prerequisite for privatization. It's not much of a magic trick to pull a rabbit out of your hat if you start by demanding a rabbit to put in the hat.

People say Bush's real motive for privatizing Social Security is to turn millions of Americans into Republicans over the next half-century by giving them a stake in the stock market. You could call this idealism or Rovism, but it would be Rovism on a stick so long that it almost doesn't count. Something similar did work politically for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She allowed millions of Britons living in public housing to buy their apartments, thereby creating a whole class of homeowners.

But this technique appeals to a very different kind of conservatism than the one Bush is offering. It is the conservatism of order and security, not of uncertainty and risk. As people grow older, plan for retirement and think about death, they become hungry for reassurance and more resistant to it at the same time. Fear of the unknown looms larger. What Bush's tinkering with Social Security and his meddling in the right to die have in common is that both make life's last couple of chapters seem less predictable and secure. That may not matter to Bush, since he enjoys the ultimate security of knowing -- or thinking he knows -- what happens in the chapter that follows these two. And it looks pretty good. Others are not so sure -- about themselves or about him.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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